Kenneth Clark

by James Stourton, William Collins, £30

When I opened James Stourton’s “authorised” biography of the art historian and broadcaster Kenneth Clark (better known as Lord Clark of Civilisation), it was tempting to start reading at Clark’s deathbed scene in 1982. According to diarist James Lees-Milne, Clark – much of whose life was spent meditating on the spiritually inspired work of the Renaissance artists – had sent for an Irish priest so he could receive the “proper rites” as he lay dying at the Hythe Nursing Home. According to his second wife Nowen, a Catholic, after being given Extreme Unction a “beatific smile came over his face” and Clark never woke up.

Such an anecdote is an example of the tact that Stourton adopts throughout this exceptionally readable and intelligent book, which succeeds in revealing the human man (who often regarded himself as a fraud or failure) behind the guarded aesthetic façade. Yet the book is not an exercise in myth-busting. Stourton presents an immaculately made case for a reappraisal of Clark as a serious art scholar and public servant, yet one who emerges as shy, aloof, creatively frustrated, snobbish, generous, cold, emotionally needy and, above all, deeply paradoxical.

Clark’s friend and contemporary Cyril Connolly may have looked up to him as a “polished hawk-god in obsidian”, but Stourton presents Clark as a more interesting figure who was all too mortal and flawed. Even when he is quoting from letters to his various lovers – the list is long – Stourton refuses to judge. The book doesn’t put Clark on a pedestal: we see a man whose scholarship was sometimes “slapdash”.

When he got himself into trouble with the trustees of the National Gallery – with a hasty attribution to Giorgione of some decorative panels he bought on a whim for £14,000 (blowing the entire year’s purchase fund) – we see how Clark had a rash side. I would have liked to see more insight into how Clark clearly inherited something of his gambling father’s blind impetuousness. His energy for hard work, punctuality and scholastic discipline may well have been a reaction to his father’s Edwardian laziness.

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