Greatest Art Critics Series
Kenneth Clark

Biography of Renaissance Historian: Creator of "Civilisation" BBC TV Series.

Art Critic Kenneth Clark.

Kenneth Clark (1903-83)


Education and Early Life
Director of the National Gallery
Television Arts Broadcasting
TV Series "Civilization"

Louis Leroy (1812-1885)
Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97)
Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943)
Felix Feneon (1861-1944)
Apollinaire (1880-1918)
John Canaday (1907-85)
Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978)
Clement Greenberg (1909-94)


One of the most influential art critics and historians of the 20th century, Kenneth Clark was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, assistant to the legendary historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959); curator at Oxford's prestigious Ashmolean Museum; the youngest-ever Director of the National Gallery in London; Surveyor of the King's Pictures, responsible for the British Royal Collection; Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford; and Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. However, he is best-remembered for his BBC Television series, "Civilisation". Designed as an epic examination of Western European culture since the decline of Roman art in the 5th century, this landmark documentary combined lavish camerawork and compelling narration from Clark himself. Two years in the making, it was filmed in 100 locations across thirteen countries, and covered all the major movements in architecture as well as painting and sculpture, along with aspects of modern design, literature and music. Demonstrating Clark's in-depth knowledge of Gothic architecture, as well as Renaissance art and modern Romanticism, the series explored a number of the best art museums along with works compiled by art collectors around the world. This award-winning one-man survey of humanistic civilization established Clark as the most widely seen and influential art critic of the 20th century. Other modern British art critics include: Roger Fry (1866-1934) and Herbert Read (1893-1968). For a more controversial Renaissance historian, see the American critic Leo Steinberg (1920-2011).



Education and Early Life

Born in London, the only child of Kenneth MacKenzie Clark and Margaret Alice McArthur, heirs to the textile fortune amassed by Clark's Scottish great-great-grandfather, who invented the cotton spool, Clark was educated at Winchester where he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, to study the history of art. At Oxford, in 1922, he met Charles F. Bell, curator ofthe Ashmolean Museum, who introduced him to Bernard Berenson in Florence in 1925. Berenson, the leading English-speaking authority on Early Renaissance painting, hired Clark to help him (Berenson) revise his seminal work Drawings of the Florentine Painters, originally published in 1903. Based in Berenson's famous Villa I Tatti, overlooking Settignano, near Florence, Clark assisted his mentor on this study of Renaissance drawings for over two years, acquiring enormous cultural expertise in the process. (Note: the term "Renaissance", used to describe the upsurge of fine art in Italy, during the period 1400-1530, was first coined by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet 1798-1874.) Returning to England in 1927, Clark married his Oxford classmate Elizabeth Winifred "Jane" Martin (1902-1976), with whom he had three children. The following year, using sources provided by Bell, Clark wrote and published his first book, The Gothic Revival. Well-received by the arts establishment, the book - along with Clark's work for Berenson in Florence - led to an invitation to catalog the Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts at Windsor castle, a work which Clark published in 1935. In 1930, Clark was also responsible for co-organizing the seminal exhibition of Italian Renaissance paintings at the Royal Academy, which included numerous exceptionally rare works. In 1931, Clark succeeded Bell as curator at the Ashmolean, following the latter's retirement.

Director of the National Gallery

In 1934, after just over two years at the Ashmolean Museum, Clark - still only 31 - was appointed director of the National Gallery in London, the youngest ever person - then or since - to hold the position. In 1935 King George V appointed him Surveyor of the King's Pictures, for which he was knighted in 1938. He held both these posts until 1945. During his tenure as Director of the National Gallery he greatly expanded its collection, acquiring masterpieces like Watering Place (1617) by Rubens, Golden Calf (1634) by Nicolas Poussin, Saskia as Flora (1635) by Rembrandt, and Hadleigh Castle (1829) by John Constable.

Television Arts Broadcasting

In 1946 Clark resigned from the National Gallery to devote more time to writing, although as a tireless lecturer, he continued to give talks on the arts. Between 1946 and 1950, for instance, he accepted the position of Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. In 1954, he helped to co-found the British Independent Television Authority, becoming its Chairman until 1957, when he moved to the rival BBC. At the same time he served as Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1955-60) and played a major part in the arts program for the Festival of Britain.

TV Series "Civilisation"

His big break came in the 1960s, when he wrote and presented the award-winning BBC Television documentary series entitled Civilisation (1969), a series widely shown in both Britain and America, and throughout the English-speaking world. (Note: it was actually cancelled by the BBC when it was first made in 1966 and only broadcast three years later in 1969.) This hugely influential project catapulted Clark to international fame, which he wryly compared to that surrounding his illustrious forbear John Ruskin (1819-1900), the leading art critic of the previous century.

"Civilisation" focused on what Clark considered to be the 14 phases of Western European art and culture. It covered Carolingian art (c.750-900) originating at the court of Charlemagne; Romanesque architecture at Cluny and elsewhere; and the glory of Gothic art at Chartres; intricate International Gothic Illuminations (c.1375-1450); Early Renaissance art by Botticelli and others; High Renaissance art by Leonardo da Vinci (Mona Lisa), as well as Raphael (Papal apartments) and Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel frescoes); the giants of the Northern Renaissance, including Holbein and Durer; the grandeur of Baroque architecture (St Peter's) as well as the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation, including the awesome quadratura ceiling frescoes in Rome; Dutch Realist Genre Painting (c.1600-1700) and the soulful portrait art of Rembrandt; decorative Rococo, Napoleonic Neoclassicism; the Romanticism of JMW Turner and John Constable; the gritty realism of Courbet compared to the spontaneous beauty of Impressionism and its successors.

However, Clark was no lover of modern art. He found Cezanne's painting incomprehensible, and disliked 20th century abstract art - notably Cubism - which he omitted from the series.

Jane Martin, his first wife, died in 1976. Not long afterwards he remarried Nolwen de Janze-Rice (1924-1989). He died on 21 May 1983 in a Kent nursing home some seven weeks before his 80th birthday.


In addition to those mentioned above, here are a few of the more important art books written by Kenneth Clark.

- Catalogue of Leonardo's Drawings in the Royal Collection (1935)
- Leonardo da Vinci: His development as an Artist (1939)
- Florentine Painting: The 15th Century (1945)
- Piero della Francesca (1951)
- Landscape into Art (1949) - from his Slade Lectures.
- The Nude: a study in ideal form (1956) - from his A.W. Mellon Lectures.
- Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966)
- Civilisation: A Personal View (1969) - book from the text of the TV series

Art Appreciation Resources

- Art Evaluation
- How to Appreciate Paintings
- How to Appreciate Sculpture

• For more about historians of the Italian Renaissance, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.