Kenneth Mackenzie Clark, Baron Clark OM CH KCB FBA (13 July 1903 – 21 May 1983) was a British art historian, museum director, and broadcaster. After running two important art galleries in the 1930s and 1940s, he came to wider public notice on television, presenting a succession of programmes on the arts during the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the Civilisation series in 1969.
The son of rich parents, Clark was introduced to the arts at an early age. Among his early influences were the writings of John Ruskin, which instilled in him the belief that everyone should have access to great art. After coming under the influence of the connoisseur and dealer Bernard Berenson, Clark was appointed director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford aged twenty-seven, and three years later he was put in charge of Britain's National Gallery. His twelve years there saw the gallery transformed to make it accessible and inviting to a wider public. During the Second World War, when the collection was moved from London for safe keeping, Clark made the building available for a series of daily concerts which proved a celebrated morale booster during the Blitz.
After the war, and three years as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Clark surprised many by accepting the chairmanship of the UK's first commercial television network. Once the service had been successfully launched he agreed to write and present programmes about the arts. These established him as a household name in Britain, and he was asked to create the first colour series about the arts, Civilisation, first broadcast in 1969 in Britain and in many other countries soon afterwards.
Among many honours, Clark was knighted at the unusually young age of thirty-five, and three decades later was made a life peer shortly before the first transmission of Civilisation. Three decades after his death, Clark was celebrated in an exhibition at Tate Britain in London, prompting a reappraisal of his career by a new generation of critics and historians. Opinions varied about his aesthetic judgment, particularly in attributing paintings to old masters, but his skill as a writer and his enthusiasm for popularising the arts were widely recognised. Both the BBC and the Tate described him in retrospect as one of the most influential figures in British art of the twentieth century.
Kenneth Clark was born at 32 Grosvenor Square, London, the only child of Kenneth Mackenzie Clark (1868–1932) and his wife, (Margaret) Alice. The Clarks were a Scottish family who had grown rich in the textile trade. Clark's great-great-grandfather invented the cotton spool, and the Clark Thread Company of Paisley had grown into a substantial business. Kenneth Clark senior was a sportsman, a gambler, an eccentric and a heavy drinker. He worked briefly as a director of the firm, retired in his mid-twenties as a member of the "idle rich", as Clark junior later put it: although "many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler".
The Clarks maintained country homes at Sudbourne Hall, Suffolk, and at Ardnamurchan, Argyll, and wintered on the French Riviera. Clark had little in common with his father, though he always remained fond of him. His mother Alice Clark was shy and distant, but her son received affection from a devoted nanny.
An only child not especially close to his parents, the young Clark had a boyhood that was often solitary, but he was generally happy. He later recalled that he used to take long walks, talking to himself, a habit he believed stood him in good stead as a broadcaster: "Television is a form of soliloquy". On a modest scale Clark senior collected pictures, and the young Clark was allowed to rearrange the collection. He developed a competent talent for drawing, for which he later won several prizes as a schoolboy. When he was seven he was taken to an exhibition of Japanese art in London, which was a formative influence on his artistic tastes; he recalled, "dumb with delight, I felt that I had entered a new world".
Clark was educated at Wixenford School and, from 1917 to 1922, Winchester College. The latter was known for its intellectual rigour and – to Clark's dismay – enthusiasm for sports, but it also encouraged its pupils to develop interests in the arts. The headmaster, Montague Rendall, a devotee of Italian painting and sculpture, inspired Clark, among many others, to appreciate the works of Giotto, Botticelli, Bellini and their compatriots. The school library contained the collected writings of John Ruskin, which Clark read avidly, and which influenced him for the rest of his life, not only in their artistic judgments but in their progressive political and social beliefs.
From Winchester, Clark won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied modern history. He graduated in 1925 with a second-class honours degree.
While at Oxford, Clark attracted the attention of Charles F. Bell (1871–1966), Keeper of the Fine Art Department of the Ashmolean Museum. Bell became a mentor to him and suggested that for his B Litt thesis Clark should write about the Gothic revival in architecture. Although Clark's main area of study was the Renaissance, his admiration for Ruskin, the most prominent defender of the neo-Gothic style, drew him to the topic. He did not complete the thesis, but later turned his researches into his first full-length book, The Gothic Revival (1928).
In 1925, Bell introduced Clark to Bernard Berenson, an influential scholar of the Italian Renaissance and consultant to major museums and collectors. Berenson was working on a revision of his book Drawings of the Florentine Painters, and invited Clark to help. The project took two years, overlapping with Clark's studies at Oxford.
In 1927 Clark married a fellow student, Elizabeth Winifred Martin, known as "Jane" (1902–1976), the daughter of a Dublin businessman, and his wife, Emily Winifred Dickson. The couple had three children: Alan, in 1928, and twins, Colette (known as Celly, pronounced "Kelly") and Colin, in 1932.
