Childhood & Early Life
Born on July 13, 1903, in London, England, Kenneth Mackenzie Clark was the only child of the wealthy English couple Kenneth MacKenzie Clark and Margaret Alice McArthur. Despite being raised in an opulent environment, Clark spent most of his childhood and adolescence in solitude. He used his isolation to develop his passion for the arts.
He excelled in the art of painting at an early age and won several prizes while in school. An exhibition of Japanese art that he attended at the age of 7 was his first exposure to art.
He attended the 'Wixenford School,' where he read John Ruskin voraciously. Ruskin eventually became Clark's source of inspiration. Clark then attended 'Winchester College.'
Clark won a scholarship to ‘Trinity College’ of the ‘University of Oxford,' where he studied modern history. He graduated with a second-class honors degree from the institute in 1925. While at 'Oxford,' influenced by art critic Roger Fry, he thoroughly studied French art.
Around the same time, Clark met Charles F. Bell, keeper of the 'Fine Art Department' of the 'Ashmolean Museum.' Under Bell's mentorship, and following his suggestion, Clark chose the Gothic revival in architecture as the subject of his BLitt thesis.
In 1925, Bell introduced Clark to art historian Bernard Berenson, a renowned art critic of the time, who had gained prominence for his works on the Italian Renaissance. He eventually worked for Berenson in Italy and assisted him in the revision of his book ‘Drawings of the Florentine Painters.’
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While working for Berenson, Clark was tasked with cataloguing the vast collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings at 'Windsor Castle.' The idea interested him, as Vinci's works had not been explored thoroughly till then.
Clark's first published book was 'The Gothic Revival,' released in 1928. He succeeded Bell after he retired from the 'Ashmolean Museum' at 'Oxford University.' In his new position, Clark passionately worked to transform and extend his department.
With the retirement of the director of London's 'National Gallery,' Sir Augustus Daniel, Clark’s name was recommended for the position by the chairman of the trustees, Lord Lee. The recommendation was also a result ofthe absence of Sir Augustus’s assistant director and successor, W. G. Constable. Clark was initially apprehensive about accepting the offer, as he thought he was too young and inexperienced to be at such a prestigious position.
He, however, accepted the offer and became the youngest director of the gallery. He was also offered the position of a surveyor of the king's pictures, but he declined.
As the director of the gallery, Clark worked extensively to expand the existing grand collection of European paintings. He did a lot of work for the restoration of the paintings. In 1935, Clark installed a laboratory in the gallery. He also introduced electric lighting, which, for the first time in the history of the gallery, led to the opening of evening shows.
That year, his catalogue of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci at 'Windsor Castle' was published. It is still regarded as one of Clark's most scholarly masterpieces. It earned him prominence as a significant exhibitor of Italian art in London. Subsequently, invitations for lectures started pouring in. Despite such popularity, Clark was not content with his catalogue.
In 1935, he published his next essay, 'The Future of Painting.' Published in 'The Listener,' the article criticized the surrealists and abstract artists for claiming to represent the future of art.
From the following year, Clark began appearing on several radio talk-shows, speaking about various events, such as an exhibition of Chinese art at 'Burlington House.' That decade, he also made his TV debut, showcasing Florentine paintings from the 'National Gallery.'
His monograph on Leonardo da Vinci's drawings was published in 1939. At the onset of World War II, Clark transported the gallery paintings to caves in Wales to save them from bombing raids. However, Clark also organized luncheons and evening concerts for the public. He later started the 'National Opera' at 'Covent Garden.'
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The same year, he served as the director of the film division of the ministry and made regular appearances on the ‘BBC’ radio show 'The Brains Trust.'
However, Clark did not publish much. Some of his literary works published during the war included a slender volume about Constable's 'The Hay Wain' (1944), a short treatise on Leon Battista Alberti's 'On Painting' (1944), and notes on Florentine paintings that were featured in the 'Faber and Faber' art book series.
In 1945, while the paintings were moved back to the gallery, Clark resigned from its directorship to devote more time to his writings. From 1946 to 1950 (later 1961 to 1962), he served as the “Slade Professor of Fine Art” at 'Oxford.' He simultaneously began collecting and studying the works of contemporary artists, such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
Clark used his prominence in the ministry to gather government support to promote art on a large scale. He contributed to the 'Arts Council of Great Britain' and served as its chairman from 1953 to 1960.
