Monday, 19 May 2014

Kenneth Clark: arrogant snob or saviour of art? Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries 20 May – 10 August 2014.

Kenneth Clark: arrogant snob or saviour of art?
Famed for the TV series Civilisation, Clark has long been accused of patrician arrogance. But he was also a brilliant wordsmith whose books changed the game, argues James Hall
James Hall

Italians call the great 14thcentury authors Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio i tre coronati – the three crowned laureates. In Britain, during the middle third of the 20th century, art history had its own tre coronati in the formidable shapes of Nikolaus Pevsner, Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark. What made them stand out from their contemporaries both here and abroad was not just their extraordinary erudition and prolific output, but an eloquence and popularising skill that made them public figures. They became the subjects of biographies, and many of their books remain in print. Pevsner, as the author of the landmark Buildings of Britain series, could be found in countless car glove compartments; Gombrich wrote the bestselling art book of all time, The Story of Art; and Clark was the maker of a number of pioneering TV series that were broadcast internationally, the most famous being Civilisation (1969)

Of the three, Clark's reputation is most in need of rescue. Two people bear most responsibility for his eclipse: John Berger and Clark's son Alan. Berger's brilliant TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) threw down a lethal Marxist-feminist gauntlet to Clark's Olympian worldview. Clark is the only art historian to be named, and he is cited and ticked-off twice over. His description of Gainsborough's portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews on their country estate in Landscape into Art (1949) as "enchanting" and "Rousseauist" is denounced: "They are not a couple in Nature as Rousseau imagined nature. They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions." Berger well knew that Clark, thanks to substantial inherited wealth (the family fortune came from Paisley cotton), had lived since 1955 in Saltwood Castle in Kent surrounded by a moat and a large art collection that included old masters and impressionists.

Berger also took to task The Nude: a study of ideal art (1956), Clark's longest and most intellectually ambitious book: "Kenneth Clark maintains that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art." While Berger concedes that the nude "is always conventionalised", he insists it "also relates to lived sexuality". The female nude is subservient to the male "spectator-owner … men act and women appear". Civilisation ended with Clark in his study at Saltwood fondling a Henry Moore reclining nude (he also owned Renoir's Blond Bather).
If it has become hard not to consider Clark through Berger-tinted spectacles, it is even harder not to blot out the "lived sexuality" of his son – the Thatcher-adoring, boozy sexual predator Alan Clark MP, whose sybaritic diaries outsold his father's art books, and who was proud to be Lord Clark of Civilisation's barbaric antithesis (this roguish persona was also a rebellion against Clark senior's diffidence and emotional aloofness). When, in 1997, Alan Clark offloaded to the National Gallery his father's serenely austere Zurbaran still-life, A Cup of Water and a Rose (c1630), my admiration for Clark senior's discernment (and envy of his deep pockets) was disturbed by a stray thought – did Clark junior get rid of it because its sobriety irked him?

In many ways, Kenneth Clark became a victim of his meteoric success, though what shouldn't be discounted was his patrician arrogance, which many found infuriating. Having gone to Oxford to read history in 1922, he entered the artistic circles around Charlie Bell, keeper of the Ashmolean, and immersed himself in the museum's superb collection of old master drawings. Bell was a pioneering aficionado of Victorian architecture, and he proposed the subject of Clark's first book, The Gothic Revival (1928), published when he was only 25. Despite lambasting "these monsters, these unsightly wrecks stranded upon the mud flat of Victorian taste", Clark also admired certain neogothic buildings and thus became a catalyst for the reevaluation of Victorian architecture. He succeeded Bell at the Ashmolean in 1931, and, having been groomed by the connoisseur Bernard Berenson and Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry, became, at 29, the youngest ever director of the National Gallery two years later. During the war, he was a heroic figure because of his patronage of British artists and especially the displays and concerts at the National Gallery; after the war he became chair of the Arts Council and the Independent Television Authority (a commercial regulator) – as well as a prolific author, globe-trotting lecturer and consummate TV presenter. Of his museum director successors, only Neil MacGregor – the second youngest director of the National Gallery and now in charge at the British Museum – has the same proselytising zeal and public profile.
Books such as Landscape into Art and The Nude are now gleefully derided, but in their day they were ground-breaking surveys that mapped and synthesised vast fields for the first time. The Nude singlehandedly revived interest in antique sculpture and its influence on western art and culture after a century of Ruskin-induced neglect. The subsequent vogue for Grand Tour studies, and Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny's standard survey Taste and the Antique (1981), are inconceivable without it (in an otherwise positive review, Gombrich criticised Haskell and Penny for failing to mention The Nude). Now there are shelfloads of books about nudity in art, all using The Nude as springboard and whipping boy, and nudity has been a key component of recent art.

