by James Stourton, William Collins, £30
When I opened James Stourton’s “authorised” biography of the art historian and broadcaster Kenneth Clark (better known as Lord Clark of Civilisation), it was tempting to start reading at Clark’s deathbed scene in 1982. According to diarist James Lees-Milne, Clark – much of whose life was spent meditating on the spiritually inspired work of the Renaissance artists – had sent for an Irish priest so he could receive the “proper rites” as he lay dying at the Hythe Nursing Home. According to his second wife Nowen, a Catholic, after being given Extreme Unction a “beatific smile came over his face” and Clark never woke up.
Such an anecdote is an example of the tact that Stourton adopts throughout this exceptionally readable and intelligent book, which succeeds in revealing the human man (who often regarded himself as a fraud or failure) behind the guarded aesthetic façade. Yet the book is not an exercise in myth-busting. Stourton presents an immaculately made case for a reappraisal of Clark as a serious art scholar and public servant, yet one who emerges as shy, aloof, creatively frustrated, snobbish, generous, cold, emotionally needy and, above all, deeply paradoxical.
Clark’s friend and contemporary Cyril Connolly may have looked up to him as a “polished hawk-god in obsidian”, but Stourton presents Clark as a more interesting figure who was all too mortal and flawed. Even when he is quoting from letters to his various lovers – the list is long – Stourton refuses to judge. The book doesn’t put Clark on a pedestal: we see a man whose scholarship was sometimes “slapdash”.
When he got himself into trouble with the trustees of the National Gallery – with a hasty attribution to Giorgione of some decorative panels he bought on a whim for £14,000 (blowing the entire year’s purchase fund) – we see how Clark had a rash side. I would have liked to see more insight into how Clark clearly inherited something of his gambling father’s blind impetuousness. His energy for hard work, punctuality and scholastic discipline may well have been a reaction to his father’s Edwardian laziness.
His caviar socialism was also at odds with his heritage conservationism that railed against the culture of progressive architects who’d ripped the ancient hearts out of cities such as Bath and Cambridge.
Kenneth Clark: Life, Civilisation and Art is more than just a welcome biography of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic cultural figures. It also places Stourton in the front rank of art historians today.
The author gets under Clark’s skin in a way that perhaps only somebody who dealt in pictures himself for 25 years, while writing books and enjoying a busy London social life, could pull off.
The book makes clear that Clark was a strange human being: an aesthete who was no intellectual dandy and a man who almost always wore a largely impenetrable mask. Stourton gently lifts back the visor to uncover a man very different from the aloof public intellectual whom the Establishment found so difficult to place.
Clark’s epic rise began in the 1930s after he was appointed director of the National Gallery aged just 30. Previously he had been appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean (aged 27) after working for Bernard Berenson at I Tatti outside Florence. Even Clark’s close friend Henry Moore said “K had a glass wall” around him.
Based on candid family interviews and new research, including revealing letters from various lovers, Stourton has produced a portrait of a public figure whose private self was complex: a serial adulterer yet loyal husband; an elitist not enamoured with “Top People”; an avant-garde supporter of popular television who took the job as chairman of ITV without owning a TV set; and an art historian who was determined to make art popular and accessible.
In short, he was a pluralist genius who also had a streak of self-loathing, not just for himself but for his own class. As Anthony Powell identified, to understand Clark one had to see the contradictory elements that combined to make him both “steel and charm”.
Clark, who always voted Labour, never fitted easily into any social bracket. Although he was extremely well off, part of his appeal is that he comes across as a self-made outsider who hated the petit-bourgeois middle classes and philistine upper classes with equal disdain.
Whether Clark actually “converted” on his deathbed is left unresolved. According to Lees-Milne, Clark told the Irish priest who gave him Communion: “Thank you, Father, that is what I have been longing for.” Yet Stourton says that for Clark to have rejected the offer of a priest would have been “bad manners”. Rather than making any judgment, the Ampleforth-educated Stourton prefers not to be drawn. He simply notes that Clark’s lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church “had been pointing to such an outcome”.