In February 1969, I watched the first episode of Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series, Civilisation. I can still picture him, standing on barbaric northern headlands, explaining that “our” civilisation had barely survived the collapse of the Roman empire. We had come through only “by the skin of our teeth”. It was an incongruous scene: Clark – Winchester and Oxford educated, connoisseur and collector, former director of the National Gallery – looked every inch the toff as he walked in his brogues and Burberry over the battered countryside, where wellington boots and a woolly would have been more appropriate. But I tingled slightly as he repeated that phrase, “by the skin of our teeth”. I was just 14, and it had never struck me that “civilisation” might be such a fragile thing, still less that it might be possible to trace a history of European culture, as Clark was to do, in 13 parts, from the early middle ages to the 20th century.
A few years later, now more a devotee of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (a TV series and book devised in hostile reaction to Civilisation), I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable with Clark’s patrician self-confidence and the “great man” approach to art history – one damn genius after the next – that ran through the series. I was very doubtful, too, about the image of wild barbarians at the gates that Clark conjured up in that first episode: it was as crude an oversimplification of barbarism as his dreamy notion of ideal perfection was an oversimplification of classicism. Nonetheless, Civilisation had opened my eyes, and those of many others; not only visually stunning, it had shown us that there was something in art and architecture that was worth talking, and arguing, about.
Some of the best chapters in James Stourton’s careful biography discuss the making of this series. Clark was then in his early 60s and a considerable catch for its commissioner David Attenborough, who was trying to give the first wave of colour TV on BBC2 a more highbrow image than it had acquired in the US. What better than a series that would feature “all the most beautiful pictures and buildings” of the last 2,000 years of western European history?
Despite the commonly held belief that Clark was an upper-crust scholar plucked from some dusty museum basement who luckily proved to be a “natural” on screen, he had already made dozens of programmes for ITV, including one featuring an argument with Berger over Picasso’s Guernica (the two men were ideological enemies but personal friends). He was the obvious man for the job. Less obvious was the director assigned to the series: Michael Gill, father of the critic AA Gill, who did not share Clark’s aesthetic viewpoint (“Michael would probably have wanted to be the barbarian at the gate,” his wife observed). To begin with, getting the pair to collaborate was, according to one BBC source, rather like “mating pandas”.
For some viewers, Civilisation was life-changing. In the letters Clark received after the broadcasts, no fewer than nine correspondents claimed they had been dissuaded from suicide simply by watching (modestly, Clark wasn’t sure whether to believe them). Even the Sun hyped Clark as “the Gibbon of the McLuhan age”, and he was promptly given a peerage. The rumour was that Mary Wilson said to Harold, after one of their regular Sunday evening viewings in 10 Downing Street: “That man must go to the House of Lords.” And so he did.
But Civilisation was not an instant ratings success. At its first showing, it captured less than 2% of the available audience (compared with 35% for The Forsyte Saga). And Berger was not the only critic of Clark’s “top-down” approach to cultural politics; others complained that they were watching the elitist musings of an Edwardian critic. Clark’s silly jibes at “pseudo-Marxists” (for some reason, a notch below “real” ones), and his boasts of being a “stick-in-the-mud” laid him open to this.
As Stourton shows, some of the criticisms do not stick. Although the programmes concentrated on western Europe, Clark was not blind (as he was charged) to other artistic traditions: he had been devoted to Japanese art since childhood. And however patrician his manner, he was a lifelong Labour voter. In fact, in one of his ITV programmes on “good taste” he seems to have taken a line closer to Grayson Perry than to Brian Sewell.
But Stourton frankly concedes one glaring omission in Civilisation. This was a “great man” approach in the most literal sense. Hardly any women got a look-in, and when very occasionally they did, it was not as creative artists or even patrons, but as hostesses, temptresses, Virgin Marys, or something woolly called the “female principle”. Almost the only woman credited, briefly, with an independent role was Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer – and, it so happens, the ancestor of one of Clark’s long-standing mistresses.
Contested though they still are, it is far easier to evaluate Clark’s TV programmes than the rest of his life. On the surface, his was a golden career. Born in 1903 into a family of the idle rich (“many richer … few idler”, as he put it), he made his way through school and university against the usual background of loyal nannies, vicious schoolmasters and cranky dons, before managing to get himself apprenticed briefly to the art historian Bernard Berenson in Florence. A glittering CV followed: keeper of fine art at the Ashmolean, director of the National Gallery, keeper of the king’s pictures, chairman of the Independent Television Authority, and so on, ending up a member of the Order of Merit, an august body that he found, predictably enough, full of his old pals.
Reading between the lines of Stourton’s account, it seems clear that he was good at big ideas, not so good at attention to detail (always a peril for men, like Clark, who don’t actually need a salary to survive). His tenure at the National Gallery is a case in point. Appointed when he was just 30 in 1933, he scored some great successes: he installed electric light; he opened up early on FA Cup final day to encourage fans to visit; he masterminded the evacuation of the major paintings to the Welsh mines during the second world war; and he reinvented the gallery as a cultural centre for wartime London (with hugely popular concerts organised by Myra Hess). Yet the staff were almost entirely against him, and it was partly their opposition that led to his resignation as soon as the war ended.
Clark’s supporters tend to paint his subordinates as small-minded bureaucrats, narrow scholars or, occasionally, psychopaths; and so they may have been. But one of Stourton’s anecdotes hints at a different story. Clark was going home one evening when he was surprised to see a newspaper hoarding: “National Gallery. Grave Scandal.” It turned out that one of the gallery’s accountants had had his fingers in the till for years, and all had been made public. Although director, Clark knew absolutely nothing about it.
But it is women, again, who are the most uncomfortable part of Clark’s story. His wife, Jane, had read history at Oxford; they married in 1927 and soon had three children (including Alan Clark MP, of Diaries and other fame). By the end of the 30s, Clark “started being unfaithful to his wife” and had multiple dalliances – “a vigorous private life” in Stourton’s euphemism – until her death in 1976. Jane, meanwhile, is said to have become increasingly difficult and dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs. It is always dangerous to investigate marital wars from beyond the grave, and even more presumptuous to try to apportion blame. But biographers should watch their rhetoric and at least let the different parties keep their dignity. Stourton tries, but does not always succeed.
There is little room for independent women in Stourton’s version of Clark’s life. Jane wins his praise early on for her elegance and her dress sense; she was “a natural and beautiful hostess”. When she doesn’t fit that type, she gets written up as the monstrous, unstable spouse of a long-suffering husband: “The more she tormented him, the more he sought solace elsewhere.” Stourton occasionally recognises that this logic could be reversed: “The more he screwed around, the more screwed up she got.” There are simply different ground rules for men and women. When Clark breaks down and cries in a gents’ lavatory in Washington DC in response to a rapturous reaction to Civilisation, that is a sign of his sensitive ambivalence to fame. When the women cry, they are being hysterical.
The mistresses generally fare no better than the wife. Stourton only mentions in passing that Janet Stone, the descendant of Elizabeth Fry and mistress of Clark for almost 30 years, was an important photographer in her own right. But he does clearly see the poignant side of a discovery made after Clark’s death: a box of letters from her that he had never bothered, or brought himself, to open.
Clark’s television presentation of women as objects of desire or inspiration was not all that far from the way women in his own life continue to be portrayed: “a muse without a role”, as he once dubbed Jane.