Illustrious life of critic/broadcaster Kenneth Clark makes for satisfying Tate Britain show

By Mark Sheerin | 25 July 2014

Exhibition review: Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation, Tate Britain, London, until August 10 2014

Colour photo of an oil painting of some ruins
John Constable Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9© Tate
At age 30 he was director of the National Gallery. He was the Leonardo expert who authenticated much of the Queen’s personal collection. We have him to thank for the safeguarding of our national pictorial treasures during World War II. And in 1969 he wrote and presented venerable art doc series, Civilisation. The lustre of his rhetoric and the 35mm film stock on which it was shot have hardly faded.

But there is more than a history lesson to the current show at Tate Britain. Kenneth Clark was independently wealthy. He was an avid collector and patron of the arts.

He was first to spot a movement of young British artists comprised of Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Henry Moore and Paul Nash. And so the exhibition has plentiful artworks by all of the above. Fans of neo-romanticism will appreciate this.

There are also works by Cezanne, and one cannot but enjoy the story of Clark buying up three score of drawings on a short stopover in Paris.

He compared the cost to that of a “modest motorcar”. If today one was offered a similar bounty for the price of a Peugeot hatchback, it would be prudent to jump at the chance.

Unsurprisingly, there are portraits of Clark himself. As a carefree young boy with a sail boat (he complained that the pose was artificial) to a profile of this eminence gris in which Graham Sutherland makes him look regal and gives him his full appellation: Kenneth Clark, Baron Clark. You can see why he had a reputation for snobbery. Clark was a man supported by intellectual certainties as much as money.

He did not, on the whole, like abstract art. He was keen on poetic landscapes. He believed the patron should, where possible, issue commissions to his favourite artists so that the production of a work of art became a two-handed affair.

And it is arguable he was more instrumental in shaping British culture than any of the individual artists he worked with.

Tate’s show is dense with plenty to read and the same satisfactions as a well-written biography. You can even shelter in a doorway and listen to the music played in a series of morale boosting recitals which he organised for the National Gallery during wartime.

And naturally, one entire gallery here is a media lounge where, time permitting, you could watch Civlilisation in its entirety.

One wonders if, in 50-years’ time, Tate will accord a similar honour to, say, collector Charles Saatchi or a super curator like Hans Ulrich Obrist. It is not inconceivable. And it would be something to see; the points of comparison and difference would tell us much about the 21st century.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission £11.30-£14.50 (free for under-12s). Book online.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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