During his long and varied career, English art historian Kenneth M. Clark (1903-1983) served as director of the British National Gallery and of Britain's first commercial television network. He also helped establish government patronage of the arts.
Kenneth Mackenzie Clark was born in London on July 13, 1903, the only child of parents he described as members of the Edwardian "idle rich." While his parents spent the family fortune (amassed by Clark's Scottish great-great grandfather, the inventor of the cotton spool), Clark developed into a lonely, serious young man with a passion for art and complete confidence in his judgment. Lacking a mentor at home or school, he groped his way toward knowledge, winning a scholarship to Oxford. There, he gave up early hopes of becoming a painter to become an aesthete. " … Nothing could destroy me," he said, "as long as I could enjoy works of art and for 'enjoy' read 'enjoy': not codify or classify, or purge my spirit or arouse my social consciousness." Clark was able to fulfill another childhood ambition: to assist art critic Bernard Berenson in the revision of his Florentine Drawings. Clark spent two years in Italy working for Berenson, during which time he married Jane Martin, an Oxford classmate.
Then, in 1928, he delved into a project on Leonardo da Vinci, whose work at that time was still largely undocumented. The resulting catalogue established Clark's reputation. He was invited to help organize a major exhibit of Italian art in London. Though dissatisfied with his contributions to its catalogue, thinking himself still too young and inexperienced, Clark was soon being invited to lecture widely.
In 1931 he became Keeper of the Department of Fine Arts at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. The next year marked the beginning of what he called the "great Clark boom." From 1933 to 1945 he was the British National Gallery's youngest director and a major force in the expansion of its collection. Also in 1934, King George V convinced him to be surveyor of the King's pictures. In 1938 he was knighted.
When war broke out in 1939 Clark served as director of the Film Division of the Ministry of Information after he saw to it that the National Gallery's collection was safely hidden in caves in Wales. He had already begun collecting and championing the work of contemporary artists, particularly that of his friends Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, and he took advantage of his ministry position to convince the government to begin supporting the arts on a large scale, at that time a novel concept in Britain. He helped launch what became the Arts Council. A lover of classical music, he also introduced a series of lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery, one of which he conducted himself. Later he would establish the National Opera at Covent Garden.
After the war he resigned his post at the gallery and from 1945 to 1950 held the prestigious Slade professorship of fine arts at Oxford. He spent much of that time lecturing and writing on John Ruskin and was chiefly responsible for reestablishing Ruskin's reputation. During this period he wrote Piero della Francesca (1951), Moments of Vision (1954), and, culled from a series of Mellon lectures delivered in Washington, D.C., The Nude (1956), which he considered his best work and which was heavily influenced by the art theories of Aby Warburg.
Though Clark's catalogue on Leonardo da Vinci had established him as a scholar, he eschewed the title. "I have not got a first class mind," he wrote, "only a love of art, a good visual memory and a certain amount of commonsense." With his enthusiasm for sharing this love and his articulate but conversational style, Clark was a popular lecturer. Later he was able to transfer these skills successfully to television. In the intervening years he served as director of Britain's first commercial television network, ITA, setting to rest, with his trustworthy name, the grumblings of a public who feared the crassness of commercial "tellie." When he left ITA in 1957 the BBC immediately hired him, launching him in the final, and best known, stage of his career, as a television personality, albeit not a flashy one.
In 1969 he wrote and narrated the 13-part "Civilisation" series, a survey of European art which included a segment on his favorite period, the early quattrocento (14th century) in Florence. "Civilisation" was a huge success in both England and the United States (and also became a best-selling book). Clark felt both awed and ill at ease with his new status as a star. He went on to do other television programs, but resigned all his duties when his wife took ill in 1974. At Saltwood Castle in England, their home since 1955, Clark wrote on Botticelli, Rembrandt, and his friend Edith Wharton, as well as completing a second volume of his autobiography. His wife died in 1977. Soon thereafter Clark was remarried, to Nolwen de Janze-Rice, a family friend. As his health declined, he suffered bouts of depression alternated with periods of productivity. He died shortly before his 80th birthday, leaving behind two sons and a daughter.
For two different accounts of the life and work of Kenneth Clark, see Clark's two volumes of autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974) and The Other Half (1977). Both are charming, witty, and readable, if less than complete, portraits. Meryle Secrest's Kenneth Clark: A Biography (1984) fills in many of the gaps. Many of Clark's books are widely available, including The Gothic Revival (1929), Leonardo da Vinci (1939 and 1952), Florentine Painting: the Fifteenth Century (1945), Landscape Into Art (1950), Piero della Francesca (1951), Moments of Vision (1954), The Nude (1956), and Looking at Pictures (1960).
Clark, Kenneth, Another part of the wood: a self portrait, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Clark, Kenneth, The other half: a self portrait, New York: Harper& Row, 1977.
Secrest, Meryle, Kenneth Clark: a biography, New York: Fromm International Pub. Corp.: Distributed to the trade by Kampmann & Co., 1984.