Civilising The English Yahoos

Three decades of erudite correspondence between two of the greatest art historians of the 20th century

Laura Freeman

Kenneth Clark left Oxford with an upper-second in history, the beginnings of a book on the Gothic Revival and as discerning an eye as any Burlington House connoisseur. He had, however, one major failing: he could not drive.

Planning a trip to Tuscany, he wrote to his hosts: “I do not want to encumber your garage with an extra car; still less with a chauffeur . . . It sounds preposterous that anyone of my age should have a chauffeur at all, but he will be able to be valet to me when I am on my own; and I am afraid I cannot drive far without one, as I am a fool with the inwards of cars and when they break I am lost.”

His hosts, the art historian Bernard Berenson, then aged 60, and his wife Mary were understanding and both Clark and chauffeur were installed for the summer at I Tatti, Berenson’s villa near Fiesole.

Clark was to be guest, researcher, secretary and general gopher — unpaid — on Berenson’s opus-in-progress: a new edition of The Drawings of the Florentine Painters.

Their friendship, forged in the summer after Clark left Oxford, lasted 34 years, until Berenson’s death in 1959 aged 94. Their correspondence, often waspish, always erudite, has now been collected and edited by Robert Cumming in a handsome volume for Yale University Press.

Clark’s first trip to I Tatti, an estate over which Berenson presided as if it were a Medici humanist court, was a success from the off. “Walking in the hills, shuffling Bellinis in the library or simply browsing among the books were all a great joy to me,” wrote Clark on his return to England, “and above all to be with people who understood and frequently shared my enthusiasms was a new and enchanting experience. It is very pleasant to share an enthusiasm but here they are mainly indulged in secretly, like a bath, for fear, I suppose of a gust of ridicule.”

The relationship was originally one of master and acolyte, but over more than three decades of letters, Berenson’s patrician tone softens, while Clark’s becomes less deferential, more intimate.

This was partly the result of Clark’s astonishing rise. Aged 27, he was offered the directorship of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. “You certainly would be in clover to be in such a toy-shop for grown-ups,” wrote Berenson on hearing the news, “and free to play at any time . . . On the other hand the post will fix you down in the world of collectors, curators, dons. You will, altho’ remaining a plum, find yourself more and more embogged in a pudding. It is perhaps the finest pudding in the world, but pudding all the same.”

Clark was modest — or at least affected modesty — about his success. “I have just received a letter offering me the directorship of the National Gallery, which I have accepted,” Clark wrote to Berenson. He was 30 and  to this day remains by far the youngest director to be appointed to the gallery. “My appointment is a melancholy proof of the lack of serious interest taken in art history in England, and I do not regard it in any other light — except, perhaps, as a tribute to my conciliatory disposition. My chief duty will be to end a long period of quarrelling.”

As it turned out, his duties were rather more demanding. He steered the gallery through the war years, organising the evacuation of paintings to a slate quarry in Snowdonia (“Of course the simplest thing would be to pack up the pictures and send them to Berlin: it would save a lot of trouble in the long run,” he wrote wearily to Berenson) and a series of stormingly popular lunchtime concerts in the empty galleries.

Both Clark and Berenson are deliciously rude about anyone — artist, critic, curator — they deem not up to snuff. Picasso, according to Berenson, “acquired one thing in common with all directors of the Hollywood-radio-loudspeaker disposition, the imperative need of keeping his public guessing — what NEXT.”

And here is Berenson again, on a publication by the scholar Martin Davies, who had opposed Clark’s appointment as Director: “Have you seen the National Gallery catalogue of Italian paintings just appeared? It is an Augean stable of antiquarian rubbish.”

Clark was not a natural man of the people and he has an unfortunate tendency to refer to the public as “the masses”, or, worse, “the Yahoos”. Returning from a trip to India in 1956, he wrote to Berenson: “I feel thoroughly vexed at being back in the active life, and shocked by the ugliness of my countrymen . . . English faces all look like English cooking — meat and two veg.”

Clark, however, held in greater contempt those who had the opportunity to improve the tastes and broaden the minds of the Yahoos and wasted it. On a trip to America, he met the editor of a magazine with a circulation of 3.5 million who said: “My business is to know the tastes of the most imbecile of my readers, and I have to give them nothing which they have not thought of already.”

Clark suggested that “even the poor imbecile might occasionally like a change”, but the editor scoffed. “That would never do. If we once put in something that was first-rate, we might create a taste which we could not always satisfy or control.” Perhaps here we find the beginnings of the ambition that would underpin his great 1969 television series Civilisation — to communicate about the arts in a clear, engaging and spirited voice.

One just wishes Clark had expressed himself a little more delicately. “It is interesting,” he wrote to Berenson, “to try and put things simply, in a way even the lazy, ignorant public can understand.”

Nevertheless, each letter, postcard and telegram in this book is a joy. It would have a civilising effect on even the most reprobate of Yahoos.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"