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More than master and acolyte: Bernard Berenson (centre) and Kenneth Clark in Tuscany in 1950 (photo: Biblioteca Berenson, courtesy of Yale Yniversity Press)

Kenneth Clark left Oxford with an upper-second in history, the beginnings of a book on the Gothic Revival and as discerning an eye as any Burlington House connoisseur. He had, however, one major failing: he could not drive.

Planning a trip to Tuscany, he wrote to his hosts: “I do not want to encumber your garage with an extra car; still less with a chauffeur . . . It sounds preposterous that anyone of my age should have a chauffeur at all, but he will be able to be valet to me when I am on my own; and I am afraid I cannot drive far without one, as I am a fool with the inwards of cars and when they break I am lost.”

His hosts, the art historian Bernard Berenson, then aged 60, and his wife Mary were understanding and both Clark and chauffeur were installed for the summer at I Tatti, Berenson’s villa near Fiesole.

Clark was to be guest, researcher, secretary and general gopher — unpaid — on Berenson’s opus-in-progress: a new edition of The Drawings of the Florentine Painters.

Their friendship, forged in the summer after Clark left Oxford, lasted 34 years, until Berenson’s death in 1959 aged 94. Their correspondence, often waspish, always erudite, has now been collected and edited by Robert Cumming in a handsome volume for Yale University Press.

Clark’s first trip to I Tatti, an estate over which Berenson presided as if it were a Medici humanist court, was a success from the off. “Walking in the hills, shuffling Bellinis in the library or simply browsing among the books were all a great joy to me,” wrote Clark on his return to England, “and above all to be with people who understood and frequently shared my enthusiasms was a new and enchanting experience. It is very pleasant to share an enthusiasm but here they are mainly indulged in secretly, like a bath, for fear, I suppose of a gust of ridicule.”

The relationship was originally one of master and acolyte, but over more than three decades of letters, Berenson’s patrician tone softens, while Clark’s becomes less deferential, more intimate.

This was partly the result of Clark’s astonishing rise. Aged 27, he was offered the directorship of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. “You certainly would be in clover to be in such a toy-shop for grown-ups,” wrote Berenson on hearing the news, “and free to play at any time . . . On the other hand the post will fix you down in the world of collectors, curators, dons. You will, altho’ remaining a plum, find yourself more and more embogged in a pudding. It is perhaps the finest pudding in the world, but pudding all the same.”

Clark was modest — or at least affected modesty — about his success. “I have just received a letter offering me the directorship of the National Gallery, which I have accepted,” Clark wrote to Berenson. He was 30 and  to this day remains by far the youngest director to be appointed to the gallery. “My appointment is a melancholy proof of the lack of serious interest taken in art history in England, and I do not regard it in any other light — except, perhaps, as a tribute to my conciliatory disposition. My chief duty will be to end a long period of quarrelling.”

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