Kenneth Mackenzie Clark Essay - Critical Essays

Clark, Kenneth Mackenzie


Kenneth Mackenzie Clark 1903-1983

(Full name Sir Kenneth Mackenzie Clark) English art historian, critic, and television host.

The following entry provides criticism on Clark's works from 1930 through 1993.

Clark was a famous art historian and critic who devoted his life to promoting and explaining the visual arts to the general public. In 1933 he was appointed director of the National Gallery in London. He later went on to write dozens of books, but is best known for his British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) television series Civilisation (1969), which was seen in 23 countries.

Biographical Information

Clark was born on July 13, 1903, in London, England, as the only child of Kenneth Mackenzie Clark and Margaret Alice MacArthur. Clark's mother cared little for the young boy, leaving him in the care of abusive servants. He adored his father, a wealthy industrial tycoon by inheritance who worked very little, drank very much, hunted, fished and built a new yacht every year. Clark did, however, find his parents to be idle and irresponsible, and he grew up determined to make more of his life. Clark became inspired to be a painter at the age of seven when he visited a small art gallery at a Japanese exhibition with his governess. Clark's father was supportive and encouraged Clark to follow his passion for art. While attending Winchester College, his drawings won contests and he won a history essay writing competition. In 1922, he entered Trinity College, Oxford on a scholarship and earned a degree in Modern History. It was at Oxford that Clark met Elizabeth Winifred (“Jane”) Martin, who would become his first wife. He also realized at Oxford that while he possessed a great appreciation for the arts, he did not have the talent to be an artist. In 1925, Clark took on a two-year apprenticeship with an art historian he greatly respected, Bernard Berenson, to assist with the revision of Berenson's book, Florentine Drawings, in Florence, Italy. By the age of 26, Clark completed his first book on the visual arts, The Gothic Revival (1928). Between 1931 and 1933, Clark served as the keeper of paintings at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In 1933, he became the director of the National Gallery in London and was responsible for finding a safe haven for the national collection of paintings during World War II. Each month he presented one of these paintings to the public to keep the arts alive during a time of despair. During the war, he also served on the Ministry of Information as controller of home publicity and director of the films division. Clark prepared the official catalogue of the Leonardo da Vinci drawings at Windsor Castle and wrote A Catalogue of the Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle (1935). He was also surveyor of the King's Pictures between 1934 and 1944. In 1946, he resigned from the National Gallery to write full time. He also went on to serve as Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford University in Oxford, England from 1946-50 and again from 1961-62 and as Chancellor of the University of York in York, England, from 1969-79. Clark served as Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and he was the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority. Clark received many awards and honors throughout his lifetime. To name a few, he was created Knight Commander of the Bath in 1938, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, made a Companion of Honor in 1959 and a life peer as Baron of Saltwood in 1969. He gained the Order of Merit in 1976. He was also named a commander of the French Legion of Honor and Knight of the Lion of Finland. Clark was surrounded by famous people, and in his autobiographies drops such names as Pablo Picasso, Edith Sitwell, Vivien Leigh, Winston Churchill, Henry Moore, Lloyd George, and Sir Thomas Beecham. He was a world traveler with an appreciation of all the arts. He was a serious collector of art, possessing famous paintings from artists such as Renoir and Cézanne. Clark's experience and expertise became most well known in 1969 when his television series Civilisation appeared on the BBC network. The program, which he hosted, covered art, music, philosophy, and literature throughout the ages and was rerun in 23 countries over the next several decades. In 1976, Clark's wife, Jane, died leaving Clark behind with their three children, Alan, Rolin and Colette. In 1977, Clark married Nolwen de Janze-Rice. Clark lived with Janze-Rice and continued to write in Saltwood, his castle in England. On May 21, 1983, Clark died after a brief illness in a nursing home in Hythe, England.