Civilisation, a product of his seventh decade, hasn't worn so well, despite its director Michael Gill's high production values. It is marred by slack windbaggery and loose connections, but Clark's keen awareness of the fragility of cultures – whether of the Vikings, Franks or Nazis – commands respect: "At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable – as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine." He wouldn't have approved of the British Museum's current exhibition, Viking, in which the mass-murdering slave-traders are reinvented as entrepreneurial free-traders. His views on housing seem positively prescient: "If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings." Despite his hostility to Marxism – especially when applied to art – the sections on the slave trade, the industrial revolution and poverty remain powerful and moving indictments. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Civilisation is the state of Clark's teeth.

Clark's critics have lamented his Eurocentrism; his patronage of neo-romantic Nash, Piper, Sutherland and Moore (but not Bacon); and his dislike of purist abstraction (Ben Nicholson's reliefs, which he nonetheless collected, were less "cosmic symbols" than "tasteful pieces of decoration"). But the condescension of posterity is disproportionate, and not just because "it is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art" (Oscar Wilde). In retrospect, Clark was right about purism: it was a cul-desac, however magnificent at times. Mondrian's road to abstraction is thrilling; once he gets there, his art becomes drily academic and repetitious. In 1935, Clark published a pessimistic essay in the Listener entitled "The Future of Painting", in which he argued that a viable new style "can only arise out of a new interest in subject matter … We need a new myth in which the symbols are inherently pictorial." Jackson Pollock is a case in point – he yearned to infuse abstract art with profound content and, by the time of his premature death, had returned to semi-figuration. In post-1960s art and theory, impurism – conscious and unconscious subject matter – is all the rage.

One of Clark's most radical and least remarked innovations was his obsession with details. While director of the National Gallery, he produced the first ever "details" book, which is still in print: One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery (1938). Although it looks like an amusing potboiler, it is his most influential book. Clark wanted to encourage viewers to look more attentively at artworks, and to see images in a fresh way. He juxtaposed details from pictures by different artists, often from different periods, inviting his readers to compare and contrast. His interest in details was fostered by his knowledge of the sleuthing techniques of psychoanalysis.

The impact of Clark's book was immediate. In December 1938, WH Auden wrote his celebrated poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" while staying in Brussels. He must surely have had One Hundred Details on his desk or in his mind's eye. The poem is a perfect amplification of Clark's thesis: it explores the important entities sometimes located in the margins or background of artworks, and human obliviousness to great events. One can go through Auden's poem footnoting the relevant details in Clark's book:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Auguste Rodin's Eve, 1881
Auden's poem concludes with a meditation on Bruegel's idyllic landscape in which a tiny Icarus crash-lands into the sea: "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster".

Clark ends with a detail of the tiny crucifix that is hidden in the midst of a charming animal-filled landscape in Pisanello's Vision of Saint Eustace (c1438-42). There is no commentary: he lets the tragic, easy-to-overlook image speak for itself.

Paradoxically, Berger exploited details in Ways of Seeing and today's art historians are intoxicated by them – none more so than social art historian TJ Clark (no relation), whose short book The Sight of Death (2006) features 70 delirious details of two paintings by Poussin. The fascinating exhibition currently at the National Gallery, Building the Picture, could almost be dedicated to the former director, for it focuses on the architecture in the background of Renaissance paintings. The curator, Amanda Lillie, explains how the spotlight is on what is usually considered a minor detail: "Buildings in paintings have too often been viewed as background or as space fillers that play a passive or at best supporting role, propping up the figures that carry the main message of the picture. By looking afresh at buildings within paintings, treating them as active protagonists, it becomes clear that they performed a series of crucial roles." She exhibits a Beccafumi whose fantastic architecture was zoomed in on by Clark.

Above all, perhaps, Clark was a brilliant wordsmith, the most seductive writer on art since Ruskin and Pater, whom he greatly admired. Today, when most art historians write as joylessly as lawyers and accountants, such verve is sorely needed. His writing is seen at its probing and evocative best in his classic 1939 book on Leonardo, which remains the best introduction to his art (the reprint has an excellent preface by Martin Kemp). Clark had established himself as the world's leading Leonardo scholar in 1935, when his great three-volume catalogue of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection was published.

