Patrick McCaughey reviews 'My Dear BB' edited by Robert Cumming

Patrick McCaughey reviews 'My Dear BB' edited by Robert Cumming

My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959

edited by Robert Cumming

Yale University Press (Footprint), $69 hb, 598 pp, 9780300207378

By some accounts, it was love at first sight. When Kenneth Clark, recently graduated with a 2A from Oxford, lunched with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti in September 1925, BB impulsively invited him to collaborate on the revised edition of his chef d’oeuvre: The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, Classified, Criticized and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné.

Forty years on, in the first volume of his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, Clark remembered that first meeting rather differently. An awkward circle of guests stood around awaiting the entrance of the Great Man. Conversation over lunch was mainly in Italian, which Clark didn’t speak. After lunch in the fragrance of the limonaia, Berenson continued to talk for a further forty minutes. ‘By this time I had taken the strongest possible dislike to him. His appearance, and what little I had understood of his conversation, exuded arrogance of a kind most Anglo-Saxons try to conceal.’

The opportunity, however, was too good to be missed and Clark joined the I Tatti circle. The engagement proved to be short-lived. In 1927 Clark married Jane Martin, a stylish Oxford beauty, and the court of Settignano felt ‘betrayed’. Berenson behaved badly to Jane when she came to I Tatti, talking across her at lunch in Italian and German, neither of which she understood. Jane ‘formed a dislike of Mr Berenson she never entirely lost’, as her husband dispassionately noted in his autobiography. You would never know it from her gushing letters included in this volume. She loved dropping names to entertain the old boy’s social vanity:

Thursday last week was a beano for the Clark family as the King and Queen came to lunch. He is very hard to rouse but she is charming. They came informally, no people in waiting or even morning coats for the men … the Queen enjoyed the pictures especially oddly enough the late blue Cezanne’s in my room. She had never seen a Cezanne before and thought them v.g. … The King gazed at the large early Matisse but was too polite to say anything. He would not be interesting unless he were king. The following day lunch at No. 10 seemed a great comedown!

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Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey, formerly Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, and the Yale Center for British Art, is the author of Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs (2006) and edited Bert & Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan (2006). He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review. He lives and works on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in New Haven.