Kenneth Clark

An unlikely man of the people

Kenneth Clark has been unfairly accused of elitism — he wanted to democratise the glories of Western art and make it available to all


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘‘It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation,” suggested Kenneth Clark at the conclusion of his 13-part television series, Civilisation, in 1969, “We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.” Events at the time led him to suggest that, as unlikely as it seemed, European civilisation could fall to the barbarians as it had after the fall of Rome when “we got through by the skin of  our teeth”. He quoted W.B. Yeats for back-up. It wasn’t that the centre could not hold, it was that there was no longer a centre. 

Clark was an obituarist for an Edwardian summer that had long since past

Being a self-proclaimed “stick-in-the-mud”, Clark was an odd choice to front the BBC’s ambitious (shot in 130 locations across 11 countries) and expensive (£130,000) project in a season of radicalism and youthful insurrection. Filming proceeded in 1967, the year the Vietnam War was at its deadliest, and global student protest at its peak. The civil rights movement was making headway; the women’s movement was making headlines. In Britain, homosexuality and abortion were legalised. 

The contemporary 20th-century world was one that baffled Kenneth Clark, as he was the first to admit. The “personal view” he presents in Civilisation concludes prior to the Great War. Before beginning work on the series, he supplied the BBC with several stipulations regarding his approach. At the top of the list was — “not Marxist”. 

“My approach to history,” Clark explained, “was unconsciously different from that now in favour in universities which sees all historical change as the result of economic and communal processes. I believe in the importance of individuals, and am a natural hero-worshipper.” 

Clearly the public were fond of heroes too. Broadcast in colour on BBC2, Civilisation attracted over two and a half million viewers and was sold to 65 countries. 

Most prominent among his critics were hoary academics and neo-Marxist intellectuals. While they saw their take on civilisation as enlightened and progressive, Clark represented the orthodox view of a regressive establishment. He was an obituarist for an Edwardian summer that had long since past. Yet his summing-up at the close of the final programme continues to resonate: “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough.”

In the decades that have followed, Clark’s viewpoint has been sidelined by post-modernism and, of late, identitarianism. Yet the book of the series Civilisation has remained in print and in 2014 Tate Britain mounted an exhibition dedicated to the works he had commissioned and collected. Two years later, James Stourton’s biography of him was published to critical acclaim.

Reviewing the latter, Professor Mary Beard criticised Clark for his lack of attention to details and the absence of women among the men of God-given genius that were his heroes. Clark had joined the canon of dead white males too stale and pale to be relevant. 

This was evident when the BBC offered a modern take on Clark’s series in 2018. It was touted as a departure from the apparent elitism, erudition and European bias of the original. It too addressed the concept of civilisation but, in the words of James Purnell, the erstwhile Blairite Labour minister who was the BBC’s director of strategy at the time: “It won’t be the Auntie that dispensed culture from on high, it will be much more of a thoughtful friend.” Mary Beard was one of several jobbing academics, well-versed in identity politics, offering alternate but incoherent views on art and history in a ratings failure that rapidly disappeared from view. 

It’s unlikely that Kenneth Clark will have anything but a cameo in this year’s BBC centenary celebrations — featuring Harry Enfield fronting a documentary on the BBC’s output in the style of the comedian’s upper-class character Mr Cholmondley-Warner. A caricature of figures such as Kenneth Clark, this routine was hackneyed and redundant when we first endured it some years ago. Now it’s a sign that the ideas have dried up; the confidence has gone. The BBC itself is like a civilisation in decline. 

Between his first foray into broadcasting at the BBC after the Second World War — he was a regular radio pundit because of his expertise as an art historian — and his return with Civilisation, Kenneth Clark was a staple at ITV. 

He became chairman of the nascent Independent Television Authority in 1954. The move was viewed with disdain by BBC colleagues and a number of his peers on the left and right — he was booed at his Pall Mall club — as they feared that commercial television would emulate the populism of the American model. It would be the opposite of the Reithian credo that summarised the paternal approach of the BBC: Educate. Inform. Entertain. 

Clark reversed the order. He saw this as a greater opportunity to popularise art, and convince the masses it was not the preserve of an educated elite (“the best for the most”). Even though he himself didn’t own a television, he believed it was at its best when it dealt with real life. 

Similarly, he maintained that good art must be anchored in the recognisable world. There should be an evident narrative — which is why he overlooked the surreal and the abstract — but that didn’t mean intellectual effort wasn’t required to appreciate it. Art should be inclusive and accessible, but not necessarily easy. It’s all in the details (he was, after all, the author of One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery). 

