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Kenneth Clark: Lord of Civilisation

Kenneth Clark’s contributions to the AR implored readers to become critical observers of the architectural modernity around them

The AR offered Kenneth Clark a platform for his views on art and architecture from the height of war to the midst of recovery, between 1943 and 1951. This was a time of significant reflection on what constituted British Modernism. Looking back on the immediate impact of rapid architectural change in the 1920s and 30s, the war provided opportunities to literally take stock of recent and more ancient architectural heritage.

From the earliest moments of the 1950s, British architecture strode towards a new spirit epitomised even as it was questioned in the pavilions and projects of the Festival of Britain. A voice of promise, curiosity, and occasionally vexed despair, Clark’s contributions to the AR implored readers to place themselves as critical observers of architectural modernity. He reflected wryly that when an architect begins to question, ‘Is my cornice really necessary?’ then ‘it ceases to be so’. In Clark’s view this was a great moment of liberation, but with great freedom came great responsibility. Whether discussing Baroque sculpture in Westminster Abbey, illuminated by war efforts to document important buildings facing potential destruction, or lamenting a different kind of destructive force stripping away ornament from architecture, Clark’s ever-patrician prose was shot through with the awareness of a keen-eyed outsider to the architectural profession, imploring its participants to ‘look, stranger, at this island now’.

Kenneth Clark was one of the 20th century’s most influential and most memorable cultural figures. As an art historian, writer, presenter, curator and cultural leader at the highest levels of power, Clark’s life was dedicated to communicating about art and transforming its public understanding. His first book, The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste, introduced Clark to a large audience. It was published in 1928, when he was 25. Well-connected, confident, and lucid in his scholarly yet accessible style, Clark swiftly became Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, and then, at the age of 29, Director of the National Gallery. His 1969 television series Civilisation was a landmark in broadcasting. He received numerous official honours.

Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark during his televisual masterwork Civilisation

In 1943, Clark wrote in the AR to encourage the nation to change its attitudes towards Baroque sculpture, particularly that which festooned, fluttered, gesticulated and gambolled across the walls of Westminster Abbey. For Clark, the Baroque period was exciting for architects and historians because of its coherent synthesis of building and sculpture, which could ‘conspire together’ to create interiors bursting with dynamism and meaning. In the Abbey, however, Clark observed that the many sculptures including those by John Michael Rysbrack, William Kent’s Newton monument, as well as Roubiliac’s apocalyptic resurrection of General William Hargrave, were regarded with indifference by the public and ‘by the man of taste with disgust’. In Clark’s estimation it took nothing less than a war to change this. From 1942, with cultural material in Europe under threat, the Warburg Institute photographed as many monuments as it could for the National Buildings Record.

The images were more than mere records. The photographs themselves are works of art and a distinctive corpus of 20th-century visions of past architectural feats. Through these images, many of which were reproduced in the AR, Roubiliac’s ‘sumptuous magnificence’ could be seen afresh. For Clark, the Warburg’s efforts at documentation in case of destruction produced a new body of work full of ‘vigour and piquancy’, which − he hoped − would lead to a renewed assessment. Clark encouraged his readers to use these images and the sculptures themselves in concert with emerging methods of art and architectural historical scholarship in Europe and America to uncover the plenitude of Britain’s Baroque past. ‘And what a rich mine awaits,’ assured Clark. Compared with the ‘worn-out seams’ of Greek, Roman and Renaissance architecture, the Baroque could not help but yield ‘nuggets of discovery’.

Within the pursuit of Modernism and the struggle after a true purity of form and materials, some felt that a great deal was lost along the way. Clark, though he admired Modernism’s clean-edged simplicity, was not uncritical of its sacrifices. In a biting and witty article in the AR, with the deceptively dry title of ‘Ornament in Modern Architecture’, Clark tackled what he perceived as a distinctly modern problem. Architectural ornament offers visual interest, connects architecture to deep traditions, rescues it from a blandness or an aggression for the body and the eye. Clark suggested that without ornament we’re likely to ‘glance off a complex of forms like air off a streamlined surface’. He asked why modern buildings were devoid of ornament, suggesting that these unadorned architectural products were dull rather than bold or revolutionary. Is it an understandable reaction, a consequence of the 19th century’s overindulgence at the rich banquet of styles? Perhaps, thought Clark in 1943, ‘our architects have such indigestion that they are condemned to a diet of Ryvita and Vichy water.’ He suggested, however, that the stripping of ornament from the altar of Architecture was far more serious. In a mode of gentle yet insistent questioning that the public would become so used to in the Civilisation programmes, Clark asked his AR readers, ‘do we believe any more in the dignity of man and the harmony of the universe?’ Leaving us to ponder this vast potential void, he concluded uncompromisingly, ‘We shall have no ceremony in life and no ornament in architecture until some new and more promising faith reintegrates our lives.’ What was gained in a quest for modern expression of the modern condition seemed to have left so much behind in its hot pursuit that Clark felt uncertain it was worth it.

In 1951, Clark wrote a review of Rudolf Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Wittkower felt he’d been understood: not an easy reaction to elicit. The Warburg Institute scholar stated, ‘Sir Kenneth Clark wrote in The Architectural Review that the first result of this book was “to dispose once and for all of the hedonist or purely aesthetic theory of Renaissance architecture”, and this defines my intention in a nutshell.’ In the same review, Clark also invoked Alberti on beauty and ornament, returning to an issue in modern and in Renaissance architecture with which Clark was perennially preoccupied. Clark understood that these two architectural factors were interdependent, feeding one another to the benefit of architectural power, meaning and development. For Clark, whose own scholarship on the Renaissance and on Leonardo Da Vinci was vast, an aesthetic and idealised view of this period was a false utopia. ‘Even Vitruvian man was an impostor … He can fit into a square, or into a circle, but not into both at once, except by giving them an arbitrary relation to one another.’ This summer, Kenneth Clark returns to the foreground of our cultural landscape in an exhibition at Tate Britain. What we find there might help us square the circle of Clark’s legacy within architectural thought in modern Britain, and offer a renewed source for vital dialogue between insiders and outsiders in architectural writing.

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