His influential interpretation of Leonardo's grotesque heads is a tour de force: rather than a frivolous hobby, as was often assumed, they were made central by Clark to Leonardo's art and life. Clark was always fascinated by polarities, especially between the ugly and the ideal, and this underpinned his notorious distinction between the naked and the nude. He inherited this preoccupation from late 19th-century decadent writers, and from Freud. In Oxford in the 1920s, he alternated between studying the "unsightly wrecks" of neogothic architecture, and the Ashmolean's sumptuous sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo. See-sawing from the monstrous to the supremely beautiful was the art historical equivalent of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, where's Dorian's ageless beauty contrasts with his disintegrating portrait.

But Leonardo was the greatest single embodiment of these polarities. Having noted that he loved drawing freaks, Clark observed: "Mixed with his motive of curiosity lay others, more profound: the motives that led men to carve gargoyles on the gothic cathedrals. Gargoyles were the complement to saints; Leonardo's caricatures were complementary to his untiring search for ideal beauty. And gargoyles were the expression of all the passions, the animal forces, the Caliban gruntings and groanings that are left in human nature when the divine has been poured away." Clark's son Alan would take it on himself to embody the "Caliban gruntings and groanings", leaving the divine roles to his father.

Clark further believed that Leonardo's grotesque man with "nutcracker nose and chin" was the counterpart to "the epicene youth", and these types can be found scarcely modified at all stages of Leonardo's career: "These are, in fact, the two hieroglyphs of Leonardo's unconscious mind, the two images his hand created when his attention was wandering, and as such they have an importance for us which the frequent poverty of their execution should not disguise. Virile and effeminate, they symbolise the two sides of Leonardo's nature … Even in his most conscious creations, even in the Last Supper, they remain, as it were, the armature round which his types are created".

Perhaps it's now time for the Caliban critical gruntings to give way to a fairer assessment.

• James Hall is  the author of The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson).

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation
6 January 2014
Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries
20 May – 10 August 2014 (Press view: 19 May 2014)
Open daily 10.00 – 18:00
For public information print:
+44 (0)20 7887 8888
Twitter @tate #KennethClark
The career and impact of Kenneth Clark (1903–1983), one of the most influential figures in British art, will be explored in Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain from 20 May 2014. The exhibition will explore Clark’s role as patron, collector, art historian, public servant, and broadcasting impresario, the first to bring the art of the 20th century to a mass television audience. From work by the British artists he championed to highlights from his own eclectic collection, the exhibition of around 200 objects will include works by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, prints by Hokusai, and paintings by Constable, Degas, Seurat and Cézanne.
A major focus of the exhibition will be Clark’s patronage and support of contemporary British art. He championed the Bloomsbury Group, the painters of the Euston Road School, and leading figures of the day such as Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland. He used his own wealth to help artists, buying works from those he admired and providing financial support, offering commissions and working to ensure their art entered prestigious collections. In doing so he shaped the course of British visual art in the 20th century.
From the outbreak of war in 1939, Clark’s private patronage became a state project through his instigation of several initiatives including the War Artists Advisory Committee. Employing artists to record the war, he commissioned such iconic works as Moore’s Shelter Drawings and Sutherland’s and Piper’s images of the Blitz. In doing so he ensured that the neo-Romantic spirit became dominant in the art of the period.
The exhibition will consider Kenneth Clark as a great populariser. His belief in the social importance of art and in everybody’s right of access to art anticipated much of today’s culture of accessibility and democratisation of art in museums and galleries. Clark was the youngest and most controversial director of the National Gallery by the age of 30, and founding board member and Chairman of the Arts Council. He became perhaps the first great star of documentary television through his landmark series Civilisation 1969, a series which has influenced arts documentary-making to this day. Clips from this series will be included in the exhibition, as well as extracts from a number of rare TV broadcasts he made in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Clark’s role as a collector and scholar, and his impact upon the living artists around him, will be explored through highlights from his extraordinary and eclectic collection of fine and decorative art. He described his collection as the diary of his life, accumulating works from Ancient Rome, Egypt and Tang Dynasty China. His collection of paintings and sculpture included Impressionist masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Edgar Degas; works by Giovanni Bellini and other Renaissance artists; and paintings by such English masters as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
Kenneth Clark is curated by Chris Stephens, Curator (Modern British Art) & Head of Displays, Tate Britain, and John-Paul Stonard, independent scholar, with John Wyver, University of Westminster, and Inga Fraser, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by Tate Publishing and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.
Notes to Editor
For further information contact Kate Moores or Alexandra Jacobs, Tate Press Office
Call +44(0)20 7887 4906/8732
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Kenneth Clark: a civilised man?
Art historian Kenneth Clark moved in the highest social and cultural circles of Britain's postwar years. And yet it is his landmark 1969 series on western art, Civilisation, he is best known for. What made this chilly patrician so keen to communicate with the masses?

