Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain: the great panjandrum

Edward Lucie-Smith discovers that their tribute to Kenneth Clark is not as complimentary as the Tate thinks it is

The Tate Britain show devoted to Sir Kenneth Clark – ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’, as he came to be called – was a slightly strange phenomenon. It defined a whole tract of the recent history of the visual arts here in Britain, but in the end fell short of being a genuine celebration. Going round it, examining what was on view, one noted how much things have changed. And at the same time, how much they haven’t.

Clark’s career can be thought of as making a bridge between Roger Fry and the Bloomsberries on the one hand and the achievements (and failings) of Sir Nicholas Serota on the other. Brought up in what seems to have been gilded solitude – the only child of a very rich man whom the Tate catalogue describes as an idler – he was the privileged inhabitant of a variety of different but related social worlds.

His ascent through the pre-war British art world, also through at least one major tribe of the international art world, was extremely rapid. From the circle surrounding Roger Fry he passed, with remarkable ease, into that surrounding Bernard Berenson at I Tatti on the outskirts of Florence. The famously formidable Berenson asked Clark, who was still in his early twenties, to work on a new edition of his celebrated catalogue of drawings by Florentine painters, first published in 1903, the year of Clark’s birth.

The Tate catalogue makes some significant remarks about this, worth quoting here at some length, though with a bit of necessary compression: “The time Clark spent at I Tatti with Berenson was an education in a very different approach to art: that of connoisseurship. Having an ‘eye’ meant the ability to discern on the basis of simply looking at a work, who might have made it and when… Attribution was a gentleman’s sport, and for Clark it seemed at the time ‘the only game worth playing’. Not, he was careful to add, for the money, but for the glory of having an eye and being right.”

Read in the context of what was actually on view at the Tate, this paragraph made a very peculiar effect. True, Clark at this period wrote an authoritative catalogue of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor. As the Tate catalogue rather smugly remarks: “[It] remains unsurpassed (if in a quite specialised genre). And many of his identifications, both attributions and de-attributions, as well as datings of the drawings, have stood the test of time.” Two genuine Leonardo drawings, plus a non-Leonardo with the same provenance, were included to prove the point.

It was the other Old Master items that formed part of the Tate’s exhibition that supplied a bucket – several buckets – of cold water. What one got was a parade of duds. The show included, for example, the four little panels by the very minor Andrea Previtali that Clark bought for the National Gallery during his period as Director, in the belief that they were by Giorgione. Worse were some items that the great panjandrum had actually owned himself. For example, a much scraped and over-restored School of Pontormo Madonna and Child that Clark thought was an original Rosso, and a dreary John Wootton landscape that he believed to be by Claude. Also a battered fresco fragment representing a putto that he hoped was the work of Giorgione. Even undoubtedly genuine works were sometimes the dullest possible examples of a particular master.

Clark, for example, owned two paintings by Seurat. The one shown at the Tate, The Forest of Pontaubert, was painted in 1881, when Seurat was just 21 years old. It’s an uncertain, obviously juvenile work. I don’t think Clark himself thought much of it by the time he reached old age. I met him once, in his last years, to do an interview about Graham Sutherland, one of the British artists who benefited from his support and patronage. He was then living in a spacious but curiously characterless bungalow built at the gates of Saltwood Castle, which had been handed over to his son Alan. The Seurat was not on a wall, but was propped up on the floor of a cloakroom where I went to pee. It was fairly obvious that nobody loved it or bothered to look at it.

There were some good things in Clark’s possession, notably a group of paintings and drawings by Cézanne that he had the good fortune to buy from the artist’s heirs in the 1930s. He also once owned (but it wasn’t in the show), a large icing-sugar sweet Renoir nude from the early 1880s, now in the Pinacoteca Agnelli in Turin. This flamboyantly vulgar object would undoubtedly excite new-rich billionaire collectors if it appeared today in a Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction. Clark’s protégé Victor Pasmore said the Renoir nude set his teeth on edge, and painted a hostile paraphrase to prove it. Clark was sporting enough to buy it.

As a practical demonstration of Clark’s pre-eminence as a connoisseur, a supreme aesthete, the exhibition was a bust.

On the whole, the show served instead as a refutation of a once-powerful but now largely discredited myth, sedulously propagated by Berenson and his circle, and also by a platoon of other professional ‘art experts’ covering about three generations, that there existed, occupying deservedly privileged positions in civilised western societies, oracular figures who could produce the right attribution for almost any Old Master painting, drawing or sculpture, simply by gazing at it steadfastly for a few moments. Almost nobody believes that today.

Kenneth Clark’s importance to the art world was quite other, and had nothing to do with his failings as a connoisseur. His gifts were as an administrator and, above all, as a communicator. As director of the National Gallery during the war years he saw to the safety of the collection and yet kept the gallery alive as a cultural focal point in a London battered by bombing. He brought a group of leading British artists together – prominent among them Henry Moore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland – who seemed to express some kind of national essence.  During the war they made works that successfully heroised and commemorated the national ordeal, drawing on pre-Modernist roots in the English Romantic tradition. This development did a great deal to reconcile a previously sceptical middle-class public to the ideas and theories of the 20th century Modern Movement.


Above all, he wrote books that communicated ideas and theories about art in clear, non-specialist terms– The Nude and Landscape into Art are cases in point. And he engaged with the new mass medium of television. The Nude, with its crucial distinction between ‘the naked’ and ‘the nude’, remains influential today, though it was published as long ago as 1956. Some scholar needs perhaps to go through it now, and calibrate what it says with the rise of Pop Art, where representations of the nude play no inconsiderable a part. Are Pop nudes ‘ideal forms’? In a way, yes, they are. Come to think of it the sugar sweet Renoir nude that Clark once owned takes on a different inflection if one examines it in the light cast by the Pop movement.

Most of all, Clark embraced the new medium of television. The marriage was at first sight a curious one. While being obviously at ease in front of the camera, he lost no trace of his grandee manner. In fact, it qualified him to tell us what he was confident we didn’t know.

Looked at now, Clark’s conception of ‘Civilisation’ seems limited. It is essentially Western, though he had an early taste for Japanese art – Japanese prints were almost the first things he collected. André Malraux’s concept of an ‘imaginary museum’ or ‘museum without walls’, embracing all visual cultures, was first presented to the public in 1947. Clark’s Civilisation series began transmission as late as 1969, a whole generation after that.

It is possible to see Civilisation as a very successful attempt made by the then existing establishment to retain control of the cultural narrative. A similar sort of attempt, though with somewhat less success, is currently being made by the collective of Tate galleries. One is the very space where the exhibition devoted to Clark took place.

Something that has changed quite radically since the reign of Clark is the way in which ideas about art – indeed ideas about everything – are communicated. Television centralised communication, but its period of total domination was remarkably short. The Internet has instigated a rapid devolution, a change from the hierarchical to the democratically lateral. Our taste in presenters has changed too. In October 2013 Grayson Perry gave the first of the most recent series of Reith Lectures, one of the BBC’s most sacred occasions. It was recorded, sure enough, in the equally sacred halls of Tate Modern. Perry was as much at ease as his predecessor Sir Kenneth, while performing a very similar task, and addressing, one is permitted to think, a similar audience. The visual aspect of the event did at first seem quite different. What you got when you looked at the screen was not a grandee in a Saville Row suit, but the Widow Twanky in her best frock. Shut your eyes, however, and the slightly posh accent was exactly the same. Clark’s legacy lives on, despite the evolution of technology.