Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark books and biography


Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark presenting the BBC TV series Civilisation.
Kenneth Clark presenting the BBC TV series Civilisation.

Kenneth McKenzie Clark, Baron Clark, OM CH KCB, (July 13, 1903 – May 21, 1983) was an English author, museum director, broadcaster, and the most famous art historian of his generation.


Early life

Sir Kenneth was born in London, the only child of Kenneth MacKenzie Clark and Margaret Alice, a wealthy Scottish family with roots in the textile trade (the "Clark" in Coats & Clark threading). Sir Kenneth's grandfather had invented the cotton spool. Kenneth Clark the elder had retired in 1909 at the age of 41 to become a member of the 'idle rich' (as described by W. D. Rubinstein in The Biographical Dictionary of Life Peers).

The younger Clark was educated at Winchester College and Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied the history of art. In 1927 he married a fellow Oxford student, Elizabeth Jane Martin. The couple had three children: Alan, in 1928, and twins Colette (known as Celly) and Colin in 1932.

Early career

An admirer of Ruskin and a protégé of the most influential art critic of the time, Bernard Berenson, Sir Kenneth quickly became the British art establishment's most respected aesthetician. After a stint as fine arts curator at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, in 1933 at age 30, Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery. He was the youngest person ever to hold the post. The following year he also became Surveyor of the King's Pictures, a post he held until 1945. He was a controversial figure however, in part due to his distaste for much of modern art and Post-Modernist thought. Nevertheless, he was an influential supporter of modern sculptor Henry Moore and, as Chairman of the War Artists committee, he persuaded the government not to conscript artists thus ensuring that Moore found work. In 1946 Sir Kenneth resigned his directorship in order to devote more time to writing. Between 1946 and 1950 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. He was a founding board member and also served as Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1955 to 1960, and had a major role in the art program of the Festival of Britain.

Kenneth Clark was created Knight Commander of the Bath in 1938, and made a Companion of Honour in 1959. He also received the Order of Merit in 1976. In 1955 he purchased Saltwood Castle in Kent.

Clark the broadcaster

An indefatigable lecturer in both academic and broadcast settings, Sir Kenneth's mastery was to make accessible complex and profound subject matter that could then be appreciated by an extremely broad audience. He was one of the founders, in 1954, of the Independent Television Authority, serving as its Chairman until 1957, when he moved to ITA's rival BBC. In 1966 he wrote and produced Civilisation for BBC television, a series on the history of Western civilisation as seen through its art. When it was broadcast on PBS in 1969, Civilisation was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, catapulting Sir Kenneth to international fame. According to Sir Kenneth, the series was created in answer to the growing criticism of Western Civilisation, from its value system to its heroes.

A self-described "hero-worshipper", Sir Kenneth proved to be an ardent pro-individualist, Humanist, anti-marxist and anti-elitist. His comments on the subject of 1960's radical University students from a final episode of Civilisation, are but one example of his extremely critical view of Post Modernism in all its contemporary forms: "I can see them [the students] still through the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don't know." - Sir Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, Episode 12.

Sir Kenneth believed in the sublime and noble nature of man, and his quiet, witty and often devastating criticism of environmentalism, the Monarchy, religious authoritarianism and Statism continues to win him praise from a wide range of the political spectrum, most notably from those of a Classical Liberal and Objectivist mind-set. And yet, Sir Kenneth was also able to see the Church as a repository for the best minds that the West had produced, a place where men of action were necessarily attracted. A highly tolerant man, in discussing those with whom he disagreed, Sir Kenneth was able in a dignified and respectful manner, to illustrate his differences along with effectively expressing his praise.

Later life

He was Chancellor of the University of York from 1967 to 1978 and a trustee of the British Museum. Clark was awarded a life peerage in 1969, taking the title Baron Clark of Saltwood in the County of Kent (The British satirical magazine Private Eye nicknamed him Lord Clark of Civilisation).

In 1975 he supported the campaign to create a separate Turner Gallery for the Turner Bequest (an aim still unfulfilled) and in 1980 agreed to open a symposium on Turner at the University of York, of which he had been Chancellor, but illness compelled him to back out of that commitment, which Lord Harewood undertook in his place.

His wife Jane died in 1976 and the following year Lord Clark married Nolwen de Janzé-Rice, former wife of Edward Rice, and daughter of the Count of Janzé alias Comte Frederic de Janze (a well-known French racing driver of the 1920s and 1930s) by his wife Alice Silverthorne (better known by her married names as Alice de Janze or Alice de Trafford), a wealthy American heiress resident in Kenya. Both her first husband and her father were wealthy landowners. Lord Clark died in Hythe after a short illness in 1983.

His elder son, Alan Clark, became a prominent Conservative MP and was a writer-historian.

Sir Kenneth continues to be a source of inspiration for many contemporary artists, historians and television producers.


  • "The great artist takes what he needs."
  • "Heroes don't often tolerate the company of other heroes."
  • "Seen by itself the David's body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not a part of most people's idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness."
  • "Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process."
  • "People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria, they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater."
  • "It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs."
  • "Lives devoted to Beauty seldom end well."
  • "I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room: except, perhaps, in the reading room of the British Museum."

References in Popular Culture

In Episode 37 of the television series Monty Python's Flying Circus, Sir Kenneth is portrayed in a boxing match against Jack Bodell, then UK heavyweight champion. Since Clark merely paces the ring lecturing about English renaissance art and does not throw any punches, Bodell knocks him out in the first round. Bodell is thus named the new Professor of Fine Art at Oxford.


  • The Gothic Revival (1928)
  • Catalogue of the Windsor Leonardo Drawings (1935)
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1939)
  • Piero della Francesca (1951)
  • Landscape into Art (1949)
  • Moments of Vision (1954), the Romanes Lecture for 1954. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • The Nude (1956)
  • Looking at Pictures (1960)
  • Ruskin Today (1964) (edited and annotated by)
  • Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966)
  • Civilisation (1969)
  • Blake and Visionary Art (1973)
  • Another Part of the Wood (1974) (autobiography)
  • The Other Half (1977) (autobiography)
  • What is a Masterpiece? (1979)
  • Feminine Beauty (1980)
  • The Romantic Rebellion (1986)

Further reading

  • Meryle Secrest. Kenneth Clark: A Biography (1985)


  • Vital Vulgarity Sir Kenneth's role in the founding of ITV (from the Transdiffusion group of TV history websites)
  • – for Lord Clark's second marriage to Nolwen, and her maternal affiliation
  • – for Lady Clark's mother

External link

  • Portraits of Kenneth Clark at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Preceded by
Sir Augustus Daniel
Director of the National Gallery
Succeeded by
Sir Philip Hendy
Preceded by
Ernest Pooley
Chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain
Succeeded by
Lord Cottesloe
Preceded by
New office
Chairman of the Independent Television Authority
Succeeded by
Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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