Rachel Cooke
Kenneth Clark in Civilisation: the series almost didn't happen because director Michael Gill didn't want a pompous televised lecture, and snooty Clark didn't want to be told what to do.
One fine morning in late spring I find myself wandering around a castle. This particular castle used to be the home of one of the most extraordinary private collections of art in England, and though its treasures – the Cézannes, the Renoirs, the Turners – are now long gone, a few in the care of public galleries, still others sold to the only collectors rich enough to be able to afford them, it remains a wonderful place to be. Here, any dusty postcard might bear the signature of Edith Wharton, any family photograph could turn out to be the handiwork of Man Ray.

This is Saltwood Castle in Kent, which began its life as an Anglo-Saxon stronghold and was later the residence of the archbishops of Canterbury (by tradition, it was from Saltwood that four knights set out to murder Thomas Becket in 1170). The story goes that during the war Göring ordered the Luftwaffe not to bomb nearby Hythe because he had identified Saltwood as his post-invasion home, and should you be lucky enough to visit (it is not open to the public) it's easy to see why (the art, I should add, had yet to arrive when the founder of the Gestapo saw it). With its ragstone walls, forbidding towers and pea-green moat, it seems to have come straight out of a fairytale: remote, romantic, impervious to the passing of the centuries.
Saltwood Castle, Kent, painted by JMW Turner in 1795, bought by Kenneth Clark in 1953. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Kenneth Clark, the curator, scholar and presenter of the landmark 1969 BBC series Civilisation, bought Saltwood in 1953, and lived here until his death in 1983, filling it with beautiful things all the while (though he spent his last years in a house in the grounds, having made way in the castle for his elder son, Alan, the Conservative MP). For him, too, it was love at first sight. After his marriage in 1928, Clark – always known as "K" – and his wife, Jane, one of the great hostesses of her day, had lived in a "fidgety" number of houses; they were forever moving, never quite content. Saltwood, though, put an end to this. Clark made its owner an offer before he'd even stepped inside. His friends thought his new toy "absurd", "pretentious", "all stairs" and – the worst insult of all – "gothic revival". But Clark was besotted. When he and Jane moved in, they couldn't bear to recoup their costs by selling even one of its better tapestries: "We were reluctant to break this dream that had taken so strong a hold on us."

Today, another Jane lives in the house: the long-suffering widow of the late Alan Clark. This Jane is not a great one for receiving visitors, but I have travelled here with Chris Stephens, the curator of Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition about Kenneth Clark, of whom she is clearly fond (Stephens has been up and down to Kent a lot lately, in search of photographs, newspaper cuttings and other bits and pieces that will work in the context of the show), and she has even made shortbread to welcome us. What does she think her father-in-law would have made of the Tate show? "I don't know," she says, pouring the coffee. "But I am thrilled. I can't wait to see everything in its place. It's going to be wonderful."

