Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)
Kenneth Clark was the grandest of grandees in the art world. He was rich and Olympian but also a first-class communicator. During the war and after his presence was everywhere on committees serving the arts. As with his hero John Ruskin there was always a social and moral dimension to his belief in the importance of bringing art to the widest audience. Nobody of his generation did more to open our eyes to art, through books, lectures and above all television. His landmark series Civilisation was his greatest triumph – the last great synthesis of art, music, literature and thought – and the most influential art book and series of its time.
Clark once asked himself, why do men collect? He decided that it was like asking why we fall in love, the reasons were as various. He reduced collectors to two essential types, those who are bewitched by bright objects, and those who want to put them in a series. As a collector he was in the first category and began early with those objects of bright curiosity so beloved at the end of the 19th century, Japanese prints. His first major purchase was a Modigliani Peasant Boy, at the age of 16, but he lost his nerve and returned it to the dealer. Today the picture is in the Tate Gallery. The family money derived from a textile business in Paisley. It gave him a considerable measure of independence and the ability to buy virtually anything he wanted. He was never a collector in any systematic sense: he was too busy and his interests were too wide, although by the time he came to write his autobiography, at the age of 70, he had lost the urge to collect and therefore wondered if the impulse was not physical. The works of art that gave him most pleasure by then were those he had bought while setting up house in Florence and London after his marriage, fine 16th- and 17th-century Italian furniture, Italian drawings, and his watercolour by Samuel Palmer.
Shortly after he died in 1983, Sotheby’s held a sale of a part of his collection, and with Japanese, Chinese and African elements it was suitably eclectic. It was strong on medieval works of art and illuminated pages as well as Renaissance medals and maiolica. What separates it from all the other Art Historian collections was his passionate concern about the artists of his generation, and the sale contained works by the many artists who became his close friends: Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, Mary Potter, Sydney Nolan, John Piper and above all Henry Moore. He bought from Moore’s first exhibition in 1928 and was an early supporter of all these artists and set up a special trust fund to support them. When he became director of the National Gallery in 1934 at the age of thirty-one, it was considered odd that the director should champion living artists, but in the end one must admit that Clark’s collection represented a largely neo-romantic view of British Contemporary art.
After Moore and Sutherland (whom he saw as the continuation of the tradition of Samuel Palmer), Kenneth Clark thought Victor Pasmore the most talented English painter of his generation. Clark had bought one of his paintings and shortly afterwards was trying an unsuitable silvery frame around a Turner in the National Gallery when “a young man with bright black eyes came up to me and said: Hey, what’s going on here? I don’t know who you are, but whoever you are you’ve no taste” – Clark agreed, and thus began a friendship through which Clark bought over twenty of his works, many of which he gave to public galleries. He was fond of making a distinction between gallery and private paintings for domestic pleasure. The big Matisse L’Atelier that he bought from the Gargoyle Club, and a large portrait by Tintoretto were two examples of pictures that he acquired privately but felt belonged to the former category where they eventually went. One masterpiece he held on to was also one of the few paintings he took with him to his last home, Turner’s Seascape: Folkestone that he bought from Agnew’s in 1951. It was one of those late Turners he had done so much to make the public understand and it made the highest price in his sale, nearly £7 million.
Before the war, Clark bought several Cézanne paintings from Vollard and in 1929 he went to see Paul Guillaume in Paris as a packet of 50 Cézanne watercolours had just come in. He bought the lot for £6 each. He had a particular fondness for Seurat and owned two oils including The Rock. His buying was not confined to masterpieces however and he bought the enchanting early 17th-century provincial group portrait of The Saltonstall Family,attributed to Des Granges, for £50. It is now in the Tate Gallery and tells us more about the period than most Van Dycks. Although the more spectacular items were post-impressionist, the Clark collection resembled an updated version of those fin de siècle assemblages of Fairfax Murray or Ricketts and Shannon which covered drawings, Japanese prints and bronzes. When Alan Clark went to visit Berenson’s collection at I Tatti with its mixture of Italian and Chinese paintings he exclaimed “Now I understand Papa!”
He would even illustrate his books and lectures with paintings from his collection. A case in point is the Degas Woman bathing which he used in his book on The Nude to make the point that – with qualification – the artist was the greatest draughtsman since the Renaissance. In the same book there is his Renoir Baigneuse blonde (who was in fact the artist’s wife) that Clark breathtakingly compares to Raphael’s Galatea and Titian’s Venus Anadyomene in “giving us the illusion that we are looking through some magic glass at one of the lost masterpieces extolled by Pliny”. Was this promoting his own collection? Almost certainly not, as Clark was too rich to care. The collection had many homes but the most magnificent was Saltwood Castle in Kent, a dramatic medieval moated setting which he left to his diarist politician son, Alan Clark.
Extract from James Stourton’s Great Collectors of our Time: Art Collecting since 1947, 2007