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Kenneth Clark: the grand panjandrum of British art

The BBC's Director General Lord Hall recently announced that part of the corporation's new strategy will be a renewed commitment to the arts. To demonstrate his point he revealed that Kenneth Clark's 1969 television series Civilisation was to be remade. There has been no word as to who will take the role of Clark, although the British Museum's Neil MacGregor, the pre-eminent patrician populariser of our day, seems to be the favourite. Whoever fronts the series though will have to pay obeisance to aspects of civilisation that — autres temps, autres mœurs — didn't detain Clark. No chance these days of getting away with a survey of simply Western civilisation as made almost exclusively by white men.

But then Clark is indeed a figure from autres temps. He inherited huge wealth from his family's Scottish textile business; his father was supposedly "the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo". His art historical qualifications were minimal but in 1931, aged 28, he became Keeper of the Department of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, Oxford,  and, three years later, Director of the National Gallery and Surveyor of the King's Pictures. Clark, the grand panjandrum of British art, is the subject of a celebratory exhibition at Tate Britain, which looks at his various incarnations — gallery director, collector, promoter of artists, and art writer among them.

His interest in art had been sparked when, for his 12th birthday, he was given a selection of Japanese prints, including several by Hokusai. His wealth meant that when he found an artist he liked he could simply buy their work. In 1933, for example, he snapped up 120 drawings by Cézanne, airily commenting that they cost "much less than a modest motor car". His private collection reads like a museum catalogue. He owned, among other things, six Cézanne oils, two Seurats, landscapes by Pissarro and Sisley, a pastel of a nude, various drawings and bronzes by Degas, and two Renoirs. Going back in time he also had a Giovanni Bellini Mother and Child (and also one by Rosso Fiorentino) as well as works by Rubens, Murillo, Delacroix and Géricault. Going forward he collected paintings and drawings by Matisse, Picasso and Juan Gris. And then there was the furniture, the sculptures, the objets d'art and the assorted Japonaiserie.

He also used his money to help artists directly. He was an advocate of the Euston Road School and as well as introducing William Coldstream, Graham Bell, Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore to other collectors and helping ensure their pictures made it into public collections, he paid them a modest amount to enable them to work. Among contemporary artists his real affinity was with the likes of Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, David Jones and John Piper whose work had at its heart a relationship with landscape: he bought their work early and consistently. By establishing the War Artists' Advisory Committee, which kept most of the selected artists safely out of the Armed Forces, it is quite possible that he saved some of their lives too.

Clark was influential in other ways too. He had a personal distaste for abstract art and used his clout to hamper its process. As he wrote: "Abstract art, in anything like a pure form, has the fatal defect of purity. Without a pinch of earth the artist soon contracts spiritual beri-beri and dies of exhaustion. The whole Cubist movement has revealed the poverty of human invention when forced to spin a web from its own guts." He believed instead that traditional iconography could be reworked by contemporary artists and that their art should have half an eye on the past. He was in part responsible for the continuing strain of pastoral in British art, a strain particular to both artists and a British public largely indifferent to the visual arts.

Although Clark apparently had little in common with that public, he nevertheless thought that "life is more agreeable when the objects which surround us have been made with love and made to please." The objects at his disposal might have been of a different order to those available to most but the sentiment was nevertheless sincerely shared.

Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was a collector of the previous generation and a more private man than Clark. In 1944 he gave his collection of 9,000 objects —from paintings and tapestries to furniture and architectural fragments —to the City of Glasgow. The bequest stated that objects from the collection could not be loaned but a new parliamentary Bill means this has now been overruled. In preparation for this, and for the refurbishment of its home at Pollock Country Park in 2016, the Burrell is staging a taster show of 40 of the best paintings from the collection. As well as its title artists, "Bellini to Boudin" also includes works by Rembrandt, Whistler and Cézanne.

Compared with Clark, Burrell's altruistic impulses were more measured. Burrell's money came from shipping and his collection, which concentrated on Chinese art, European Gothic, and the French 19th century, was intended to stay within the family. The Burrells had one child, a daughter, Marion, with whom they had a fractious relationship, largely due to her rickety romantic history, which included three broken engagements. Her father's tight control of her finances contributed to her bolt for freedom during which she worked her passage to Australia as a stewardess. On her return to Scotland she couldn't bear to be in the same city as her parents and lived in a flat in Edinburgh instead. The estrangement between parents and daughter was total: as a result Marion missed out on the T'ang porcelain, Mughal carpets and Degas drawings. Glasgow got them instead.
 
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