Museums United Kingdom

Kenneth Clark: the authorised view

Chairman of Sotheby’s UK to write long-awaited life of the grandest of grandees

Clark has not yet had an official biography

The chairman of Sotheby’s UK has signed a publishing deal to write the authorised biography of the late Kenneth Clark, the former director of the National Gallery in London and a towering figure of 20th-century British cultural life, in one of the most anticipated art historical projects in recent years.

“The Clark biography is a magnificent project and I believe that his life will tell the story of the arts in the 20th century,” says James Stourton, who is leaving his post at Sotheby’s later this year to embark on the project. Approved by the Clark estate, the book is due to be published in 2016 by Harper Collins.

The book will be the first official biography on Clark, who died in 1983. The UK publisher John Murray commissioned the Oxford University scholar Fram Dinshaw in the 1990s to produce an official biography, which has not yet materialised.

Clark was, as Stourton says, the “grandest of grandees in the art world”. After serving as the keeper of fine art at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (1931-34), Clark was appointed the youngest director of the National Gallery in 1934 at the age of 31. At the heart of London’s intelligentsia, he presided over a circle of royals, artists and academics.

After the Second World War, he helped launch what became the Arts Council, but his 1969 documentary “Civilisation: a Personal View by Kenneth Clark” is considered his most far-reaching achievement. Criticised by some at the time for elitism, the 13-part series, which traced the history of Western art and philosophy, is now credited with bringing art to the masses.

From 1939 until 1945 Clark was the chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Stourton believes that this period was a turning point for Clark. “Of enormous interest is the change that took place in Clark during the war and the early 1950s—the transition from the rich young man on the side of the [National Gallery] trustees to the emerging communicator who had such a profound effect on arts policy in the post-war era. The war changed Clark. He began to think about how the arts might be marshalled for the common good.”

Stourton seems prepared to tackle the more delicate aspects of Clark’s professional and personal roles, including the often cited claim that he was anti-contemporary art. Clark’s collection included works by artists who reportedly became close friends such as Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, Sidney Nolan and especially Henry Moore.  

“His acceptance of post-war contemporary art was qualified,” says the Sotheby’s chief. “The Blot and the Diagram [a lecture given by Clark in 1962] is a good place to start an enquiry into what he felt about abstraction.”

Two former directors of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum and Charles Saumarez Smith of the Royal Academy of Arts, hinted at a conflict of interests between Clark’s private and public buying in a BBC radio programme in 2003.

“I don’t believe there was really a conflict between what he bought for the National Gallery and for himself,” Stourton says. “The purchases were very different. I think the main charge against him at the gallery was a failure to breach the divide between the trustees and the staff. He failed to gain the latter’s trust and this will certainly have to be examined carefully.”

Clark famously fell out with one trustee, the English art dealer Joseph Duveen, who, according to a 2004 biography by Meryle Secrest (Duveen: a Life in Art), enraged Clark by attempting to sabotage the museum’s campaign to obtain works by the 15th-century Sienese artist Sassetta.

The mention of Clark’s name also ignites a strong reaction in scholars—something Stourton will have to tackle. The art critic Brian Sewell, who was taught by Clark, says that his “failure as a connoisseur” is evident in his misattribution of four panels to Giorgione, acquired by the National Gallery in the 1930s (the pieces have since been attributed to Andrea Previtali).

“He was possibly the worst director the National Gallery ever had. There is also a question mark over how he dispensed patronage to artists during the war,” Sewell says.

Stourton is relishing the task ahead, saying that the majority of the source material, more than 12,000 documents, is at the Tate. “In addition I have identified more than 30 other archives with substantial material to be visited,” he says.

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3 Mar 14
16:48 CET


I give a regular illustrated lecture on the Life and Influence of Sir Kenneth Clark. It will be good to have a published biography which one can recommend to those wanting more information. Mind you, his own two volume autobiography is well worth reading. But it omits some of his most important innovations. One was the Picture of the Month, shown at the National Gallery during the War, when most of the paintings were safely stored in the Manod caves in Wales.

20 Jun 12
15:14 CET


To John Berger: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Late Kenneth Clark

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