My collection is a diary of my life,” Kenneth Clark once wrote, “the only one I have ever kept.” Clark is best known for his groundbreaking 1969 television series Civilisation, for his work as an art historian and as director of the National Gallery in London, and as an all-round arts impresario. But the art he loved and wrote about he also collected, voraciously. An exhibition to be held at Tate Britain next year, Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, curated by me and Chris Stephens, with John Wyver, aims to tell his fascinating life story by bringing together many of the objects he owned – reconstructing his diary, so to speak.
Works from Clark’s collection were sold at Sotheby’s in 1984, a year after his death. The catalogue from this sale shows just how wide-ranging his taste was: a sweep of works from antiquities to modern British art that could form a small national museum. Masterpieces of Japanese printmaking appear alongside fine European ceramics; Old Master drawings and paintings alongside works by the Impressionists. British works include a major painting by Samuel Palmer, “Shepherd with Moon and Evening Star”, as well as Clark’s most famous purchase, Turner’s “Seascape: Folkestone”, revealing what he once described as the two key elements of British art: landscape and weather.
Yet Clark was far from systematic in his collecting, buying largely on the basis of opportunity. With his means (he inherited a considerable fortune derived from the Scottish textile industry) and professional success, the opportunities he encountered were very good. Staying with his wife Jane in Paris in 1933, for example, he visited the dealer Paul Guillaume to find he had just received a consignment of more than 100 drawings and watercolours by Paul Cézanne. He wrote excitedly to Edith Wharton that he was able to choose 60 and buy them “for an incredibly small sum … much less than a modest motor car”.
Clark acquired the bulk of his collection during the 1920s-30s, benefiting from the era’s depressed prices. He went on to buy six oil paintings by Cézanne, including “Le Château Noir” and the “Route Tournante”, now in London’s Courtauld Gallery. Clark’s holdings of French Impressionism also included two important paintings by Seurat, works by Pissarro, Sisley and Degas, and two paintings by Renoir, including “La Baigneuse Blonde” (now in the Agnelli collection), one of Clark’s favourites.
Alongside French and Italian works, the greater part of Clark’s collection was devoted to contemporary British art. In the 1930s, he acquired works by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Victor Pasmore at a time when they were unfashionable. His support was based as much on aesthetic choice as personal friendship – he may have thought abstraction a dead end, but was still to buy (around 1935) a white relief by Ben Nicholson. From Moore’s first exhibition in 1928, Clark became a leading collector and supporter of the sculptor. The final scene of Civilisation shows Clark walking through his library at Saltwood Castle, pausing to let his hand glide over the smooth surface of Moore’s bronze “Mother and Child”. This is what it’s all about, he seems to say – and it’s mine.
Like many scholars and curators, Clark was neglectful when it came to documenting his own collection. What he bought, and sometimes sold, can in many cases only be inferred from passing references in letters or (usually undated) lists in his archive. Tracking down objects in preparation for the Tate exhibition has required some keen detective work. In the case of a large 17th-century Kano-school Japanese screen bought by Clark in 1949, there was little to go on save a brief, unillustrated entry in the 1984 sale catalogue. A lucky Google search revealed that it had resurfaced, briefly, at Bonhams in San Francisco at the end of 2012. From this it was at least possible to obtain a photograph, and to identify (thanks to the curator Rupert Faulkner) an almost identical screen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, originally its pair.
Another important work remains more elusive. In 1932 Clark commissioned the Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to create a decorated dinner service. He was surprised to receive a set of 48 plates, the majority of which featured a portrait of a famous woman from history (they also include portraits of Grant, Bell, Greta Garbo and a “Miss 1933”). It is one of the largest commissioned works to come out of the Bloomsbury milieu.
The “Famous Women Dinner Service” survived the Blitz and numerous changes of house, until Clark’s move to Saltwood Castle in 1956. Since then, however, its fate has become more mysterious. In 1978, after the death of his first wife Jane, Clark married the French heiress Nolwen de Janzé Rice, and many works in his collection, including the dinner service, were moved to Nolwen’s homes in Normandy and London. The plates were later sold by her heirs, probably at an auction in Hamburg in about 2000, and have not been seen since. Their rediscovery would be of importance not just for their connection with Clark, but also as an example of a major work of early 20th-century decorative art. Whether they can be found in time for the exhibition at Tate Britain remains to be seen.
‘Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation’ will be at Tate Britain, May-August 2014, tate.org.uk