Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain


Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Private collection

Kenneth Clark was an avid supporter of British art, in particular a champion of Moore and Sutherland. He was mostly known in the UK as a TV broadcaster, coming from a rich, cotton manufacturing family, who invented the cotton bobbin. I didn’t know anything about Clark so the facts I mentioned in my post are from a curator tour for Tate Patrons led by Chris Stephens, Curator (Modern British Art) and Head of Displays, Tate Britain.

Clark met Fry and the Bloomsbury group, as well as Berenson and became an expert on the Italian Renaissance, after which he was asked to work on a catalogue of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. He became later on Director of the National Gallery at age 30 and modernised the institution, including the introduction of a photography department.

Clark was both eccentric (wrongly attributing a Giorgione) and mondain (having his wife photographed by Man Ray). Aside from his personality, he was an eager art collector, mainly of Italian Renaissance but also works from the Barbizon school, impressionists, and post-impressionists like Seurat and Degas. Tate Britain didn’t show any “period room” though, showing the variety of Clark’s tastes.

Maybe his contribution to the arts in Britain was characterised by his view on the relationship between patron and artist. He blamed the lack of art on the lack of patronage, as patrons commissioned artworks. Artists became introverted and created art for each other, according to Clark. He complained that Surrealists were not speaking to the average man and therefore got involved in funding an art school: the Euston Road School, a British realist group painting traditional subjects in a realist manner to create an understandable and socially relevant art.

During the WWII, he encouraged artists to continue to make art and employed artists to record British life in watercolours. After the war, he wrote extensively and turned into the first art broadcaster on independent TV. What I took away from this mixed quality exhibition is that Kenneth Clark amassed fine collections of Sutherland and Moore drawings but more importantly, had the desire to make art accessible to all people. For the curious mind, ‘Kenneth Clark – Looking for Civilisation’ is at Tate Britain until 10 August.

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