The BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs has, over its seventy-five years of broadcasting, interviewed most of Britain’s great and good, and a few others. As anyone who has listened to the programme more than a few times will know, the format doesn’t change. Guests are asked to choose eight pieces of music that they feel they could live with over the longue durée if marooned alone on a desert island. In addition they are allowed one book – in addition to the Bible and a Complete Shakespeare, which it is assumed everyone will want – and one luxury; it is taken as given that the island will afford castaways enough food to survive.
The hope is that in the spaces between playing the records the guests will be amusingly forthcoming about their lives and careers and that they will rub along well with the presenters, who have been drawn, over the years, from some of the most talented figures in British broadcasting (Roy Plomley, Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley, Kirsty Young). Guests should of course also be aware that their choices may affect listeners’ opinions of them: one who chooses a well-rounded selection of tuneful classical pieces, preferably including a few snatches of Mozart or Vivaldi, will in all likelihood go down better than one who confines his selection to the works of the Second Viennese School. Of course some people – and perhaps artists in particular – often care very little what people think of them and there have been a few cases over the years of performers – the singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the pianist Moura Lympany – who it seemed looked forward to decades of splendid isolation listening wholly or chiefly to their own recordings. And while the guests were, over the years, overwhelmingly persons of middlebrow (or upper middlebrow) culture one could occasionally regret not being able to see the presenter’s facial expression when asking, say, Jimmy Savile or the pop singer Gene Pitney which book they would be prepared to read and reread in addition to the Bible and Shakespeare. Pitney chose “a giant book of Mensa puzzles” (was he trying to tell us something?) and Savile “a mail order catalogue”. On another occasion a famous blues musician chose “a book with pictures of pretty women”.
Few British public figures of the twentieth century can have had more of a claim to a high place among the great and good than the art historian, writer and broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark. Clark was a high achiever from an early age, director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford at twenty-seven and of the National Gallery three years later, and knighted at the age of thirty-five. It is remarkable then that, given his wide culture and, after the screening of the BBC2 television series Civilisation in 1969, proven broadcasting ability and massive public recognition, he never appeared on Desert Island Discs, particularly perhaps as his son Alan, the notorious Thatcherite minister, political diarist and upper-class bounder, did.
Clark’s biographer James Stourton (Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation) manages to shed some light on this strange gap in the great man’s CV. It appears that Sir Kenneth was in fact invited by Roy Plomley to appear on the programme, and in its very first months, in spring 1942. In May of that year he wrote to accept the invitation but later changed his mind on being told of a stipulation that ruled out the broadcasting on air of any words in German or Italian, an “imbecile regulation”, he observed, that ruled out most opera. Stourton suggests that, whatever may have been Clark’s faults (aloofness and even arrogance, some thought), holding a grudge was not one of them, and so, he speculates, it must have been Plomley, still presenting the programme at the time of Clark’s death more than forty years later, who decided never to forgive or forget.
The strong objections Clark felt about adhering to the BBC’s stipulations in the matter of foreign words can best be understood in relation to his passion for European culture, and perhaps particularly Italian culture. His inclinations and motivations were not just aesthetic, however; they were also informed by a settled political orientation (political in the broad sense) which can be seen in the multitude of popularising cultural activities he had already been engaged in but which he pursued with even greater energy after the outbreak of war. As Stourton writes, Clark
believed in the inspiration that art gives to the individual soul, and that access to good art is what matters. Central to this was a socialist viewpoint and the idea that the state could, with some reservations, support the arts.
When Clark became director of the British National Gallery one of his first moves was to press for the abolition of all entrance fees (this eventually happened during the war). He pioneered evening openings, which were advertised on the Tube, cut the length of public lectures from two hours to one and arranged for the publication of a series of “hand guides”, which were less unwieldy and intimidating than formal catalogues.
