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From then on he was never entirely to have the support of the art history establishment. He was always politically left of centre, and the influence of Ruskin and Fry left him in sympathy with Morris’s famous cry: “What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?” The first evidence of his popularising instincts came in 1938 when he gained permission from the Trustees to open the National Gallery at 8 a.m. on FA Cup Final day, an action that, as Neil MacGregor has remarked, “did a great deal to put the gallery right at the heart of the nation’s affections”. This was more immediately noticeable when war broke out. He removed all the pictures to safety, but, unlike John Rothenstein at the Tate Gallery, did not close the National Gallery, but opened it to various uses, such as the daily lunchtime concerts given by Myra Hess and others, at which German music was frequently played. He also invited visitors to inform him as to which pictures they most missed. These would then be brought back one at a time to be “Picture of the Month”. He also did much to raise interest in contemporary art by holding exhibitions of recent pictures by war artists — among them Henry Moore’s Shelter drawings, which had a powerful appeal.

By the end of the war Clark had demonstrated that there was a much broader public receptive to art than had previously been assumed. He retired from the National Gallery in order to write and lecture. He held the post of Slade Lecturer at Oxford for not one but three years, and in the first of these used material that would eventually become the book Landscape into Art. Attendance at these lectures very quickly rose to 500, requiring a move from the Taylorian Institute to the Oxford Playhouse. But this was nothing compared with the audiences he was to reach through television.

After he accepted the chairmanship of ITA, Clark had been booed in the Athenaeum Club, Stourton tells us, quietly but unmistakeably. Clark certainly knew the dangers of television. He hoped for a degree of “vital vulgarity” from ITA but was appalled by the “avalanche of vulgarity” it produced, and must have made his opinions clear as after three years his contract was not renewed. Yet before he left an idea had been mooted that he should do for television an arts programme on great artists. Eventually David Attenborough, in his then role as Controller of BBC Two, took hold of this idea, and it grew to be 13 programmes on Western European art and architecture. The choice of director was Michael Gill, who insisted Clark could not do these programmes in the studio but needed to be on location. Initially there seemed to be scant meeting of minds, and Clark, made to feel square and stuffy, suggested John Berger might be better suited to the job. Humphrey Burton, then the BBC’s head of music and arts, likened the situation to the mating of pandas.

Civilisation brought Clark 11 honorary degrees and raised him to the House of Lords. It not only established a new genre of “authored” series, still popular today, but it also raised the profile of the BBC as the greatest maker of documentaries in the world. Meanwhile Clark, after making a public speech to promote the series in Washington DC’s National Gallery, where he had been rapturously received by a roaring crowd, afterwards disappeared to the gents and wept uncontrollably for a quarter of an hour. Adulation made him feel humiliated and a fraud. The curious thing is that having so brilliantly distilled his passions, interests and knowledge into a form that could be widely understood, he was unable to accept public approval. He afterwards wrote in his memoirs: “My whole life has been a harmless confidence trick.” If this is more than the English habit of self-deprecation, then, as James Stourton remarks in this finely nuanced biography, the confidence of youth had indeed been followed by the doubt of age.

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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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