Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

Tate Britain

Alison Black

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.


John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  The Clark family had money – a great-great grandfather had invented the cotton spool – and although it is unlikely that Clark inherited his own drive from his father (“many were richer, but few could have been idler”, he wrote in his memoirs), Clark Sr did love art.  Charles Sims was a well-established artist when he painted the eight year old Kenneth in 1911 (although Clark did not much like the painting), he and his father visited the Paris Salon where the 1910 John Lavery portrait of a seven year old Clark was exhibited, and for his twelfth birthday his parents gave him an album of Japanese prints.  Money could not buy Clark his rapid and precocious rise up the career ladder, but it was handy when buying townhouses in the west end, castles in Kent, or throwing lavish parties.

Auguste Rodin, Eve 1881 Private Collection Photo: Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley/Tate Photography

Auguste Rodin, Eve 1881
Private Collection
Photo: Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley/Tate Photography

A bit of cash was also useful when it came to building up his own collection of art, some of which has been gathered together for the Tate exhibition.  In 1953 Clark bought Saltwood Castle, which he filled with a cultural mish-mash of his favourite art: oil paintings by Cezanne and Seurat, old master and impressionist drawings (Clark famously bought sixty Cezanne drawings in one afternoon in Paris), Rodin statuettes, sixteenth century roundels, and Italian maioliche.  The castle was Clark’s own grand design.  In the aftermath of the war, he had become preoccupied with the demise of the Grand House and the end of the tradition of so-called “tasteful living”.  So he put his money to work, setting the castle up as a bastion of the old decorative ways.  Saltwood was not a museum and pieces were positioned where they looked right, rather than where they might make academic sense: if a Degas drawing sat well with a renaissance relief, then that was where it was placed.

Georges Seurat, The Forest at Pontaubert 1881 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Georges Seurat, The Forest at Pontaubert 1881
Photograph: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As well as buying works, during the 1930s and 40s Clark began to patronise British artists, such as Graham Bell and Victor Pasmore, who were then beginning their careers.  His was a manifold style of patronage.  He did not only commission pieces for his personal collection; he would also pay cash-strapped artists such as William Coldstream, a salary, provide them with mortgages, and even, in Pasmore’s case, bail them out of jail.  When it came to furnishing the Portland Place house during the 1930s, bespoke meant bespoke.  Duncan Grant created screens and rugs, examples of which are on display; Marion Dorn produced fabrics; and in 1932, Clark commissioned Vanessa Bell to design a dinner service which was to include 48 hand decorated plates each showing different “Famous Ladies” from history.  The plates, which Clark admitted were not as successful as the designs themselves, are now lost despite the best efforts of the curators to locate them for the exhibition, but examples of the designs, as well as some original sample plates, are on show.

Graham Bell Suffolk Landscape 1937  Private Collection Photo: Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley/Tate Photography

Graham Bell, Suffolk Landscape 1937
Private Collection
Photo: Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley/Tate Photography

Each work in the third room of the exhibition belonged to Clark, and although he was known to support even those whose styles he liked less, including, for example, the abstract painter Ben Nicholson, it is obvious which artists were his favourites during the 1930s, with works by Grant, Vanessa Bell, Graham Bell and Pasmore featuring again and again.  Clark sought an interactive partnership with painters which went far beyond any initial monetary transaction.  It was to be a collaborative effort: “The ideal patron doesn’t simply pay an artist for his work.  He is a man with enough critical understanding to see the direction in which the artist ought to go,” he wrote in 1940.  And so when William Coldstream had become stuck in a portrait rut, it was Clark who urged him in 1937 to try his hand at landscapes, resulting in Tate Britain’s On the Map.  During this period Clark’s own tastes did not stagnate, and there was a noticeable swing in his allegiances after 1938, when the “new romantics” (a name Clark coined himself in 1947) – Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper – began to captivate him.

When war broke out, Clark had wanted to send the National Gallery’s most important works to Canada, but Churchill was unimpressed, “Hide them in caves and cellars but not one picture shall leave this island,” he ordered; and so, Velasquez, Holbein, Botticelli and friends, found themselves down a slate mine in Wales.  “Every picture had been taken away, but the frames remained and multiplied the general emptiness with a series of smaller emptinesses,” Clark wrote.  After the Blitz, however, Clark initiated the “Painting of the Month” scheme, whereby each month a single painting would be returned to London to bolster spirits.  And when the pianist Myra Hess approached Clark and suggested they turn the empty halls into a concert venue, Clark took little convincing.

Clark’s own tastes, stretched as far as Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, but this was his artistic limit: abstract expressionism was a step too far and when he came to commission

Coventry Cathedral 1940 © Crown Copyright, Manchester City Galleries

John Piper, Coventry Cathedral 1940
© Crown Copyright, Manchester City Galleries

artists to record the war as part of his War Artists Advisory Committee and Recording Britain schemes, painters whose work was excessively abstract were not employed.  After the war when other new art trends developed, Clark was unmoved.  Pop art, unsurprisingly, was not for him and after visiting Andy Warhol’s studio in New York with his son Colin, he was immediately compelled to cleanse himself at the Frick.  “My father was an art historian of the old school, used to the canvasses of Rembrandt and Titian.  He simply could not conceive that Andy’s silk-screened Brillo boxes were serious art,” Colin later wrote.  Clark, however, was less offended by Francis Bacon and recognising his genius, he persuaded Pembroke College in Oxford to buy Man in a Chair (1952) for £150 in 1953; after spending many years in the college’s junior common room, the painting was sold in 1997 for over half a million pounds.

Kenneth Clark’s gothic castle, plummy enunciation, bags of money and old school tastes, make him an unlikely candidate for “man of the people”.  But a running theme of this exhibition is that he was, in fact, just that.  Through his WAAC scheme and by opening up the National Gallery to a larger audience and, as noted in a magazine article in 1943, making it the centre for cultural life during the war, Clark helped to propagate art.  “Art in general was a far more visible and a far more important part of British life… and by 1945 more people went to look at art than had done in 1939,” curator Chris Stephens explains.  And, of course, there was his broadcasting career, which began after the war and culminated in Civilisation, which was produced at a time when people did not Easyjet across to Madrid to visit the Prado.

Clark’s patrician style of presentation is out of vogue today.  But because of the program’s enormous success, this is how he is remembered, standing in front of various Western cultural landmarks, telling us why he likes them.  There was, however, a whole lot of Clark before Civilisation, and the current exhibition reminds us of this.

The justification for the show’s sub-title is that civilisation – as opposed to Civilisation – was a concept for which Clark worked throughout his life, defining it before the war, saving it during the war, and then communicating it after the war.  What seems more likely, however, is that “civilisation” was included in the title as a way to pull in the crowds, and that the earlier version, Kenneth Clark: Patron and Pundit, was scrapped because it did not allude directly to Clark’s big television moment.  Of course, no one really judges a show by its title; and this is a wide-ranging, penetrating and fascinating look at a man and his art, stretching over six large rooms and including some 270 works, many of which have been unearthed from private collections and are rarely on public display.  But the reference to civilisation in the exhibition’s title risks misleading visitors, and if the curators had had the nerve, they would have been well advised to stick to their first draft.

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation
Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries, 20 May– 10 August 2014

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