On April 30th, 1938 over 93,000 people attended the FA Cup Final at Wembley, most of them having travelled down from Lancashire and Yorkshire to support the two contestants, Preston North End (featuring a twenty-four-year-old Bill Shankly) and Huddersfield Town. Not many of those involved in running art galleries at the time (or indeed since) thought of football supporters as likely to be interested in what they had to offer. But Clark decided he would open the gallery early – at 8am –on the day of the match to give the fans the opportunity of looking at some paintings instead of just wandering around the streets. A later director, Neil MacGregor, has called this “a dazzling populist touch”, which it may well have been but it was also something more: whatever the number of actual football fans who visited the gallery on that day its director had sent out a well-publicised message that they, and people like them, were in future to be considered welcome there.
With the outbreak of war, Clark went to work for the film division of the ministry of information, despite having no experience of the sector. In this period of military defeat, confusion and fear, civilian morale was the great worry. Clark was involved in drafting material to be issued in the event of a German invasion. He was also concerned to counter German propaganda that while the pain of the war was being felt by British workers, it was being fought in the interests of safeguarding the interests of the wealthy. Clark and his political friends and allies felt it necessary to stress that the war could be won, was worth winning and that after victory things must and would be different. In 1940 he spoke to Edward Hulton, the owner of the popular magazine Picture Post, about the desirability of sketching out perspectives for postwar reform and reconstruction in some detail. This led, in January 1941, to a special number on “The Britain We Hope to Build When the War is Over”, with sections on planning, education, culture and recreation and a universal health service.
A somewhat unusual side trip in the same year saw Clark and his wife, Jane, travelling to Dublin to visit their friend John Betjeman, who was assigned, as press officer, to the British embassy here. (Jane, born Elizabeth Martin, was Irish and had been brought up in Dublin.) The visit was, according to Betjeman, a great success: “K and Jane came over here – thank God for them, they worked very hard with the Irish and created the most wonderful impression and talked to Dev for two hours.” One topic of conversation was apparently the Treaty ports and one may assume the taoiseach explained to Clark why he was not for turning on this issue. Whatever about that, the meeting was a success on a human level. Clark thought Dev “like a priest for whom the idea of progress has no meaning. No doubt that is why I liked him.”
In 1939, Clark and his staff had arranged to move the National Gallery’s pictures for safe keeping to storage in a disused slate mine in north Wales. Now the building in Trafalgar Square was devoid of pictures but paradoxically it was at this time that it grew to have a particular symbolic, perhaps even sentimental, significance for Londoners facing into the Blitz. Stourton writes:
Clark believed that art and culture were central to the very values that Britain was fighting to defend, and that they should therefore be marshalled to articulate those values. In short, he wanted art not only to raise morale, but to show the public what they were fighting for. As Michael Levey observed, it was through the war that ‘Clark’s eyes were opened to the power of art, in its widest sense, over supposedly ordinary people’.
And thus the gallery came to host a picture of the month feature, when one of the more exceptional pictures from the Welsh underground hoard would come back to London and go temporarily on display. The National also showed the work of the official and temporary “war artists”, a group Clark had been active in recruiting, and ran special exhibitions, a total of thirty-four during the war years. The highlight, however, at least in terms of impact on the public, was the series of daily lunchtime concerts which the gallery hosted throughout the war and beyond (almost 2,000 in all). The concerts were the brainchild of the pianist Myra Hess, who performed at 150 of them herself.
Hess had initially proposed to Clark that he might consider running a concert at the gallery every few weeks; his response was “No. Every day!” At the first concert, a thousand people formed a queue outside the gallery; eventually two hundred had to be turned away. All through the war people came each day, paid their shilling admission and took their seats. They were encouraged to eat their sandwiches during the music and could come and go in the breaks between individual works. All participating musicians were paid five guineas each irrespective of their standing; profits went to the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. If there was an air raid the concert would be moved to a smaller, safer room. (The remarkable propaganda film Listen to Britain, destined for the American market, features footage from one of the concerts, with many of the attendance in uniform and Clark himself present, sitting beside Queen Elizabeth.)