Jane was, as she puts it, "notoriously young" when she met her father-in-law for the first time (she married Alan in 1958, when he was 30 and she just 16). Was he a terrifying prospect? "You were slightly in awe of that generation. I was a bit frightened, but he was nice, too. Of the two of them, it was my mother-in-law who was the more forbidding. She had moved up in the world, you see, and she was really called Betty, not Jane. When a relation came over from New Zealand and kept calling her Auntie Betty, I could see her getting crosser and crosser. So then my father-in-law said teasingly: 'Would Auntie Betty like some more wine?' I thought she was going to explode!"
Jane loves Saltwood, her home for more than 40 years, and perhaps she transmitted this to her father-in-law, for he left her a beloved dinner service in his will. "It's not actually very big," she says, nodding at the battlements from the window. "It's a pile of rubble, half of it." As for the collection it once housed, she is apt not to make too much of that. "Celly [Alan's younger sister] is adamant that Papa [K] wasn't really a proper collector. It was more a case of: you saw a beautiful piece, you wanted it. He always said things should be used. A Duncan Grant rug was to be kept on the floor, not the wall. It wasn't a snobbish thing at all. He liked things you wouldn't find in a millionaire's apartment in Manhattan, but which you might just find in a stationmaster's house in Shropshire. There were copies of things, and broken things, too." For Clark, the cost of something was unimportant. What mattered was that it was loved.
Alan Clark and his wife, Jane, at Saltwood Castle, 1997. Photograph: Rex Features
Easy for him to say! Clark's collecting began at a time when it was still possible to pick up great art for a relative song. In the 1930s, for instance, he bought a portfolio of Cézanne drawings from the artist's son while en route from one Paris station to another (the less important of these, he later gave away to friends). The Tate show will include some 230 works, most of which once belonged to Clark – the rest will be work he commissioned or acquired during his tenure as the director of the National Gallery – and as a result, its sweep will be extraordinary. It will begin with the Aubrey Beardsley drawings he loved as boy, move through the Italian art on which he worked after Oxford, and thence to his lifelong passions: not only Renoir and the other impressionists, but also various textiles, china, and medieval illuminations; work by Constable, Turner (who painted Saltwood in 1795) and Samuel Palmer; by his friends Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant; and, perhaps most significant of all, by the English artists he supported in the 40s and 50s, among them John Piper, Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. "Clark was worried by the lack of patronage in the 20th century," says Stephens. "The church and the aristocracy weren't doing it any more, and the middle classes hadn't yet, he felt, taken up their responsibilities. He believed contemporary art needed to be encouraged, and he almost single-handedly took that on, lending artists money, guaranteeing their mortgages, paying them salaries."

The Tate's show, Stephens tells me as we walk the castle's gloomy corridors, began its life as an exhibition about this patronage. But he soon realised he would have to widen its scope to include Clark's role as a communicator, a function he fulfilled chiefly through television – for it's this that connects him to our own age. The shift turned out to be fortuitous. The BBC's director general, Tony Hall, is committed to remaking Clark's landmark series Civilisation and the exhibition now happily coincides with the ongoing debate about who will present it – and, more widely, with the issue of whether such a project could ever be successful. "Suddenly, people are curious about Clark again," says Stephens. "Who was he? Why did he matter? And why should we care about him now?"

Kenneth and Jane Clark with Salvador and Gala Dalí at a party at MoMA, New York, 1939. Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Clark was born in 1903, into a world of glittering privilege. His father, Kenneth M Clark, had inherited a fortune from interests in the family business – the Clark Thread Company of Paisley – and now belonged to the idle rich. (As his son commented, though there were many who were richer than his father, few could have been more idle.) The family's main home was the 50-bedroomed Sudbourne Hall in Suffolk, but there was also a Scottish estate on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, a London town house, several yachts for racing, and hotels in the south of France, one of which Clark would later receive from his father as a wedding present. A drinker and gambler who liked to frequent the casinos of Monte Carlo, Clark senior resolutely refused to moderate his behaviour in spite of the pursed disapproval of his wife, Alice, who had Quaker roots.

In his 1974 memoir, Another Part of the Wood, Clark, an only child, presents himself as a solitary boy left at the mercy of his parents' servants, who enacted on him what he calls "an unconscious programme of revenge" against their employers. In particular, they liked to feed him inedible food: "I remember a cheese so full of weevils that small pieces jumped about the plate; I remember branches of bitter rhubarb, sour milk, rancid butter – and, of course, nothing but obstinate silence." But apparently there were limits to this neglect. When his mother found him weeping in the nursery one day, she fired the German nanny who'd called him wicked, and replaced her with a Miss Lamont, aka Lam, whom he adored. Lam, he would write later, "saved my life".

