Sir Kenneth Clark acquired popular fame as the presenter of the television series Civilisation, broadcast in 1969, after a long career as an art historian and museum director. He was born in 1903 and, when the second volume of his autobiography, The Other Half, opens in 1939, he is already Director of the National Gallery and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. With the start of the war, his first duty is to protect the artworks. It’s suggested that they be sent to Canada, but Clark instead looks for an underground storage space. In any case the shelter “had to be near a town and station . . . It had to be strong and dry; and above all it had to have one door, or window, big enough to allow the passage of the largest picture in the Gallery, Van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback” (p.1). “When pressure was put on me to export the pictures I sent a short memorandum to Mr Churchill. It came back the same day, with a note in red ink ‘Bury them in the bowels of the earth, but not a picture shall leave this island, W.S.C.’ Like a fool I never had this document photographed” (p.5).
A slate quarry in Wales with an enormous cave is discovered and approved. The scientific advisor, F.I.G. Rawlins, seeing that the road had to pass under a bridge, figures that “by hollowing out the road it would be possible for our largest cases to pass underneath. He miscalculated by half an inch, and the case containing Charles I on Horseback and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was stuck, irrevocably as it seemed under the bridge. We all stood silent, and I was reminded of the moment in Ranke’s History of the Popes, when the ropes lifting the great obelisk in St Peter’s Square began to fray. The crowd had been sworn to silence, but one sailor from Bordighera could not restrain himself, ‘Acqua alle tende’ he shouted. Silence was broken. ‘Let the air out of the tyres’ we all said in chorus. It was done and, grinding under, scraping over, the huge packing case passed through” (p. 6).
In 1942 Clark is sent on a diplomatic mission to Sweden; he has to listen to many recitals of the songs of Carl Michael Bellman (“whom the Swedes think is like Burns, but who is in fact almost identical with Tom Moore” [p 50]). He gives lectures on English art, and is afflicted by owners, or hopeful owners, of English pictures. “An unexpected handicap was that so many Swedes believed that they owned paintings by Constable.” Why Constable? Who knows.
One picture of a stormy sky was brought to the Embassy so often that I had to look at it to save the butler trouble. I said “I’m afraid it’s not even English.” “Yes, yes, is English.” “Why do you think so?” “Because I read the story of a great dog.” (I was defeated.) “A terrible dog.” Of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I have known some strange arguments advanced in favour of an attribution, but nothing as strange as that the authenticity of a Constable could be proved by a reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles.
See also my reading of John Pope-Hennessey: