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Kenneth Clark
Cover of Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark
Life, Art and Civilisation
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The definitive biography of this brilliant polymath—director of the National Gallery, author, patron of the arts, social lion, and singular pioneer of television—that also tells the story of the arts in the twentieth century through his astonishing life.
Kenneth Clark's thirteen-part 1969 television series, Civilisation, established him as a globally admired figure. Clark was prescient in making this series: the upheavals of the century, the Cold War among others, convinced him of the power of barbarism and the fragility of culture. He would burnish his image with two memoirs that artfully omitted the more complicated details of his life. Now, drawing on a vast, previously unseen archive, James Stourton reveals the formidable intellect and the private man behind the figure who effortlessly dominated the art world for more than half a century: his privileged upbringing, his interest in art history beginning at Oxford, his remarkable early successes. At 27 he was keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean in Oxford and at 29, the youngest director of The National Gallery. During the war he arranged for its entire collection to be hidden in slate mines in Wales and organized packed concerts of classical music at the Gallery to keep up the spirits of Londoners during the bombing. WWII helped shape his belief that art should be brought to the widest audience, a social and moral position that would inform the rest of his career. Television became a means for this message when he was appointed the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority. Stourton reveals the tortuous state of his marriage during and after the war, his wife's alcoholism, and the aspects of his own nature that he worked to keep hidden. A superb work of biography, Kenneth Clark is a revelation of its remarkable subject.
The definitive biography of this brilliant polymath—director of the National Gallery, author, patron of the arts, social lion, and singular pioneer of television—that also tells the story of the arts in the twentieth century through his astonishing life.
Kenneth Clark's thirteen-part 1969 television series, Civilisation, established him as a globally admired figure. Clark was prescient in making this series: the upheavals of the century, the Cold War among others, convinced him of the power of barbarism and the fragility of culture. He would burnish his image with two memoirs that artfully omitted the more complicated details of his life. Now, drawing on a vast, previously unseen archive, James Stourton reveals the formidable intellect and the private man behind the figure who effortlessly dominated the art world for more than half a century: his privileged upbringing, his interest in art history beginning at Oxford, his remarkable early successes. At 27 he was keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean in Oxford and at 29, the youngest director of The National Gallery. During the war he arranged for its entire collection to be hidden in slate mines in Wales and organized packed concerts of classical music at the Gallery to keep up the spirits of Londoners during the bombing. WWII helped shape his belief that art should be brought to the widest audience, a social and moral position that would inform the rest of his career. Television became a means for this message when he was appointed the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority. Stourton reveals the tortuous state of his marriage during and after the war, his wife's alcoholism, and the aspects of his own nature that he worked to keep hidden. A superb work of biography, Kenneth Clark is a revelation of its remarkable subject.
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  • From the book 1

    'K'

    Everything about Lord Clark is unexpected.
    —Anthony Powell, reviewing Another Part of the Wood[1]

    At 12 noon on Sunday, 25 March 1934, King George V and Queen Mary climbed the steps of the National Gallery in London. It was the first time a reigning monarch had visited the gallery. The ostensible reason for the visit was to see the gallery's collection of paintings, but the real purpose was to meet the new thirty-year-old director, Kenneth Clark. The trustees had been told not to disturb their weekend—a gentle instruction that their presence was not required—the King wished to see the director. Clark had only been at the gallery for three months, and his appointment had been greeted with universal approval—except at Windsor Castle. The King and Queen had been advised two years earlier by Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian, that Clark would be the perfect candidate for the anticipated vacancy of Surveyor of the King's Pictures. But Clark neither wanted the job nor felt that he could possibly combine it with his heavy duties as director of the National Gallery. The sixty-nine-year-old King Emperor, in an extraordinary move, decided that he would directly intervene and go down to Trafalgar Square to invite the young man to work for him. He had resolved that Clark was the man he wanted, and where his courtiers had failed, he would persuade him personally. The visit was a success, and the two men—as different as can be—found much to enjoy together. Clark later described how just after proclaiming that Turner was mad, the King 'stopped his routine progress, faced me and said':

    'Why won't you come and work for me?'

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

    The King snorted with benevolent rage: 'What is there to do?'

    'Well, sir, the pictures need looking after.'

    'There's nothing wrong with them.'

    'And people write letters asking for information about them.'