Clark thought his parents' renovations of Sudbourne "in very bad taste". So where did his own famously good taste come from? In later life, he would present it as an innate thing, an extreme sensitivity to the visual which manifested itself almost before he went to school. But his father genuinely liked art – he owned work by Millais, Wilkie and Landseer – and was keen to encourage his son's interest. On Christmas Day in 1910, he presented the seven-year-old K with a book about the Louvre, a volume he came to love so much that at 70 he could still recite the names of the paintings he'd first seen among its pages. When K announced to the world, not too much later, that he wanted to be an artist like Charles Keene, whose illustrations he'd seen in Punch, his father appears to have been – initially at least – delighted. In 1910, Lam took K to see the Japanese exhibition at White City, where he found himself "promoted into a different world" by a pair of 16th-century painted screens. For his 12th birthday, then, his father he gave him an album of Japanese prints, among them several woodcuts by Hokusai. Perhaps most important of all, Clark senior commissioned a portrait of the nine-year-old K by Charles Sims. Watching Sims in his studio made a deep impression on his subject. This was the beginning of his abiding respect for the working artist.

After prep school, Clark was sent to Winchester, where he was beaten twice a week. "I lay low as much as I could," he told his biographer, Meryle Seacrest. He loved the lectures about Florentine art given by its head, Monty Rendall, and it was at Winchester that he discovered Ruskin. But his emotional life now took a turn for the worse: the atmosphere at school, the war between his parents at home; it was all too much. For the last three years of his schooling, he was convinced he was dying of paralysis ("pure neurasthenia, of course," he said later). His emotions were "frozen" and when he went up to Oxford – he hung a Corot on the wall of his room at Trinity College – he was not popular. "He was cocooned in a civilisation of his own up there," remarked one of his contemporaries. Clark was immaculately dressed and highly cultured, but he was also chilly and condescending.

Clark was studying history, but he could not leave art alone. The question was: how to make a living from it? In 1923, he was introduced to Roger Fry, the critic. Clark was already in thrall to Fry, having heard him lecture, but their friendship was sealed when he bought one of his "heavy, lifeless" paintings – "the way to Roger's heart". Through him Clark met other Bloomsburys such as Vanessa Bell, whom he would later commission to design a dinner service, but it was Fry who had the greatest impact. Here was a man who not only loved art, but who believed that everyone was capable of such a passion. Thanks to his post-impressionist exhibitions, moreover, he had done more than anyone to change taste in Britain.

The years of what he would later call the "Great Clark Boom" were now about to begin. In 1925, he met Jane, a beauty who during her own time at Oxford had developed a reputation for originality thanks to the way she used curtain material and safety pins to construct her party dresses. They married in 1927, and went on to have three children: Alan, and the twins Colin and Colette. Jane, though, was always vastly more interested in her husband than in her offspring, and in due course her lavish entertaining and her style (she wore Schiaparelli, and held fashion shows to which both Queen Elizabeth, with whom her husband enjoyed a flirtation, and the young princesses were invited) made the young Clarks the most sought-after couple in London. Their social circle included Churchill, Chamberlain, Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell, HG Wells and William Walton, who later became Jane's lover. Meanwhile, Clark took up a job in Italy working for the critic Bernard Berenson, then the leading expert on Renaissance art, and began work on his first book, The Gothic Revival. In 1928, he was offered the job of cataloguing the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor, a remarkable coup for a 25-year-old, and in 1931, he was made the keeper of the department of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Two years later, aged just 31, he accepted the job of director of the National Gallery – though not without misgivings. As he wrote to his friend Edith Wharton, relinquishing "the vegetarianism of the vita contemplative" for a more "carnivorous diet" of decision-making felt all wrong. Scholarship was real work; by comparison, committees and meetings were a breeze.

It would be hard to understate Clark's effect both on the National Gallery and on the public's affection for it, and this is a central theme in the Tate's show. "Everything he did anticipates the way we talk about museums now," says Chris Stephens. "Until his arrival, the big galleries were largely private domains, where curators did what they wanted. Clark, though, believed that its primary function should not be scholarship or conservation, but to feed the public imagination. He introduces electric lighting, so it can stay open after dusk; he opens it at weekends, and on Cup Final day. It's an extraordinary transition. In 1933, when he's appointed, the National Gallery feels irrelevant to most people. By 1943, it's a centre for national culture."

The real turning point, however, came with the war. Clark was determined that the gallery should remain open even once the blitz began – particularly once the blitz began – and put together a rolling programme of concerts and temporary exhibitions, many of which were organised by the War Artists' Advisory Committee he'd established in 1939. Its collection had been sent to Wales for safekeeping, but after 1943, when the bombing eased, it was decided that the odd painting could be returned to London, and thus the "Picture of the Month" began.

