Kenneth Clark had a life like no other art historian or critic, gallery director, arts administrator, patron, collector, or presenter on television. Whatever he touched, he left a sheen of brilliance. He was handsome, charming, and debonair. And he was rich, spending his last three decades as the lord of Saltwood Castle. His father, the raffish and boozy Kenneth McKenzie Clark, had made a fortune in cotton reels. K., as Clark was universally known to friends and acquaintances, was an only child. He was witty and self-deprecatory. Who can forget the opening of his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974)?: ‘My parents belonged to a section of society known as “the idle rich”...in that golden age many people were richer, there can be few who were idler.’ The reverse was true of K. He worked incessantly in all his nine lives. The great merit of James Stourton’s new biography, quite the best account we have ever had, is that he provides a detailed picture of each phase.
Born in 1903, mercifully too young for the Great War, K. went up to Oxford in the early 1920s and belonged to a glittering generation which included Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, and the chilly Anthony Powell, who thought Clark ‘ruthless’ in his social ambitions. Two Oxford grandees, John Sparrow and Maurice Bowra, Wardens of All Souls and Wadham respectively, would become lifetime friends. Bowra spent every Christmas with K. and his glamorous if dipsomaniac wife, Jane. K. would complain that ‘Maurice just wants to talk – 16 hours at a stretch’.