    'Don't answer them. I want you to take the job.'[2]

    There is no other recorded occasion of George V making such an effort—for instance, he never visited Downing Street—let alone for a thirty-year-old aesthete whose interests were as far as can be imagined from those of a gruff, pheasant-shooting, philistine sailor King. What was it about Kenneth Clark that made him so ardent? Clark had already had a similar effect on a series of distinguished elders, who all seem to have believed that they had discovered him: Monty Rendall, his headmaster at Winchester; Charles Bell, the keeper at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; Maurice Bowra, the Warden of Wadham College; Bernard Berenson, the most famous connoisseur in the world; and Sir Philip Sassoon, the chairman of the National Gallery. He was a Wunderkind from a brilliant generation of Oxford undergraduates; everybody recognised from the beginning that he would achieve great things (so often a recipe for lassitude in later life). Intelligence, charm and charisma played an important part in his story, but he was not alone in possessing these. What set him apart was his focus and complete absorption in art at a time when—artists aside—this was a singular quality. And he brought to this absorption an unusually synthetic power of analysis, expressed in a supple prose style that was able to fuse thought and feeling.

    Early in life Clark discovered a sensibility to works of beauty: 'Ever since I can remember, that is to say from about the age of seven, the combination of certain words, or sounds or forms has given me a peculiar pleasure, unlike anything else in my experience.'[3] He called it 'a...
About the Author-
  • JAMES STOURTON, the former chairman of Sotheby's U.K., is the author of many books, including Great Houses of London and Great Collectors of Our Time. A lecturer on history, he is also a senior fellow of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 15, 2016
    Stourton (Great Collectors of Our Time) traces the extraordinary trajectory of the life of Kenneth Clark, the youngest director of the British National Gallery (appointed at 29), lifelong educator and popularizer of the arts, and star of BBC’s groundbreaking documentary series Civilisation, which propelled the tweed-wearing polymath into improbable celebrity status on both sides of the Atlantic. Though Clark’s wide circle of acquaintances included the royal family and a staggering array of famous artists, writers, composers, and celebrities, Stourton throughout emphasizes Clark’s Ruskinian mission to make art accessible to everyone, as movingly exemplified by the free concerts and Picture of the Month exhibitions Clark hosted at the mostly empty of artwork British National Gallery during WWII to keep morale alive. But Stourton’s meticulously researched biography also addresses Clark’s many contradictions and eccentricities, like his acrimonious relationship with his wife, and his many convoluted extramarital romances, which Clark entertained into his 70s, supplying humanity to a life that outwardly radiated with a Midas touch. Written with a relish for anecdote (and with Clark’s wide social circle, there are many to be told), this book may suffer from an American readership largely unfamiliar with Clark; but those who have seen his epochal Civilisation series will appreciate the chance to explore the life of the man hailed by Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum, as “the most brilliant cultural populist of the twentieth century.” B&w photos.

  • Kirkus

    The man who wanted to civilize us all.Kenneth Clark's (1903-1983) name is synonymous with the BBC's massively popular 1969 series Civilisation, which he wrote and narrated. It helped him earn his peerage, but he was already a well-known personage at home before the series, as Stourton (Great Houses of London, 2012, etc.) shows in this outstanding, authorized biography. A distant Scottish relative invented the cotton spool, and henceforth the family was wealthy or, as Clark called his parents, the "idle rich." He grew up an only child in a massive home living a solitary life, but he loved it. Bright, energetic, and hardworking, he went to the best schools. His privilege brought him opportunity, and he took advantage of it. Clark always had a profound love of art, but two of his mentors, Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convinced him that it was his life's duty to promulgate "taste," to bring culture and beauty to the widest possible audience. This passion brought him early success: keepership of fine art at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum at 27 and, at 29, the youngest director of the National Gallery. King George V eventually convinced him to serve as Surveyor of the King's Pictures. Still, Clark found time to write. Leonardo da Vinci (1939) is now a classic, but he was "proudest" of The Nude (1956). After the Gallery, Clark taught at Oxford and gave popular and inspiring radio and TV talks, the "lifeblood of [his] reputation." In 1966, the BBC's David Attenborough approached Clark with an ambitious "project." Clark's wife thought it a "bad idea," but he plunged into Civilisation with gusto; it was "heaven." The three-year production was "unprecedented"; a huge success, it brought him "cult status." After it ran in America on PBS, Clark's reputation swelled. Stourton proves to be a highly capable guide to this significant 20th-century life. A sparkling, thoroughly entertaining portrait of a brilliant popularizer who brought art to the masses. COPYRIGHT(1) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Life, Art and Civilisation
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