"Clark tried to put art into battle the same way that Churchill used the English language," says James Stourton, who is writing his authorised biography. "He believed you had to ask: what are we fighting for? What are our values? The art could be used [to boost] morale, to tell the story of the Britain we were trying to preserve. He made the National Gallery almost the emotional centre of resistance to Hitler, and for the first time in its history, it became popular. The Picture of the Month was talismanic."

Clark made some magnificent acquisitions for the National Gallery: works by Constable, Rembrandt, Ingres, Poussin. But after 1938, curating mattered to him less than this connection with the public, and he was committed to ensuring that the state continued to play an important role in the arts. When he resigned from the National Gallery, his next but one job was as chairman of the Arts Council.

How on earth did this stiff, patrician man move into television? In fact, Clark had always liked the idea of television; he believed that once the technology had improved, it would be a fine way of disseminating ideas. In 1954, he was one of the founders of the Independent Television Authority, serving as its chairman until 1957 (though this didn't go down well with some of his peers, who booed him at his club). It was Lew Grade at ATV (the London franchise) who spotted his potential as a presenter, and he went on to make some 50 documentaries for the company. Still, this did not make him a natural choice to present Civilisation when his contract with ITV ran out. David Attenborough, then running BBC2, suggested the idea to him in the summer of 1966 – the plan was to outline the history of western art, architecture and philosophy from the dark ages on – but when he met the series' director, Michael Gill, they took an instant dislike to each another. Gill didn't want more of Clark's pompous televised lectures, and snooty Clark didn't want to be told what to do.
In the end, though, Gill won the day, persuading Clark that if he would only write a series of essays, he would realise his ideas, however complex, and turn them into films. Together, they travelled some 80,000 miles, visited 11 countries, shot on 130 locations, spent £130,000 (then a record) and used enough feet of film to make six feature-length films. The response was extraordinary. The series was, JB Priestley wrote, "itself a contribution to civilisation". But it wasn't only the critics who swooned. The public was thrilled by it too: among the hundreds of letters Clark received were several from would-be suicides who wrote that he had given them a reason for going on (they made him weep).

Even now, says James Stourton, thousands of DVDs of the series are still sold every year: "It has never died. It's like being on a magic carpet. It's an amazing grand tour. Today, the presentation gets in the way a bit. He's wearing funny clothes, and has a funny voice. You have to get beyond the Burberry coats and the manner and listen to the words." Clark was by now beginning to fall out of sympathy with the art world; painting, he thought, had not been in such a bad state since the death of Giotto. But, no matter. Amazingly, it was for these films that he would be remembered, his passion for art and all its possibilities somehow having transmitted itself to a rapt nation. The clipped vowels and the awkward body language didn't bother the public (even in 1969 he would have sounded stiff, for this, after all, was the year Monty Python made their TV debut) because, as Stourton puts it, "he owned his material". At the Tate show, visitors will be able to see this ownership for themselves thanks to several carefully positioned screens – and some will doubtless ponder if any presenter now, relying as he or she inevitably will on a team of researchers, will ever be able to match its undoubted authority.

Civilisation's final pessimistic scene – Clark worries to camera about the future, and quotes gloomily from Yeats – was filmed in the library at Saltwood, and it's to this building that Stephens and I head before we return to London. It's cold, and the place smells of old paper and woodsmoke. Clark worked in a small room – a kind of cell – up a stone staircase just off it, and his desk has an expectant air, as if it were still awaiting his return (though, in fact, he wrote on his knee, like a boy writing a secret diary).

Snooping around in search of clues to the character of a man whom even Chris Stephens continues to find elusive – "I still have no sense at all of whether or not I would have liked him" – we find a letter from the Queen in which she thanks the Clarks for their wedding present, a flashy memento that seems at odds with the rows of leather-bound books. For a moment, I wonder if it was on display in his day, or whether its careful placing is the work of later hands. I can't match it with the man who, Jane insists, banned even the Saltwood archers from practising beneath his window lest they disturb his work. But then, how did that man tolerate the longueurs and compromises involved in television? Why was he so keen to emerge from behind these walls and talk to the world about art?

No one seems to know the answers to these questions. Clark was sealed off, a mystery, even to himself. "I have no aptitude for self-analysis," he writes in his memoirs. "When I try to examine my character, I soon give up in despair." Perhaps it was simply that it was better to look out than within, to see the barbarians at the gate not as the enemy, but as a helpful, even soothing distraction.

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