Clark encourages you to look at the buildings in paintings, to look at the posture and expressions of the figures, and then asks you to compare to similar depictions in works from other eras. He lets the viewer know he doesn’t necessarily have the answers, and that certain subjects — modern art, for instance — are often incomprehensible to him too. 

I came to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation late, sporadically making my way through the series via blurry, almost pointillist, versions on YouTube as Covid strengthened its grip and lockdowns came and went. Watching him now, discovering the series, in its entirety, in the twenty-first century I saw it and him in detail. You genuinely get the feeling the heart, soul and mind of this man has been enriched, nourished and elevated by the subject he is so passionate about. 

Attlee’s socialism chimed with Clark’s ambitions for art: the best for the most

His view of western history is not rose-tinted, as he’s quick to highlight its own moments of barbarism. As he told Joan Bakewell in an interview when the series was broadcast: “The continuing thread is what happened in each of these epochs that pushed mankind a little bit further up.” He makes us feel we’re the inheritors of a rich history and the progress and genius that has brought us to this point. That is some legacy. He conveys this to the viewer; it becomes contagious; this is why the visitor figures for museums and galleries increased because of the series; this is why, among thousands of letters he received, a number of viewers claimed he prevented them from suicide.

Kenneth Clark’s embrace of television and his appeal to the viewer brought criticism from the same left-wing corners throughout his broadcasting career: there was a lack of satisfactory analysis; an absence of discussion of any depth. What was perhaps more a comment on the snobbery and elitism of these critics was the suggestion that he was making history to appeal to “lay people” rather than experts; the programmes were popular because they reinforced “the ideological position of the audience”. Clark himself had another take, by way of a response: “Academics were furious at the simplification of their labours.”

It was in 1958, under the aegis of Lew Grade at ATV, that Clark first addressed the viewer with the question: why is art necessary? These are claustrophobic, stilted outings that make for an uncomfortable watch. In the programme “What Is Good Taste?” he’s in a home similar to that found in the social circles he moved in. It’s a wealthy, modern, supposedly stylish home that he finds sterile and inhumane. He switches to a typical working-class sitting room or set, where three ducks fly north on the chimney breast, a Tretchikoff hangs in a recess, and the collection of mementoes exhibited are displayed because they may bring luck or have sentimental value. 

Clark is more comfortable in this environment. It’s humane; it has a heart. Here, he declares, he would happily crack open a bottle of stout. There’s a touch of the squire slumming it in this moment, which often happened when the upper class tried a little too hard in the company of those below stairs. He then becomes somewhat condescending by dismissing the cheap objets d’art as “dull, meaningless and stupid”. 

Is he unaware these exhibits might hold some beauty and appeal to their owners? People who couldn’t afford the dinner service he once commissioned Vanessa Bell to design, or the Clive Bell rug he opted to put on a floor rather than a wall. (Clark believed in both beauty and utility.)

Ultimately, Kenneth Clark was far less paternal and patronising when it came to the tastes of the masses than many upper-class progressives. Not least of all the Bloomsbury group with whom he was once acquainted. He was critical of the tastes of the rich and the aristocratic. 

This was apparent when he fronted a series on royal palaces. His less than reverential approach to the art and interior design of historic kings and queens caused some consternation within the British royal family, with whom he had a connection, having been the Surveyor of the King’s Pictures during the reign of George VI. 

A speech he delivers in Civilisation could apply to the House of Windsor or the ostentatious super-rich of the current age. As he points out, the expression of private greed and a sense of grandeur is a human instinct, but carried too far it becomes inhuman: “I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.”

I was eight years old in the month Civilisation was launched, living in a household of small rooms, where BBC channels were rarely on screen and books were largely absent (along with flying ducks and Tretchikoff). There were one or two on American boxers, British footballers and East End gangsters. This would improve in the 1970s with the arrival of monthly magazines on DIY and household hints — “as advertised on TV” — that arrived with a free binder. British television, now with three channels, was the conduit for all things cultural in this household, where ITV was the channel of choice. 

Mine, therefore, was the family that Clark hoped to reach out to in his ambition to democratise art and make it available to all. He failed in this instance, yet it was a household he would have felt at home in, cracked open a bottle of stout in.

