Martin Gayford

Why the BBC will never match Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation

No modern critic would dare to match his sweeping statements – indeed, few were up to it in his day

Why the BBC will never match Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation
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One afternoon in 1942, Kenneth Clark and his wife Jane called on two young painters for tea. The artists were John Craxton and Lucian Freud, then both around 20 and sharing a house in St John’s Wood. The visit was a success, as Craxton told me many years later, but not without its awkward moments. Jane Clark had to be headed off from helping in the kitchen, since the oven contained dead monkeys that were currently serving as models, placed there to restrict the smell.

After consuming a flan cooked by Lucian’s mother and viewing the artists’ work, the Clarks decided to return to what Craxton described as ‘the Olympian heights of Upper Terrace House, Hampstead’, where they lived. On leaving the artists’ bohemian dwelling Clark looked at ‘the very prosperous block of flats opposite’, gave a huge sigh, and said, ‘Strange lives!’ Craxton and Freud collapsed with laughter. ‘We couldn’t stand up.’

Kenneth Clark (1903–83) often gave the impression that he had descended from Olympus, which gave him a slightly comic air of patrician remoteness. Private Eye persisted in dubbing him ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’, and the name somehow seemed much more appropriate than the title he actually selected (‘Baron Clark of Saltwood in the County of Kent’). His series Civilisation — still after 45 years the most renowned of such cultural blockbusters — sometimes suggested he happened to own western European culture, and was kindly showing it to the viewers. He was perhaps the only living individual, even almost half a century ago, who could look entirely at ease alone in the Sistine Chapel. Next week an exhibition opens at Tate Britain devoted to exploring his activities as art historian — the youngest ever director of the National Gallery — patron of contemporary artists, author and broadcaster.

In Civilisation, Clark was fond of generalisations of a slightly jaw-dropping kind. ‘Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than 15 years.’ Chartres Cathedral was ‘one of the two most beautiful covered spaces in the world (the other is St Sophia in Constantinople)’. While watching the film, one accepted that Clark had indeed inspected all the roofed buildings on earth, and unerringly selected the two finest examples.

There was a feeling amongst his critics that his manner was ridiculously patrician. Yet Clark was more of an oddity than an aristocrat. It emerges in the final episode of Civilisation that he had less time for the early-20th-century upper classes to which he might have seemed to belong than he had for the Vikings. ‘One mustn’t overrate the culture of what used to be called “top people” before the wars,’ he observed. ‘They had charming manners, but they were as ignorant as swans.’ Clark was wealthy all right, but the money was new. His parents, he noted on the first page of his autobiography, ‘belonged to that section of society known as the “idle rich”’ — adding that though ‘in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler’. Clark’s grand-father was ‘a successful thread-manufacturer in Paisley’.

The two great influences on his mind and taste were John Ruskin and Bernard Berenson; both eccentric figures marked by extreme belief in their own judgments, about art and everything else. Civilisation, as Clark explained early in the first programme, was based on Ruskin’s dictum: ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.’ Clark went on to say he believed this to be true. ‘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.’ (One wonders what Ruskin, or Clark, would think the buildings currently rising in London say about us.)

Ruskin was of course long dead when Clark encountered his thought; but Berenson he knew well. On first meeting him, Clark noted, ‘His appearance, and what little I understood of his conversation, exuded arrogance of a kind that most Anglo-Saxons try to conceal.’ Berenson, however, must have registered a kinship, because he ended the encounter by announcing, ‘I’m very impulsive, my dear boy, and I have only known you a few minutes, but I would like you to come and work with me.’ Clark was ‘stunned’, but accepted.

His own arrogance was tempered by an English — or perhaps Scottish — impishness which Craxton thought characteristic (‘Very naughty! Typical K. Clark!’) The whole notion of Civilisation is fraught with contradictions, as Clark himself was doubtless aware. He accepted the commission impulsively over lunch with David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, although he had ‘no clear idea’ what civilisation meant: ‘I thought it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that now was the moment to say so.’ In comparison, a straightforward history of European art would inevitably have been a dull affair.

The programmes are in fact made interesting by their contradictions, rather as Europe in the Middle Ages in Clark’s view was prevented by internal ‘tugging and tension’ from ‘growing rigid, as so many civilisations have done’. Thus Spain, for example, is left out — despite Goya and Velázquez — because when ‘one asks what Spain has done to enlarge the human mind and pull mankind a few steps up the hill’, the answer is not clear.

But it was Clark’s willingness to make generalisations which ‘in order not to be boring, must be slightly risky’ — ‘slightly’ being an understatement — that makes the whole series live: that and Clark’s willingness, despite his manner, to level with the viewer, talking ‘how we talk about things sitting round the room after dinner’. Even 45 years ago, there were not many people reckless and confident enough to stand up and declare what civilisation was, let alone in 21st-century Britain. The BBC’s avowed intention of remaking the series consequently seems doomed in advance.