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Both agreed that Clark was “marvellously cultivated”, and Clark felt so at home at I Tatti, amid the beauty of the house and its contents and its cosmopolitan visitors, that he felt he had finally become part of a community. Later difficulties with Berenson never dimmed Clark’s sense of his debt to the older man, and the way that the master’s conversation at mealtimes and on walks had vastly broadened his education. But Stourton astutely throws in Cyril Connolly’s observation of Berenson: “He talks the whole time and drowns everybody else, and though he has enormous and universal knowledge and is excessively stimulating, half his remarks are preposterously conceited and the other half entirely insincere.” It was Mary Berenson who arrived at the conclusion that her husband needed devotion and Clark’s self-centredness made him an imperfect acolyte.

Certainly, there were throughout his life noticeable lapses in expected behaviour. For all his cultivation of mind and discernment of achievement in others, he never attended memorial services, except when he was commanded to do so as a representative of the Queen, as in the case of Benjamin Britten and Graham Sutherland. In 1938, a cry for a renewal of confidences from Berenson, brought the reply from Clark that he “came from an undemonstrative family and my feelings are as stiff as an unused limb”. When he married Jane Martin, he wanted to do so in a register office, but the bride’s mother objected: the ceremony, which lasted 14 minutes, took place in St Peter’s, Eaton Square, and the very few guests were mostly Clark family servants. All dispersed after the service, leaving Kenneth and his new wife to have lunch with her parents in a gloomy hotel. “No organ, no champagne and only half-a-dozen handshakes: I call that a success,” he afterwards wrote, as if he had escaped some form of contamination.

But what was he was protecting? A harsh view might point to his dread of boredom. Stourton notes that Clark never wasted a minute more than was needed with people, subjects and institutions. But alongside this ran his unfailing commitment to public service. In addition to the National Gallery, he served as Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean and Surveyor of the Royal Collection; he also conceived and chaired during the Second World War the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and was in charge of the Film Division, both of which came under the Ministry of Information. He helped set up and later chaired the Arts Council of Great Britain, and before that had helped found its predecessor, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. He continued to sit on numerous committees, in this way working for, among others, the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the British Museum, also taking on, in 1954, the Chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority. If we keep in mind the extra load added by his lecturing, writing and travelling, the less harsh conclusion is that his perfunctoriness was inevitable: there simply was little time to waste.

Stourton’s life is revealing of Clark’s ambivalent attitude to scholarship. “I had a taste of pure scholarship last night, when I attended a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, and it will do me for years. I would rather go to church.” After a mass of disputes around the 1930 Italian exhibition at the Royal Academy, which Clark had helped to create, he was relieved to be offered the National Gallery, partly because, as he wrote, it “gets me out of the Burlington world”, by which he meant the Burlington Magazine, Burlington House and the Burlington Fine Arts Club.

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Don Phillipson
November 7th, 2016
1:11 PM
The reader may indeed be "startled by insights" concerning the personality of this important individual, but reviewer Spalding nowhere mentions the single most important fact, that he was an only child and, before school at least, probably acquired the habits of loneliness. The review does not say whether biographer Stourton mentions this fact, let alone explores it as a shaping force of his adult personality.

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