When I eventually got to grips with Clark’s masterwork, I was drawn to his sartorial style almost as much I was to the historical content, his genius as a communicator and the speeches that punctuate the proceedings that resonate with us in a present of toppled statues and history being erased or re-written. “It may be difficult to define civilization,” he muses, “but it isn’t so difficult to recognize barbarism.” Then, at the end there is this: 

I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole, I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.

Kenneth Clark’s accent may have been from the upper classes, but his attire was that of a middle-class commuter, at least throughout Civilisation. Again and again, it’s all in the details. There were brogues and Burberry, but the style was predominantly more Dunn & Co., than Savile Row.

Bri-nylon shirts with soil-coloured ties and slurry-coloured suits saw him through the dark ages. There was a raglan sleeve on a dogtooth overcoat as the Renaissance blossomed. The first and only hat of the series arrived in the wake of the industrial revolution: a homburg in a Bournville brown.

Clark’s journey through art — a “freak aptitude” as he referred to it — began when he was a solitary, only child, frequently in the charge of the family servants. His father handed him a book on the Louvre. It began there and then. A calling, of sorts. 

Art was the means by which this repressed, distant, socially uncomfortable adult found his voice and became such a brilliant communicator. “The communication with simple people was one of the things about the programmes that particularly annoyed intellectuals of the left,” he writes in his memoir The Other Half, “who believed that they had a prescriptive right to speak to the working classes.”

He was an unlikely candidate to appeal to the proletariat because of his pedigree and class. Clark was the product of a family that had grown very wealthy from the textile trade (“Many richer … few idler,” he was quoted as saying.) He was a student at Winchester and Oxford. 

From the early 1950s his country home was Saltwood Castle on the Kent coast. His clipped vowels were a hangover from the Edwardian age in which he was born, but they emerged from a mouth filled with teeth that were so bad you’d struggle to find similar on the poorest of the English working class. At 30, he became the youngest-ever director of the National Gallery, and soon a Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. It was in these roles that he increasingly harboured the desire to bring art to all.

His clipped vowels were a hangover from the Edwardian age in which he was born

He opened the National Gallery early on the day of the FA cup final, in the hope that fans would take in art before football. He extended the remit of the gallery to bring paintings and murals into the public sphere, by way of restaurants, canteens and hospitals: “Often it has seemed as if the educative virtue of works of art consisted in knowing about them, not in experiencing them directly.” His skills as a communicator were honed during his time as a lecturer, but Oxford was too much like preaching to the converted. 

Years later, in 2014, David Attenborough, who had been the BBC2 controller responsible for coaxing him back to the corporation and commissioning Civilisation, said: “We neglected to notice that K had a very strong social conscience.” Despite his claim to being apolitical, Clark was apparently a Labour voter, (unlike his son, the Tory minister Alan Clark who became the keeper of the keys to the castle when his father died in 1983, aged 79).

Kenneth Clark’s secretary recalled that her boss believed the election of the Labour party in 1945 was one the greatest things the English ever did. You can understand why this would appeal rather than the Marxist utopianism of intellectuals, and the revolutionary zeal of the trade unionism of the time. 

The practicable socialism of the Attlee government which dealt with the perennials of housing, employment and welfare in a country rebuilding itself in the wake of the war chimed with Clark’s ambitions for art and broadcasting: the best for the most. But that didn’t necessarily mean he believed that such change, or even politics, was responsible for great and lasting art: “Although one may use works of art to illustrate the history of civilisation, one must not pretend that social conditions produce works of art or inevitably influence their form.”

Quotes similar to this and clips of his monologues to camera from Civilisation now crop up regularly on social media. These clips notch up thousands of views within days of being tweeted. His name is referenced regularly in podcasts covering history, art and politics. In hindsight, Clark’s fear that western civilisation was in its death throes, that the barbarians were at the gate, seems premature. 

The events that surrounded him in the 1960s were largely on the fringes of society, and some were responsible for bringing about necessary change. Those who believe, misguidedly, they are the inheritors of this mantle are now in the mainstream, championing discredited causes that have become part of a new orthodoxy, rapidly being embraced by elements of the establishment in the belief that their survival depends on it. 

The barbarians are inside the gates, making headway daily, with an agenda that’s fundamentally anti-“white”, anti-western and interested in history only insofar as it can be bent to serve their own take on sociology. Kenneth Clark believed that western civilisation has seen a series of rebirths. Is that what we are currently experiencing, or are we merely hanging on by the skin of our teeth?

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