Kenneth Clark: Far from the madding crowd

  • By Matthew Sweet
  • Writer and broadcaster

Ahead of Tate Britain's exhibition exploring the influence of broadcaster Kenneth Clark, Matthew Sweet reappraises Civilisation, Clark's landmark 1969 BBC series.

Georges Seurat, Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, 1885 © Tate

Georges Seurat, Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, 1885

In 1968 – the year of revolution, or when the name of  the writer and historian Tariq Ali became known to readers of the Daily Express – Sir Kenneth Clark went to Paris and breathed in the tear gas. He did it in the cause of Civilisation, the lavish 13-part BBC2 series that earned him a baronetcy. It remains one of the great listed structures of its medium. Television’s Old Royal Naval College. Its Louvre.

As the riot police buzzed through the streets outside, Clark stood beside Rodin’s monumental study of a dressing-gowned Balzac and delivered a heartfelt piece to camera: ‘Balzac’, he declared, ‘should inspire us to defy all those forces that threaten to impair our humanity.’ That cloud of 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile hanging in the Parisian air was one of them, but the list was long: ‘Lies, tanks, tear gas, ideologies, opinion polls, mechanisation, planners, computers, the whole lot’. Civilisation was fragile. Like a precious vase, it might easily be broken.

The first time I watched Clark’s 1969 series, I thought of it as the art-history equivalent of that scene from Carry On … Up the Khyber in which Sid James, walnut-faced representative of the British Raj, holds a dinner party during an armed uprising and affects not to notice the bombardment, even as lumps of plaster plummet into his mousse. There was Clark, with his not unJamesian features, smiling beside a Roman aqueduct or a white knot of Renaissance musculature, refusing to loosen his muffin-top shirt-collar, or overpraise European modernism, or say anything nice about Marx. No wonder he annoyed 1960s academia. When art critic John Berger took a Stanley knife to a Botticelli in the opening scene of his rival series Ways of Seeing (1972), surely he was imagining the effect on Clark’s heart-rate as the blade sank into the canvas?

A new exhibition at Tate Britain, due to open in the revolutionary month of May, will highlight Clark’s role as a hidden persuader: the secret Santa of 20th-century British art. It will celebrate him as a man who used public money to make the state a present of his own taste in painting and sculpture: a taste that favoured Post-Impressionism over Cubism, naturalism over abstraction, the Euston Road over the Ramblas. The results of his campaign are on the walls and in the storage spaces of our national collections.

What strikes me now, watching Civilisation again on my phone – this time via YouTube – is how seductive a figure Clark cuts. His language is unpatronising. His enthusiasms are infectious. His suits are back in fashion. His own highly ideological position on the history of human culture comes dressed in a perfect disguise of reasonableness, decency and naturalness. Clark’s biographer said that her subject wrote like a con-artist. He also broadcasts like one. Listen to all those mildly made, qualified or half-cancelled assertions, and suddenly you are agreeing that the worthwhile modernists are really Late Romantics; that civilisation is a process driven by geniuses and the connoisseurs empowered to identify their brilliance; that the barbarians might smash all this up, if they got the chance.

In 1970 the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington pressed a medal on Clark, praising his ‘connoisseur’s penetrating eye’, declaring that with ‘the weapons of humane scholarship’, the author of Civilisation had succeeded in ‘setting aflame in the hearts of millions a renewed faith that art and civilisation are indivisible’. It sounds like a moral argument, but connoisseurship, as Clark knew, had little to do with ethics. Faith in the indivisibility of art and civilisation can burn in the hearts of deeply obnoxious people.

Clark’s son, Alan, for instance, was civilised. A product of Eton, Oxford, the Conservative Party. He cared passionately about art and the preservation of our architectural heritage – or at least bits in which he happened to live. And yet he was also a man who, in the words of John le Carré, ‘treated waiters like shit’, thought the Ugandan Asians were not sufficiently white to deserve British citizenship, admired the National Front for its sensitivity to the British ‘tribal essence’ and sincerely believed that Nazism was ‘the ideal system’. Ideas that presumably horrified his father, but ones that clearly didn’t exclude him from membership of those institutions that preserve the values we associate with civilisation.

The final moments of Kenneth Clark’s series were filmed in the library at Saltwood, the Norman castle he bought in 1955. ‘Fifty years ago,’ he tells us, ‘WB Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I’ve ever known, wrote a prophetic poem.’ And he declaims the apocalyptic sounds of The Second Coming. Mere anarchy. The blood-dimmed tide. ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’ And, having raised the prospect of apocalypse, he then rejects it. Or, in a typical Clark manoeuvre, half-rejects it. ‘Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions. Rather too many of them.’

Moments later, he has walked from the shot, having stopped only to fondle his glossy black Henry Moore as if it were a faithful Labrador. A huge tapestry hangs from the craggy walls above him. The overmantle is a medieval altarpiece. This is a building with a gatehouse and gun-ports. A defensive structure, built to withstand the barbarians. A place where the smell of tear gas would never penetrate.

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation is at Tate Britain from 20 May to 10 August. Get 50% off entry with the National Art Pass.

This article appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

Venue details

Tate Britain Millbank London SW1P 4RG 020 7887 8888 www.tate.org.uk/britain

Entry details

50% off with National Art Pass

Daily, 10am – 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Closed 24 – 26 Dec