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Kenneth Clark: “I am the least clubbable of men” (©ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

Kenneth Clark, that great cultural panjandrum who towered over the art world during the central part of the 20th century, continues to surprise. He should by now be deeply familiar. Not only does his name appear frequently in the literature on modern British art, but two years ago Robert Cumming edited the Clark/Berenson correspondence and Tate Britain mounted a major show tracking Clark’s public life through art, both of which were reviewed in this journal. To coincide with the exhibition, the BBC commissioned an hour-long Culture Show special which was broadcast at prime viewing time on a Saturday evening. Before this, a previous biography, by Meryle Secrest, whose name offers the unfortunate anagram “Merely Secrets”, had added more details about Clark’s private life than is found in his two-volume autobiography, which in itself offered prose that is as easily consumed, and has all the subtle inflections of a rare madeira. 

So it is surprising that in every one of the 37 chapters forming James Stourton’s new biography there are moments when the reader is startled by insights or facts that affirm the conundrum Clark represents. It is well known that his family’s wealth came from the development of English cotton and the invention of the cotton spool: four generations back James Clark and his brothers had built the enormous factory that established Paisley as a world leader in the manufacture of cotton thread. Few people are given, as the young Kenneth was, a hotel on Cap Martin, near Menton, when they come of age. No doubt the security of wealth was a factor in what seemed to many his supremely patrician stance, made familiar through numerous photographs, including that of him aged 30 as the youngest-ever Director of the National Gallery, and later through his television appearances, most memorably in the 13 BBC Two programmes that constituted Civilisation. Yet the life of this inscrutable man was riddled with contradictions and paradoxes.

Admittedly, he built up for himself an armoury of interests and ideas. If schooling at Winchester had left him with a lifelong horror of upper-class tribalism, it was also where he was first shown reproductions of Piero della Francesca’s art, the artist whose portraits of the  Duke and Duchess of Urbino in the Uffizi later brought him to his knees. At Oxford, he began reading Ruskin and Pater and found in Roger Fry’s essays in Vision and Design the argument that art is not a social asset, confined to the few, but related to deep-seated human needs. From then on, as Stourton I think rightly claims, Clark understood that a passion for art made him spiritually indestructible.

It was probably at Oxford that he realised “I am the least clubbable of men.” Although he made lasting friendships with Maurice Bowra and John Sparrow, whose lives continued to be intertwined with Oxford, he limited his sociability with others in order to make a systematic examination of the Ashmolean’s great collection of drawings. It was the Keeper of Fine Art, at this museum, who introduced him to Bernard Berenson. This led to his appointment at I Tatti, outside Florence, as a kind of apprentice to Berenson, then in need of help with a new edition of his Florentine Drawings. Berenson thought Clark “thorough and painstaking”, also “genial and loveable and always consumed with intellectual passion”. His wife Mary put it more punchily: “Nothing is lost on that boy.”

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Don Phillipson
November 7th, 2016
1:11 PM
The reader may indeed be "startled by insights" concerning the personality of this important individual, but reviewer Spalding nowhere mentions the single most important fact, that he was an only child and, before school at least, probably acquired the habits of loneliness. The review does not say whether biographer Stourton mentions this fact, let alone explores it as a shaping force of his adult personality.

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