In 1929, as a result of his work with Berenson, Clark was asked to catalogue the extensive collection of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at Windsor Castle. That year he was the joint organiser of an exhibition of Italian painting which opened at the Royal Academy on 1 January 1930.
Clark was not convinced that his future lay in administration; he enjoyed writing, and would have preferred to be a scholar rather than a museum director. Nonetheless, when Bell retired in 1931 Clark agreed to succeed him at the Ashmolean. Over the next two years Clark oversaw the building of an extension to the museum to provide a better space for his department. The development was made possible by an anonymous benefactor, subsequently revealed as Clark himself.
In 1933 Clark received prime minister Ramsay MacDonald's offer of the post of the Director of the National Gallery in London, but he was not enthusiastic. He thought himself too young, aged 30, and once again felt torn between a scholarly and an administrative career. He accepted the directorship.
Soon after, King George V persuaded Clark to become Surveyor of the King's Pictures. The appointment was announced in The London Gazette in July 1934; Clark held the post for the next ten years.
Clark believed in making fine art accessible to everyone, and while at the National Gallery he devised many initiatives with this aim in mind. He had rooms re-hung and frames improved; by 1935 he had achieved the installation of a laboratory and introduced electric lighting, which made evening opening possible for the first time.
Clark wrote and lectured during the decade, and he frequently used his research for his talks as the basis of his books. The annotated catalogue of the royal collection of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, on which he had begun work in 1929, was published in 1935, to highly favourable reviews.
In 1936 he gave the Ryerson Lectures at Yale University; from these came his study of Leonardo, published three years later; it too, attracted much praise, at the time and subsequently.
Some of artworks acquired under his leadership of the National Gallery include the seven panels forming Sassetta's San Sepolcro Altarpiece from the fifteenth century, four works by Giovanni di Paolo from the same period, Niccolò dell'Abate's The Death of Eurydice from the sixteenth century, and Ingres' Madame Moitessier from the nineteenth, Rubens's Watering Place, Constable's Hadleigh Castle, Rembrandt's Saskia as Flora, and Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf.
One of Clark's least successful acts as director was buying four early-sixteenth century paintings now known as Scenes from Tebaldeo's Eclogues. He saw them in 1937 in the possession of a dealer in Vienna, and against the united advice of his professional staff he persuaded the trustees to buy them. He believed them to be by Giorgione, whose work was inadequately represented in the gallery at the time. The trustees authorised the expenditure of £14,000 of public funds and the paintings went on display in the gallery with considerable fanfare. Within a year scholarly research established the paintings as the work of Andrea Previtali, one of Giorgione's minor contemporaries. The British press protested at the waste of taxpayers' money, Clark's reputation suffered a considerable blow, and his relations with his professional team, already uneasy, were further strained.
Away from his official duties, Clark enjoyed what he described as "the Great Clark Boom" in the 1930s. He and his wife lived and entertained in considerable style in a large house in Portland Place.
The approach of war with Germany in 1939 obliged Clark and his colleagues to consider how to protect the National Gallery's collection from bombing raids.
With an empty gallery to preside over, Clark contemplated volunteering for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but was recruited, at Lord Lee's instigation, into the newly-formed Ministry of Information, where he was put in charge of the film division, and was later promoted to be controller of home publicity.
Although the pictures were in storage, Clark kept the National Gallery open to the public during the war, hosting a celebrated series of lunchtime and early evening concerts. The concerts were an immediate and enormous success. 1,698 concerts were given to an aggregate audience of more than 750,000 people. Clark instituted an additional public attraction of a monthly featured picture brought from storage and exhibited along with explanatory material. The institution of a "picture of the month" was retained after the war, and, at 2018, continues to the present day.
In 1945, after overseeing the return of the collections to the National Gallery, Clark resigned as director, intending to devote himself to writing.
During the war the Clarks lived at Capo Di Monte, a cottage in Hampstead, before moving to the much larger Upper Terrace House nearby. They moved in 1953 when Clark bought the Norman castle of Saltwood in Kent, which became the family home. In his later years he passed the castle to his elder son, moving to a purpose-built house in the grounds.
In July 1946 Clark was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford for a three-year term. The post required him to give eight public lectures each year on the "History, Theory, and Practice of the Fine Arts".
The first holder of the professorship had been Ruskin; Clark took as his first subject Ruskin's tenure of the post.
During this period Clark established himself as Britain's most sought-after lecturer, and wrote two of his finest books, Landscape into Art (1947) and Piero della Francesca (1951).
Clark served on numerous official committees during this period, and helped to stage a ground-breaking exhibition in Paris of works by his friend and protégé Henry Moore. He was more in sympathy with modern painting and sculpture than with much of modern architecture. He admired Giles Gilbert Scott, Maxwell Fry, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and others, but found many contemporary buildings mediocre.
In 1953 Clark became the Arts Council's chairman. He held the post until 1960, but it was a frustrating experience for him; he found himself chiefly a figurehead.
