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Kenneth Clark by James Stourton

Kenneth Clark by James Stourton
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Although he only died in 1983, Kenneth Clark “already seems a figure from a distant age”, said Michael Prodger in The Times. The “arts panjandrum” is now chiefly known for his 1969 TV series Civilisation, his patrician attempt to bring high culture to the masses. While it was not without its critics, the series was a hit, and guaranteed Clark lasting fame as an educator. Yet his earlier achievements were no less impressive. In 1933, aged 30, he became the National Gallery’s youngest ever director. When the Second World War broke out, he helped ensure the survival of the gallery’s 2,000 paintings by having them shipped to a disused slate quarry in Wales. After the War, he played a leading role in founding the Arts Council, the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre. James Stourton, a former chairman of Sotheby’s, has produced a “scholarly” and “entertaining” biography of one of the 20th century art world’s towering figures.

Clark was undoubtedly devoted to art, said John Carey in The Sunday Times, but “money lay behind” all his successes. He was born, in 1903, to rich but philistine parents. His “unearned” wealth, derived from Paisley cotton, “opened doors and secured introductions” that his talents alone would never have done. After Winchester and Oxford, he studied Renaissance art in Florence under Bernard Berenson, a world expert, gaining “knowledge that he would draw on throughout his life”. Although Stourton is at times too generous – praising Clark’s abilities as a writer, for instance, while giving “suspiciously few examples” of his writing – this is an “astute” portrait that moves at a “cracking pace”.

Women occupy an “uncomfortable” position in Clark’s story, said Mary Beard in The Guardian. Not only were they a “glaring omission” from Civilisation, which dealt exclusively with male geniuses, he wasn’t particularly nice to them in his private life. His wife, Jane, whom he married in 1927, gave him three children (“including Alan Clark MP of Diaries fame”). By the end of the 1930s, he was having “multiple dalliances”, while Jane became increasingly miserable and alcoholic, until her death in 1976. Unfortunately, Stourton has a similar blind spot: “there is little room for independent women” in his book. Jane is praised early on for her “elegance”, but when she no longer fits that type, she gets “written up as monstrous”. And the mistresses “fare no better”. Such failings ultimately let down an otherwise “careful” and well-researched biography.

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