Major Works

Clark published his first book, The Gothic Revival, in 1928. The book was about the quality of Gothic architecture and its correlations to the age of industrialism. A few years after preparing the official catalogue of the Leonardo drawings at Windsor Castle, Clark wrote Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist (1939) which was very well received. In 1949, Clark published Landscape into Art, a publication of lectures he gave as Slade Professor at Oxford on the subject of landscape painting and how an artist's emotional and intellectual feelings can shape his images. This book was also well received by the critics. His next big book was Piero della Francesca (1951), which covered the life and work of the painter and mathematician. The book included over one hundred and fifty illustrations. The Nude (1956) included four hundred pages of text and three hundred illustrations and presented the nude in European sculpture and painting from Greek figure art to abstract modern art. Many critics considered the book to be enlightening. In 1966, Clark published Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. In 1969, Civilisation was televised and Clark presented the topic of European art history to the mainstream public in an entertaining format. While the television series was well received, the book by the same name, published in 1969, was praised by many critics, but did not seem to capture the same enthusiasm. In 1974, Clark published Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait, an autobiography of his life up until World War II. The book has been described as charmingly anecdotal and witty. Clark published the second part of his autobiography, The Other Half: A Self-Portrait, in 1977 which, like the first book, revealed a great deal about the art historian, his life experiences and relationships with famous artists, authors, politicians, and actors. It was also well received by critics. Also in 1977, Clark published Animals and Men: Their Relationship as Reflected in Western Art from Prehistory to the Present Day, which covered animal pictures from prehistoric times to almost present times. Part of the proceeds for the book went to the World Wildlife Fund. Some critics described the book as cynical and limited in scope. Clark continued to write and publish books until just before his death in 1983.

Critical Reception

While Clark is known as one of the best art historians of his time, some believed him to be an elitist and a hoax who claimed to be an expert on everything. The majority of this criticism came from the academic side. Clark responded by explaining that his goal was to popularize the arts and make them more understandable to the public. Indeed that is what he did as he wrote at least forty books and traveled around the world lecturing on art history. His books not only included text, but sometimes hundreds of illustrations to better educate the readers.

Principal Works

The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste (criticism) 1928

A Catalogue of the Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle. 3 vols. (criticism) 1935

Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist (criticism) 1939

Landscape into Art (criticism) 1949

Piero della Francesca (criticism) 1951

The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (criticism) 1956

Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (criticism) 1966

Civilisation (television program) 1969

Civilisation: A Personal View (criticism) 1969

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art (criticism) 1973

Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait (autobiography) 1974

Animals and Men: Their Relationship as Reflected in Western Art from Prehistory to the Present Day (criticism) 1977

The Other Half: A Self Portrait (autobiography) 1977

An Introduction to Rembrandt (criticism) 1978

What Is a Masterpiece? (criticism) 1979

Feminine Beauty (criticism) 1980

The Art of Humanism (criticism) 1981

Moments of Vision and Other Essays (essays) 1982


W. H. Godfrey (review date April 1930)

SOURCE: Godfrey, W. H. Review of The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste, by Kenneth Clark. History: The Quarterly Journal of The Historical Association 15, no. 57 (April 1930): 72-3.

[In the following review, Godfrey provides a comparison of three architectural history books, and The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste by Clark does not receive a favorable review.]

Histories of architecture are of two types. The one is written for the student who desires to learn how to distinguish styles and periods and to familiarise himself with the character of famous buildings. The other, which is history proper, is concerned with the light...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

Derek Hill (review date 4 November 1949)

SOURCE: Hill, Derek. “Whither Landscape Painting?” Spectator 183 (4 November 1949): 610-12.

[In the following review, Hill praises Clark's reflections and ideas, as well as his ability to describe landscape paintings with simple terms in Landscape into Art.]

A critical approach to any particular facet of painting that takes in solely the aesthetic considerations, whilst omitting the philosophical ideas that go to its formation, is not only difficult but at the same time worthless. The lectures given by the Slade Professor to Oxford University on landscape painting, that are now edited in book form, are as much concerned with the strata of thought that go to form...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Clive Bell (review date 26 November 1949)

SOURCE: Bell, Clive. Review of Landscape into Art, by Kenneth Clark. New Statesman and Nation 38 (26 November 1949): 616-18.

[In the following review, Bell proclaims Clark to be the best man to teach the English youth to care for the arts and praises his book, Landscape into Art.]

Skillfully manipulated as they have been, these lectures [Landscape into Art]—the first Sir Kenneth Clark has given as Slade Professor at Oxford—remain lectures; and according to Sir Kenneth “the publication of lectures is a well-known form of literary suicide.” All I can say is, the corpse is doing wonderfully well. A good lecture on painting is almost bound to be...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

Anne Fremantle (review date 16 June 1950)

SOURCE: Fremantle, Anne. Review of Landscape Paintings, by Kenneth Clark. Commonweal 52 (16 June 1950): 251-52.

[In the following review, Fremantle artfully chronicles Clark's Landscape Painting through the centuries.]