The year after becoming chairman of the Arts Council, Clark surprised many and shocked some by accepting the chairmanship of the new Independent Television Authority (ITA). While presiding over the new ITA he generally kept off the air, and concentrated on keeping the new network going during its difficult early years. By the end of his three-year term as chairman, Clark was hailed as a success, but privately considered that there were too few high-quality programmes on the network.
Lew Grade, who as chairman of Associated Television (ATV) held one of the ITV franchises, felt strongly that Clark should make arts programmes of his own, and as soon as Clark stood down as chairman in 1957, he accepted Grade's invitation.
Clark's first series for ATV, Is Art Necessary?, began in 1958. Both he and television were finding their way, and programmes in the series ranged from the stiff and studio-bound to a film in which Clark and Henry Moore toured the British Museum at night, flashing their torches at the exhibits. When the series came to an end in 1959, Clark and the production team reviewed and refined their techniques for the next series, Five Revolutionary Painters, which attracted a considerable audience.
Two series on architecture followed, culminating in a programme called The Royal Palaces of Britain in 1966, a joint venture by ITV and the BBC, described as "by far the most important heritage programme shown on British television to date". In the interim he remained with ITV for a 1966 series, Three Faces of France, featuring the works of Courbet, Manet and Degas.
David Attenborough, the controller of the BBC's new second television channel, BBC2, was in charge of introducing colour broadcasting to the UK. He conceived the idea of a series about great paintings as the standard-bearer for colour television, and had no doubt that Clark would be much the best presenter for it.
The series consisted of thirteen programmes, each fifty minutes long, written and presented by Clark, covering western European civilisation from the end of the Dark Ages to the early twentieth century. As the civilisation under consideration excluded Graeco-Roman, Asian and other historically important cultures, a title was chosen that disclaimed comprehensiveness: Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. Although it focused chiefly on the visual arts and architecture, there were substantial sections about drama, literature, philosophy and socio-political movements.
Clark and with principal director, Michael Gill and their production team spent three years from 1966 filming in a hundred and seventeen locations in thirteen countries. The filming was to the highest technical standards of the day, and quickly went over budget; it cost £500,000 by the time it was complete.
Civilisation attracted unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and 5 million in the US. Clark's accompanying book has never been out of print, and the BBC continued to sell thousands of copies of the DVD set of Civilisation every year.
The British Film Institute notes how Civilisation changed the shape of cultural television, setting the standard for later documentary series.
Clark made a series of six programmes for ITV. They were collectively titled Pioneers of Modern Painting, directed by his son Colin Clark. They were screened in November and December 1971, with a programme on each of Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Seurat, Rousseau, and Munch.
Five years later, Clark returned to the BBC, presenting five programmes about Rembrandt. The series, directed by Colin Clark, considered various aspects of the painter's work, from his self-portraits to his biblical scenes.
Clark was chancellor of the University of York from 1967 to 1978 and a trustee of the British Museum. During his last ten years he wrote thirteen books. As well as some drawn from his researches for his lectures and television series, there were two volumes of memoirs, Another Part of the Wood (1974) and The Other Half (1977). He was known throughout his life for his impenetrable façade and enigmatic character, which were reflected in the two autobiographical books.
The Clarks' marriage was devoted but stormy. Clark was a womaniser, and although Jane had love affairs, notably with the composer William Walton, she took some of her husband's extramarital relationships badly. She suffered severe mood swings and later alcoholism and a stroke. Clark remained firmly supportive of his wife during her decline.
The Clarks' relations with their three children were sometimes difficult, particularly with their elder son, Alan. He was regarded by his father as a fascist by conviction though also as the ablest member of the Clark family "parents included"; he became a Conservative member of parliament and junior minister, and a celebrated diarist. The younger son, Colin, became a film-maker, who among other work directed his father in television series in the 1970s. The twin daughter, Colette, became an official and board member of the Royal Opera House; she outlived her parents and brothers, and was the key source for James Stourton's authorised biography of her father, published in 2016.
Jane Clark died in 1976. Her death was expected, but left Clark devastated. Several of his female friends hoped that he would marry them. His closest female friend, across many years, was Janet Stone, wife of the engraver Reynolds Stone; in common with Clark's daughter and sons, she was dismayed when he announced his intention to marry Nolwen de Janzé-Rice (1924–1989), daughter of Frederic and Alice de Janzé. The family felt that Clark was acting precipitately in marrying someone he had not known well for very long, but the wedding took place in November 1977. Clark and his second wife remained together until his death.
In his last years Clark suffered from arteriosclerosis. He died at the age of seventy-nine in a nursing home in Hythe, Kent, after a fall.
In 2014 The Tate Museum held the "Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation" exhibition, highlighting Clark's impact "as one of the most influential figures in British art of the twentieth century". The exhibition, drawing on works from Clark's personal collection and many other sources, examined his role as "a patron and collector, art historian, public servant and broadcaster ... bringing art in the twentieth century to a more popular audience". The BBC called him "arguably the most influential figure in 20th century British art".