Rupert Christiansen

A monumental achievement

Like virtually everyone middle-aged and middle-class in this country, I am a beneficiary of the cult of Civilisation — Kenneth Clark’s ‘personal view’, stretching in 13 episodes from the Vikings to Van Gogh, which was broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 and on BBC1 two years later, as well as appearing as a sumptuously illustrated, best-selling book.

Like virtually everyone middle-aged and middle-class in this country, I am a beneficiary of the cult of Civilisation — Kenneth Clark’s ‘personal view’, stretching in 13 episodes from the Vikings to Van Gogh, which was broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 and on BBC1 two years later, as well as appearing as a sumptuously illustrated, best-selling book.

Like virtually everyone middle-aged and middle-class in this country, I am a beneficiary of the cult of Civilisation — Kenneth Clark’s ‘personal view’, stretching in 13 episodes from the Vikings to Van Gogh, which was broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 and on BBC1 two years later, as well as appearing as a sumptuously illustrated, best-selling book.

What was the source of the programme’s magic? Clark’s cool but kindly, faintly weary tone of patrician sweet reasonableness, his lightly worn but deeply experienced fund of knowledge, his ability to compare and contrast across a wide spectrum. As a little swot of a teenager, this was the sort of pedagogue at whose feet I longed to sit, imbibing the sort of broad, urbane culture that I aspired to. And Clark wasn’t a pretentious name-dropper: he didn’t just march briskly through a gallery of the obvious great names. Civilisation believed profoundly in the transforming powers of outstanding individuals, but it was what it told us about the medieval majesty of Vézelay and Chartres, the Renaissance humanism of Urbino, the rococo grace of Wies and Vierzehnheiligen, or the architectural poetry of iron bridges that was most illuminating. Everything had context, everything connected. He saw both the wood and the trees.

Jonathan Conlin’s succinct and elegant monograph describes the phenomenon in both width and depth (though oddly, he doesn’t delve into the publishing history of the book, which sold in its millions, both here and in the US, and which after 40 years still ranks in Amazon’s top 100,000).

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