Kenneth Clark

(1903—1983) art patron and historian

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(b London, 13 July 1903; d Hythe, Kent, 21 May 1983).

British art historian, administrator, patron, and collector, born into a wealthy family whose fortune had been made in thread-manufacturing: ‘My parents belonged to a section of society known as “the idle rich”, and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.’ After working as assistant to Berenson in Florence, he was keeper of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1931–3), then director of the National Gallery, London (1934–45), and at the same time Surveyor of the King's Pictures (1934–44). Clark also served on numerous boards and committees and was chairman of the Arts Council (1953–60) and of the Independent Television Authority (1954–7). He published more than twenty books, his forte being appreciation and interpretation rather than exact scholarship, although his monographs on Leonardo da Vinci (1939) and Piero della Francesca (1951), both of which have been issued in revised editions, still remain standard works. His other books include The Gothic Revival (1928), Landscape into Art (1949), and The Nude (1956). He regarded The Nude as ‘without question my best book, full of ideas and information, simplifying its complex subject without deformation, and in places eloquent’. A polished television performer as well as an elegant and stimulating writer, he did a great deal to popularize art history, most notably with his television series Civilisation (1969, also published then as a book), which was shown in over sixty countries. The part he played as a patron and collector (he inherited substantial wealth from his parents) is less well known, but was of considerable importance. He bought the work of Henry Moore, Pasmore, Piper, and Sutherland in the 1920s and 1930s when they were little known and helped to establish their reputations (he also made a regular allowance—in strict secrecy—to several artists), and during the Second World War he had a major influence as chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee (see Official War Art). His two volumes of autobiography—Another Part of the Wood (1974) and The Other Half (1977)—are highly entertaining, if not always accurate in detail, but some of the potboilers that appeared in his old age would have been better left unpublished.

Subjects: Art.

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