Hess, who was Jewish and from Kilburn in London, had initially been worried that her German name might elicit boos from a section of the audience. (This was not an entirely unreasonable fear: many people of German origin, among them Jews who had fled from Hitler, did suffer harassment in Britain at the time.) Hess was also a specialist in the German musical repertoire and she and Clark agreed that the concerts should be primarily of German music. This was at a time when in the Reich the music of French, English or Russian composers was seldom heard and that of Mendelssohn, Mahler or Meyerbeer (all Jewish Germans/Austrians) simply could not be played at all. Clark later wrote: “The first concert was given by Miss Hess herself, and the moment when she played the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” will always remain for me one of the great experiences of my life. It was an assurance that all our sufferings were not in vain.”
Clark, in his work for the ministry of information during the war, was often called upon to ponder the question of “what we are fighting for”. On such occasions he confessed himself to be rather at a loss: while it was easy to know what one was fighting against, for was a more difficult matter. Abstractions like democracy or parliamentary institutions were all very well, but not exactly inspiring, at least not to Clark. “But in my mind’s eye,” he wrote, “I had a clear vision of a small English town – halfway between a town and a village … There it all was: the church, the three pubs, the inexplicable bend in the road, the house with the stone gate where the old lady lived … I used to think ‘That is what we are fighting for.’” This may seem banal or sentimental, but intellectuals in many places have their imagined versions of their countries which differ rather strongly from what they experience in the day-to-day: in Ireland we have the West as visualised, say, by Paul Henry; the metropolitan French revere la France profonde but would not dream of living there except in August. The English idyll, which experienced something of a revival in the interwar period, is also always rural, even if the rural population had declined to well below a third of the whole as early as 1901. (Those seeking an idea of the hold of the countryside on the English national imagination might look at the 1930s paintings of the war artist Eric Ravilious, who was born in the same year and month as Kenneth Clark and died when his plane disappeared over Iceland in 1942.)
Clark, however, also surely knew that “what we are fighting for”, or at least what he was fighting for, was encapsulated in the programmes of the wartime concerts at the National Gallery, in particular the stubborn conviction that culture does not observe national boundaries and that even if some now appeared to be intoxicated by the delirium of blood, soil and nation, Italian art and architecture or German music were the patrimony of the civilised in all nations. No wonder he didn’t take kindly to the small-minded restrictions of Desert Island Discs.
Clark owed his greatest fame with the wider public to the television series that he wrote and presented in 1969, Civilisation. The title was suggested by the then controller of BBC2, David Attenborough. Clark worried from time to time that the title was not quite adequate or accurate as, due to limitations of time, money and perhaps his own knowledge and expertise, the series covered only “Western”, chiefly European, civilisation of the Christian and post-Christian eras, but he consoled himself that surely no one “could be so obtuse as to think I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the east”. In this supposition he was wrong of course. He was also to be criticised for his traditionalist approach to art, regarding it, in the way of his great hero John Ruskin, as an inspiration and a resource, rather than, as was soon to become de rigueur, a discourse. One of his chief critics was John Berger, the Marxist critic whose own Ways of Seeing was largely a reply to Civilisation. Stourton describes the two men’s relationship as “personally warm yet publicly suffused with generational antagonism”. Clark himself seems to have been largely unfazed by the criticisms of his outlook which came from Marxists, feminists and other theorists and polemicists: “I hold a number of beliefs,” he wrote, “that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time.”
In a life which offered a great deal of variation and saw him taking on many different and challenging jobs, Kenneth Clark consistently demonstrated a resolute commitment to art and the rather simple idea of making it available to the greatest possible audience. In his essay “Art and Society” he wrote:
Our hope lies in an expanding élite, an élite drawn from every class and with varying degrees of education but united in a belief that non-material values can be discovered in visible things … I believe that the majority of people really long to discover that moment of pure disinterested, non-material satisfaction which causes them to ejaculate the word “beautiful”; and since this experience can be obtained more reliably through art than any other means, I believe that those of us who try to make works of art more accessible are not wasting our time.
The painting reproduced is Eric Ravilious’s Newt Pond. James Stourton’s Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, was published in paperback in September 2017 by William Collins at £10.99.