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  • Identity PoliticsThe Year in the UK
  • Tom Overton (bio)

In Kenneth Clark: Life, Civilisation and Art, James Stourton does not follow the lead of a subject who pursued autobiography both for its own sake and with ulterior motives: his authorial "I" is kept to a minimum, or tucked into footnotes or the latter stages of the book. Stourton does, however, frequently respond in kind to his subject's sheer writerliness and what he perceives as Clark's desire to amuse through a mastery of the anecdote (Stourton 378). In the first case, there are passages such as, "He was never theatrical, but knew when to bring the audience into the freemasonry of the profession—for instance, drawing people's attention to the only area in Giorgione's Castelfranco Madonna that has never been repainted" (227). In the second, while we learn the solid historical facts of how much Clark shaped twentieth- century Britain through his roles at the Ashmolean Museum, the National Gallery, the Royal Opera House, the wartime Ministry of Information and War Artists' Advisory Committee, the beginnings of Independent Television, and art history through books such as The Nude (1956), we also learn that Clark was reduced to a sneezing fit of annoyance and incredulity at Andy Warhol's Factory; described London's lauded, listed Brutalist South Bank Centre as "a cheap radio set"; and managed to save the historic architecture of Pisa when he discovered of the plans to bomb it while lunching.

Yet toward the end of his life, Clark was planning "a quasi-autobiographical account of my responses to works of art" to be called Aesthete's Progress (397), and Stourton describes the memoirs he did complete, Another Part of the Wood and The Other Half, as "adopt[ing] a detached, almost ironic tone in dealing with his life, which reminded some of the opening of David Copperfield, and others of Lytton Strachey" (377). Clark himself described the books as "a gallery of portraits" from which "the reader must deduce my character from the portraits of those who influenced me" (qtd. in Stourton 377). [End Page 672]

As Stourton asserts, Clark's primary influence was John Ruskin; his debt to him

can never be sufficiently emphasized, and it informed many of his interests: the Gothic Revival, J. M. W. Turner, socialism, and the belief that art criticism can be a branch of literature. But above all, Ruskin taught Clark that art and beauty are everyone's birthright—and he took that message into the twentieth century. This is the central point of Kenneth Clark's achievement.


Clark produced the anthology Ruskin Today (1964) to bring Ruskin to a new generation; he told his daughter Colette, "you don't have to read Ruskin now, I have done it for you" (Stourton 267), and, in a footnote, Stourton recounts being told by Professor Christopher Brown, a more recent director of the Ashmolean Museum, that the book had made him want to become an art historian (439).

Stourton suggests there was a personal and not simply theoretical sense of identification when Clark wrote, in his 1948 introduction to Ruskin's autobiography Praeterita,

It is no accident that the three or four Englishmen whose appreciation of art has been strong enough to penetrate the normal callosity of their countrymen—Hazlitt, Ruskin, Roger Fry—have all come from philistine, puritanical homes. To be brought up in an atmosphere of good taste is to have the hunger for art satisfied at too early an age, and to think of it as a pleasant amenity rather than an urgent need.


Perhaps surprisingly, there is a similar formulation in Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, the memoir Stuart Hall (1932–2014) constructed as a series of conversations with his friend—and now editor—Bill Schwarz.1 The two islands in question are Jamaica, where Hall was born in 1932, and mainland Britain, at which Hall arrived in 1951 to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. Hall became a Marxist theorist and activist, and the book ends in the 1960s with its subject about to found the influential Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, where Bill Schwarz and many...