He continued delivering guest lectures and simultaneously began writing on John Ruskin. Some of his literary works published during this period were 'Piero della Francesca' (1951), 'Moments of Vision' (1954), and 'The Nude' (1956).
Clark then made a sudden transition to TV, and in 1954, he became the first chairman of the 'Independent Television Authority' (ITA). He made a series of six programs for the organization’s newly launched network ‘ITV.’ Even though he had a successful 3-year stint with ‘ITV,’ he was not satisfied with the quality of the programs aired on the network. The chairman of 'Associated Television' (ATV), Lew Grade, gave him an offer to join his network. Clark hosted 'Is Art Necessary?' for ‘ATV’ in 1958.
After he quit ‘ITA’ in 1957, its rival, the ‘BBC,’ hired him for the show titled 'Civilisation,' a series he wrote and narrated for the newly launched network ‘BBC2.’ Aired in 1969, the show had Clark presenting the history of Western art, architecture, and philosophy since the Dark Ages. The show brought him international fame. However, some art historians criticized him for his shallow treatment of such a profound subject.
In 1960, Clark’s stint at the 'Arts Council' ended with a bitter experience. He thought that the council's ways of raising funds were damaging the reputation of the artists it supported. However, by then, he had emerged as one the finest hosts for art-history shows. The audience saw a firm and bold Clark host a program about Picasso.
In 1966, his TV fame soared with 'The Royal Palaces of Britain,' a joint venture of ‘ITV’ and the ‘BBC.’ Clark later presented five shows about Rembrandt for the ‘BBC.’ He presented the show 'Pioneers of Modern Painting' for ‘ATV’ in 1971. The show was directed by his son Colin.
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From 1967 to 1978, Clark served as the chancellor of the 'University of York' and simultaneously as a 'British Museum' trustee.
In the final decade of his life, Clark wrote 13 books, of which some were based on the research works he had conducted for lectures and TV series. He had also written two volumes of memoirs, titled 'Another Part of the Wood' (1974) and 'The Other Half' (1977).
Awards & Honors
His invaluable contribution to the upgradation of British and Italian art, led Clark to be felicitated with numerous awards and honors. He was granted the titles of the 'Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath' (1938), the 'Fellow of the British Academy' (1949), the 'Companion of Honour' (1959), the 'Life Peerage' (1969), the 'Companion of Literature' (1974), and the 'Order of Merit' (1976).
Additionally, he was also made the 'Commander of the Legion of Honour' (France) and the 'Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland.' He also received the 'Order of Merit' (Austria).
Clark was an honorary member of several esteemed organizations, such as the 'American Academy of Arts and Sciences,' the 'American Institute of Architects,' the 'Académie Française,' the 'Institut de France,' the 'Swedish Academy,' the 'Spanish Academy,' the 'Florentine Academy,' and the 'Conseil Artistique des Musées Nationaux of France.'
The universities of Cambridge, London, Glasgow, Oxford, Bath, Liverpool, Sheffield, Warwick, and York, in England, and the ‘Columbia’ and ‘Brown’ universities in the U.S. presented him with honorary degrees.
His contribution to Italian studies won him the 'Serena Medal of the British Academy' and the 'US National Gallery of Art Medal.'
Family, Personal Life & Death
Clark was married to his 'Oxford' fellow student Elizabeth "Jane" Winifred Martin from 1927 until she died in 1976. They had three children: son Alan and twins Colette (also known as Celly) and Colin.
Even though their marriage was a tumultuous one, the two were devoted to each other. Jane, who herself had a string of extra-marital affairs, interestingly, could not tolerate those of Clark's. Her severe mood swings and alcoholism led her to suffer a stroke and eventually destroyed the marriage. The couple’s relationship with their children, especially with Alan, was not too great.
Jane's death left Clark devastated. However, several of his female friends were hopeful that he would marry them. Clark chose Nolwen de Janzé-Rice as his second wife, much to everyone’s (especially, his children's) dismay. They got married in November 1977 and remained together until his death.
Clark suffered from arteriosclerosis. He died on May 21, 1983, in a nursing home in Hythe, Kent, after a short illness resulting from a fall.