The beauty of God, Aquinas states, is the cause of the being of all that is. This is a theme Sir Kenneth Clark, long Director of the National Gallery in London, clearly illustrates and amplifies.

“Facts become art through love, which unifies them, and lifts them to a higher plane of reality, and, in landscape, this all-embracing love is expressed by light,” Sir Kenneth writes. His study of man's relation to nature,...

(The entire section is 745 words.)

Adrian Stokes (review date 30 March 1951)

SOURCE: Stokes, Adrian. “Piero: A Masterpiece.” Spectator 183 (30 March 1951): 420-22.

[In the following review, Stokes recounts several highlights throughout Clark's Piero della Francesca and characterizes the book as magnificent, meticulous, and vivid.]

The reader who loves Piero may well find that this magnificent, meticulous yet always vivid book [Piero della Francesca] serves as a kind of extension of Piero's own achievement; that Sir Kenneth has, so to say, used for an interpretative standard the very excellence of his subject. From these pages, allied with superb plates that have no rival, the permanence of our contact with Piero becomes...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Bernard Denvir (review date June 1951)

SOURCE: Denvir, Bernard. “Renaissance Modern: Piero Della Francesca.New Republic 124 (June 1951): 27-8.

[In the following review, Denvir presents background on Clark's life and career, and pronounces Clark's Piero Della Francesca to be the authority on the artist.]

Sir Kenneth Clark is an almost purely English phenomenon. A graduate of Oxford University, he studied for some time at Florence under Bernard Berenson. Coming back to England he became the Keeper of Paintings in Britain's oldest museum and art gallery, the Ashmolean Museum, at Oxford; then became Keeper of the King's Pictures, and, while still in his thirties, Director of London's...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Atlantic (review date November 1960)

SOURCE: Phoebe-Lou Adams? Review of Looking at Pictures, by Kenneth Clark. Atlantic 206, no. 5 (November 1960): 152.

[In the following review, the critic reviews Clark's Looking at Pictures, a book of sixteen essays, each of which studies a picture and its relation to the painter and the time period.]

Kenneth Clark's Looking at Pictures is quite another sort of book about art. It consists of a series of sixteen essays, each concerned with a specific painting. They were originally written for an English newspaper and have since been somewhat expanded and reinforced by numerous halftones and a handful of color plates.

Sir Kenneth's...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Christopher Salvesen (review date 25 January 1963)

SOURCE: Salvesen, Christopher. “Enduring Taste.” New Statesman 65 (25 January 1963): 126.

[In the following review, Salvesen declares the third edition of Clark's The Gothic Revival to be “concise” and “informative.”]

Sir Kenneth Clark's study [The Gothic Revival], first published in 1928, is worth its third edition, if only because it provides a concise and informative survey of a large and, it seems, increasingly popular subject—a subject which relates both to the visual sense and to a feeling for tradition, to an alertness about pinnacles and pointed arches and to the emotive overtones of gloomy, gas-lit decay which gather round churches...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Richard Beale (review date 15 October 1966)

SOURCE: Beale, Richard. Review of Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance, by Kenneth Clark. Library Journal 91 (15 October 1966): 4939.

[In the following review, Beale praises the text and presentation of Clark's Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance.]

This scholarly study [Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance] provides another valuable insight. Always clear and to the point, Sir Kenneth, former director of the National Gallery, London, and an authority on the Italian Renaissance, shows us that Rembrandt had access to Italian Renaissance sources that scholars in the field have tended to overlook. It would be hard to imagine a more felicitous combination...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Richard Luckett (review date 22 December 1973)

SOURCE: Luckett, Richard. “Richard Luckett on the Fate of Television Culture.” Spectator 231 (22 December 1973): 819-20.

[In the following review, Luckett offers a detailed account of Clark's The Romantic Rebellion and proclaims it to be more entertaining than informative.]

According to Lord Clark: “Television is the ideal medium with which to arouse people's interest in art.” The statement is disturbing, even from a former chairman of the Independent Television Authority. Television is no doubt an excellent medium for arousing interest in art, to the extent that it is also an excellent medium for selling baked beans or politicians: it reaches the...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)

Kay Dick (essay date 19 October 1974)

SOURCE: Dick, Kay. “The White Rabbit of the Arts.” Spectator 233 (19 October 1974): 500.

[In the following essay, Dick claims a distinct enjoyment in Kenneth Clark's autobiography, Another Part of the Wood: A Self Portrait, however, in the end she refuses to be seduced by his charm.]

