Magazine article The Spectator

Civilising Influence

Magazine article The Spectator

Civilising Influence

Article excerpt

Although it was first broadcast 34 years ago, those who watched Kenneth Clark's series on the history of Western European culture, Civilisation on BBC2, still remember it as one of the great successes of a medium that some still regarded with disdain. The series brought high art to mass audiences without patronising them and, I suspect, encouraged the growth of art history as a serious subject to be studied.

On Radio Four this week, Miranda Carter looked at his life and work in Lord Clark - Servant of Civilisation (Thursday), pointing out that Private Eye's description of him as Lord Clark of Civilisation 'was a pointed reference to his poshness . . . 'This is true but, hearing his delivery again in this programme, the sincerity, intellect and passion with which he conveys his personal view of civilisation, makes the accent irrelevant. Posh voices are unfashionable in broadcasting; so too is Clark himself among art historians, as Carter pointed out. And yet he was a serious scholar, writer and lecturer.

Carter, author of Anthony Blunt: His Lives, believes Clark's writings should be reappraised as, between 1930 and the 1970s, he was one of the most influential men in the British art world. Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery and now director of the British Museum, said, 'There's the carefully cultivated image of the patrician, the exquisitely cut suit on a Tuscan hillside, the assumption that this is part of an effortless superiority and breeding. And then, at the other end, there is, I think, without question, the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century.'

Clark came from a family of very rich Scottish thread manufacturers. His father, an idle drunk apparently, once gave him a golf course with a hotel attached, and of course he ended up at Saltwood Castle in Kent, later inherited by his elder son, the Tory MP Alan. Clark, though, was energetic and sometimes aloof. His biographer Fratn Dinshaw puts this down to a lonely childhood which made him shy, 'a great lecturer but a poor person to talk to after the lecture'. Years later Clark said in an interview that when he was presenting Civilisation and other programmes he never thought of the audience at all. The programmes were soliloquies. I was simply talking to myself. I was an only child and I used to take very long walks and on those walks I used to talk to myself.'

Curiously, it was Lew Grade, the showbusiness mogul, who persuaded him to bring high art to the television (Grade also brought A. …

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