29 SEPTEMBER 1984, Page 27

Man in a grey suit

A. N. Wilson

Kenneth Clark Meryle Secrest (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £12.95)

For some reason, I found the Civilisation programmes on television irresistibly amusing. Doubtless the fault lay in my own Juvenile imbecility rather than in Lord Clark, but the formula of the thing always had me rolling about in front of the set. One would see some beautiful shot of great art or architecture. If it were the Sistine Chapel, loud Renaissance church music would play — how would it play? exuber- antly? ___ and the camera would focus on a trim little late-20th-century man standing on the altar steps in a grey suit. The humanism of the Renaissance, he would inform us, was exuberant and self- confident. And yes, there would be God (with Lord Clark's 'voice over') creating Michelangelo's Adam exuberantly. Then again, it might be that we were in the Rococco splendours of some German schloss, and while Mozart trilled with delicacy, wit and airy reason, we would learn that we were in the 18th century the age of reason, the age of Beaumar-

chais's wit and (suddenly solemn chords) Rousseau's revolutionary ideas. So it went on, as the camera showed this amiable bland art historian the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof.

When I read Lord Clark's memoirs, however, I grew less snooty about him. The self-portrait is effected with the same ease as the telly programmes, but now (Enigma Variations perhaps playing in the background as camera focuses on a Sickert interior) we are moving in a plush world of enormous wealth (Clark's father, a pro- digiously rich cotton millionaire, was The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Car- lo). At the same time, the story is full of ambiguities, uncertainties, and contradic- tions (Bartok background music, perhaps, with a glimpse of a Blue Period Picasso). Clark wrote disarmingly about his miser- able schooldays at Winchester; of his slight blossoming at Oxford under the very diffe- rent wings of Sligger and Bowra; of his good luck in becoming a personal assistant and friend to the man he always politely referred to as Mr Berenson. Then we witness the meteoric success story: mar- riage, a social 'conquest of London' and the appointment at the age of 30 to the Directorship of the National Gallery. The second volume takes the story up to the point where he became a telly star. Its title, The Other Half, deliberately suggested the resumption of a programme after a com- mercial break while glancing at a 50-year marriage which had its ups and downs. His wife, like his father, had a weakness for alcohol. One says weakness, for it would seem from Meryle Secrest's book as though Lord Clark knocked it back a good deal himself but had the matter more under control. It reminds one of Dylan Thomas's definition of an alcoholic: some- one I don't like who drinks as much as I do.

But, while he told his own tale with great modesty and aplomb, there were mysteries about which he is understandably diffident. For a start, there is the paradox that this extraordinary success story — the 0.M., the peerage, the money, the fame — could not assuage Clark's own sense of personal failure as an artist. When a child, he had enjoyed rearranging his father's poorish pictures up and down the staircases and corridors of Sudbourne. But as he sat in that vulgar Edwardian house, he also sketched and copied, and dreamed one day of being a great painter. As it turned out, he was merely arranging paintings on the staircase for the rest of his life. He was what we would call a genius only in the saleroom. We read here of his picking up, in the mid 1930s, 50 Cezanne watercolours for £5 each, a Michelangelo drawing for £100. But in spite of Meryle Secrest's loyal attempt to speak of her subject in the same breath as Ruskin, one cannot pretend that he was really a very inspired critic. Clark himself was good-humoured about it. But he knew that every worldly success he achieved was a reproach to his earlier conception of his calling. The very settings for this unfolding personal sorrow — the heavy Edwardian houses with their shoots and their mildly adulterous goings-on in the background, or the extraordinary atmosphere of I Tatti, the Berenson villa near Florence — would have been enough to make this story seem like an unwritten novel of Henry James.

Love too — another Jamesian theme eluded Clark in a way which to any outsider is hard to focus upon. The present biographer evidently bases her view of his first marriage on conversations she had with Lord Clark himself. The various women friends and mistresses with whom he sought refuge from the sometimes uneasy atmosphere of Saltwood Castle have also contributed their necessarily unreliable impressions. Sometimes the pic- ture is lurid. But Clark, after all, stayed with his wife for 50 years and nursed her devotedly at the end. And then he chose to marry not one of the women who have helped with this story, but Mrs Edward Rice — of whom we are told little. Yet there is a paradox in the fact that Meryle Secrest writes as if he were a somewhat loveless individual, while recounting a life packed with family relationships (chiefly

happy), friendships (various and strong) and the many women with whom he appears to have enjoyed love affairs.

Then there is the surprise ending. A week before he died, Lord Clark became a Catholic. Meryle Secrest keeps this card up her sleeve until the moment her narrative demands it. Clearly it baffles her a lot, as it baffled many of his friends.

There is a moment in the second volume of Clark's own memoirs when he describes staying at I Tatti some time after the war and wandering into the church of San Lorenzo. There he experienced something which he recognised not as aesthetic thrill, but rather as religious ecstasy. The sense of 'heavenly joy' lasted, he says, several _ months and

wonderful though it was, it posed an awk- ward problem in terms of action. My life was far from blameless. I would have to reform. My family would think I was going mad, and perhaps, after all, it was a delusion, for I was in every way unworthy of receiving such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off, and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right; I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But I had 'felt the finger of God' I am quite sure.

It is the final throwaway phrase which is so striking. Few of us would be honest enough to admit to being sure of an experience of God which we had put aside. But if we were so honest, it would be impossible to live with the dilemma for ever, however _many honours and successes were poured into our lap. So the story rushes on, Clark busier and busier, more and more famous to the point where Maurice Bowra re- marked to him, 'All television corrupts, but absolute television corrupts abso- lutely.' Many reviewers have been harsh about Meryle Secrest's book, but I found it readable and interesting. Some people have suggested that Kenneth Clark asked her to write it because he wanted the story to be told of his extra-marital love affairs. But, given his impeccable good manners and almost tediously good taste, is this likely? Could it be that the moment in San Lorenzo was really the most crucial of his life, and that, as the neat figure in a suit approached Michelangelo's Last Judgment in front of the cameras, he was beginning to think of Kenneth Clark's Last Judgment? His final gesture would implY a confidence that, as the cameras being to roll in the purgatorial locations beyond the grave, a benign producer would allow the commentator to go back to San Lorenzo for a 'retake'.