I have nearly been seduced—by Kenneth. Which means that I have been reading with concentrated and fascinated interest Sir Kenneth Clark's first chapter of autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, to be continued in succeeding serials. I can now fully appreciate how this charmingly informed art-man seduced a whole nation with his television performances. Not enjoying the...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

Jan Morris (essay date 15 October 1977)

SOURCE: Morris, Jan. “Bestiary.” Spectator 238 (15 October 1977): 21-2.

[In the following essay, Morris declares that Clark's Animals and Men: Their Relationship as Reflected in Western Art from Prehistory to the Present Day is a lovely and insightful book, but questions some of Clark's viewpoints and argues that the book covers only a limited geographical area and time period.]

Of the dead, Lord Clark, and the World Wildlife Fund one speaks only good, and I must begin this review of the Master's bestiary, benefiting the Fund and containing animal portraiture by scores of artists, all dead but two—I must start by declaring it to be a lovely thing. It is...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 24 April 1978)

SOURCE: Review of The Other Half: A Self Portrait, by Kenneth Clark. Publishers Weekly 213 (24 April 1978): 75.

[In the following review, the critic declares the second volume of Clark's autobiographical series, The Other Half: A Self Portrait, to be delightful and captivating.]

This sequel [The Other Half: A Self Portrait] to the first volume of Clark's autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, begins with 36-year-old Clark evacuating the National Gallery's paintings under threat of Nazi air raids. It ends with Clark still a dynamo at 72. The 36-year interval makes for a delightful and captivating portrait of a full, varied life, rich in...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Robert Cahn (review date 1 May 1978)

SOURCE: Cahn, Robert. Review of An Introduction to Rembrandt, by Kenneth Clark. Library Journal 103 (1 May 1978): 963-64.

[In the following review, Cahn characterizes Clark's An Introduction to Rembrandt as “insightful” and “elegant.”]

Shunning both biographical romanticism and purely formal and iconographical analysis, Lord Clark has authored a most insightful and humane Rembrandt primer. Pedantry and sentimentality are avoided in favor of an informed and maturely felt meditation on the works and their creator. The elegantly written essays [in An Introduction to Rembrandt] delve into the master's oeuvre and career from both thematic...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

Eleanor Riley (review date 1 December 1980)

SOURCE: Riley, Eleanor. Review of Feminine Beauty, by Kenneth Clark. Library Journal 105 (1 December 1980): 2488.

[In the following review, Riley provides a brief summary of Clark's Feminine Beauty as well as general praise for the art critic.]

In this work [Feminine Beauty], intended only as an introduction to the subject (and limited to Western art), Clark's thesis is that although the artist's concept of feminine beauty has changed little over the centuries, there have always been two types: classic and characteristic. Classic beauty relies on the symmetry established in ancient Greece; characteristic beauty refers to a freer treatment of the...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Lynda Nead (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Nead, Lynda. “Getting Down to Basics: Art, Obscenity and the Female Nude.” In New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, edited by Isobel Armstrong, pp. 199-221. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

[In the following essay, Nead describes the eighth edition of Clark's The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art as a book which studies the art of the nude from Greek antiquity to European modernism, and goes on to study the ideals of the nude applying the philosophies of Clark and Immanuel Kant.]

This essay is concerned with the ways in which the categories of ‘art’ and ‘obscenity’ are defined and differentiated and the critical place...

(The entire section is 5095 words.)

Charles Moore (review date 16 October 1993)

SOURCE: Moore, Charles. “Can K Still Stand for Civilisation?” Spectator 271 (16 October 1993): 8.

[In the following review, Moore proclaims Clark's 1969 BBC television series, Civilisation, to be rightfully popular even in its 1993 rerun;.however, the critic suggests the creation of such a program would not be possible in the 1990s, because the creators would be too concerned about remaining politically correct and representative of all members of the television audience.]

Kenneth Clark's television series Civilisation is being repeated, but nothing like it could be made today. In his first programme, Clark contrasts an African mask with the head of...

(The entire section is 1308 words.)

Further Reading


Hughes, Robert. “The Gentleman Aesthete: Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983.” Time 121 (6 June 1983): 80.


Secrest, Meryle. Kenneth Clark: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, 310 p.

Provides a thorough and personal overview of Kenneth Clark's life.


Blair, C. Review of Moments of Vision, by Kenneth Clark. British Book News (March 1982): 174.

Recommends Clark's Moments of Vision, but contends it is not his greatest accomplishment.

Booker, Christopher. “The...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)