New Kenneth Clark biography

September 19 2016

Image of New Kenneth Clark biography

Picture: Harper Collins

The new biography of Kenneth Clark by James Stourton, eagerly awaited by AHN for some time, is out. You can buy it here. The reviews I've seen so far say that the book is good - so congratulations to the author.

I'm looking forward to reading more about how Clark managed to do more than anyone else to bring the arts to wider audiences for so many decades. Some of the reviews, however, seem more pre-occupied with his social background and love life. (I suppose it was ever thus with biography.) As an individual, Clark seems to have struck many as somewhat enigmatic. Was he a snooty aristocrat, or a socialist deftly climbing the social ladder? The Guardian's review, summarises Stourton's view of his subject:

In Stourton’s view he was shy not smug, a populist not a snob, and his abiding sense of being an outsider made him prefer the homespun company of artists to that of the air-headed socialites and Tory nitwits who courted him.

All of which I find reassuring. That said, I've always been surprised by the disdain with which many academics view Clark. Here, for example, is the beginning of John Carey's review in The Sunday Times:

Kenneth Clark’s reputation has not lasted well. He is remembered, if at all, for his 1969 television series, Civilisation, which, as James Stourton concedes, looks nowadays like a period piece, its assumptions as outdated as Clark’s patrician manner, tweed suits and poor dentistry.

'Outdated'. 'Patrician'. 'Tweed suits'. I think it says something about the fraught enmities of academia that someone who was so manifestly successful - Director of the National Gallery, Surveyor of the King's Pictures, presenter of Civilisation, Chairman of the Arts Council, Chairman of ITV - should become a figure of derision just because of who he was. If Clark had invented, say, the jet engine, nobody would have cared much about his background, his accent, or his suits. But sometimes in art history it is believed that to whom you were born and what you wear must somehow pollute of your views on, say, Giotto. I've always found this baffling. 

Update - there's an audio clip here on the Harper Collins website describing the moment George V visited the National Gallery to demand that the 30 year old Clark also take up the post of Surveyor of the King's Pictures. Clark had initially turned down the job. The conversation apparently went something like this:

George V: Why won't you come and work for me?

Clark: Because I wouldn't have time to do the job properly.

Georg V: What is there to do?

Clark: Well, sir, the pictures need looking after.

George V: There's nothing wrong with them.

Clark: People write letters asking for information about them.

George V: Don't answer them. I want you to take the job.

And so Clark did.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.