Cork Trees

The house is surrounded by small plantations of cork trees, which feel prehistoric and may indeed be old, since the life of a cork tree is apparently two hundred years, stripped of its bark every eight or nine years by highly skilled tiradors, working in pairs:-


Drue Heinz

Am very sad and sorry to hear the news of the death of Drue Heinz, one of the Royal Academy’s longest standing and most exceptionally generous Trustees; but she wasn’t only generous to the Royal Academy, but also to the National Portrait Gallery, which is where I first got to know her and where every year she hosted the Hawthornden Prize, whose choice of winner – conservative, literary – was close to her heart. And to the London Library and many other causes internationally. Every year she would ring up on my birthday. I thought she was immortal and she sometimes seemed it.


Early morning in the Alentejo

We woke up in the heart of the Alentejo, having driven through the cork trees north of Montemor-o-Novo and then down a long, long dusty track to where we are staying in a house more remote than I can remember apart from Transylvania, designed by Manuel Aires Mateus in a style of austere rustic modernism:-







Civilisation (3)

As will be clear from the Comments section of the blog and previous entries, I have got interested in where Kenneth Clark got his ideas about Civilisation since so few are declared in the text.

He was certainly influenced by Burckhardt, whose The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy he read at Oxford as a counterpoint to Ruskin, who was a bigger influence on his prose style.

He was much influenced by Roger Fry, who he met in his twenties, became a friend, and whose Last Lectures he edited; but he was surely more influenced by Fry’s formalism than his attitude (never well developed) towards history.

He was definitely admiring of Aby Warburg, attended one of his lectures in Florence (but misrecorded its date), helped acquire his library for London, and who deeply influenced Clark’s writing of The Nude.

He acknowledges the influence of H.G. Wells.

I have no evidence that he had read Norbert Elias’s Über den Process der Zivilisation which was first published in 1939 and republished in 1969, but Clark was no fool and he would have consulted friends in Oxford in the writing of Civilisation who would have been familiar with Elias’s ideas, if only second hand.

In his opposition between ‘heroic will’ and what he regarded as the more effeminate aspects of Civilisation, I wonder if he was also influenced, if only subliminally, by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, which, like H.G. Wells’s Outline of History was so fashionable in the 1920s, even if Clark, like Gombrich rejected any form of intellectual determinism.

I will rely on Edward Chaney to correct me.


Burlington Gardens

The final stages of a big capital project are exciting, if a bit nerve-racking.   Today, the first work of art has been hung in the basement vaults which turn out to be unexpectedly magnificent spaces, since we dug down in order to improve disabled access;  the trees have been planted in the courtyard between the two buildings and the cobbles are about to be laid;  the sun is shining in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler galleries at the back of the building;  the Clore Learning Studio is nearly ready for action;  the gold lettering is being applied in the Dorfman Senate Room.    There is only six weeks to go to practical completion and maybe another two to the public opening.


H.G. Wells

One of the oddities of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is that almost the only modern writer he mentions is – not Burkhardt, not Norbert Elias (both of whom may have influenced his views) – but H.G.Wells, who is referred to for a distinction between ‘communities of obedience and communities of will’: ‘he thought that the first produced the stable societies like Egypt and Mesopotamia, the original homes of civilisation, and the second produced the restless nomads of the north’ (p.127). The second reference is to the fact that the ‘aggressive, nomadic societies – what he called communities of will – Israel, Islam, the Protestant North, conceived their gods as male’ (p.143). The third time he reveals that he knew him: ‘I remember H.G. Wells, who was a kind of twentieth-century Voltaire, saying that he daren’t drive a car in France, because the temptation to drive over a priest would be too strong for him’ (p.209). He met Wells at Sybille Colefax’s in the early 1930s, but the reference is presumably to The Outline of History, which was published in 1920, when Clark would have been seventeen, intellectually impressionable and sitting his scholarship exams for Oxford, when Wells’ intellectual theorising presumbly left its imprint.


Civilisation (2)

In reading Civilisation, I kept a mental checklist of the characteristics which Clark regards as necessary to a civilisation (references are to the recent paperback edition):-

1. Solidity

He’s keen on built form being one of its basic characteristics, building for eternity, as in baroque Rome, and contemptuous of what he describes as the wigwams of the Vikings (or what he quaintly describes as their ‘prefabs’). ‘If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings’ (p.9).

2. Confidence

‘Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little material prosperity. But, far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers’ (p.12).

3. Internationalism

‘Where some way of thought or human activity is really vital to us, internationalism is accepted unhesitatingly’ (p.35). The book is regarded as being very Eurocentric, but in his frame of reference Clark reveals his internationalism.

4. The capacity to change

‘The great, indeed the unique, merit of European civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change’ (p.65).

5. Heroic will

In his two chapters on the Renaissance, Clark introduces a dialctic between ‘humanist virtues of intelligence’ and ‘the quality of heroic will’. He constantly cautions against thinking that civilisation is a matter of courtesy or civilitas (‘the civilised smile of eighteenth-century France may be one of the things that have brought the whole concept of civilisation into disrepute’ (p.197). He is much more on the side of heroic individualism, the spirit of Michelangelo, rather than Raphael. ‘I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilisation’ (p.103). But it was of Clark’s: ‘it involves a contempt of convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life…in the end, civilisation depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost’.

This may not be a particularly profound apparatus for analysing civilisation, but then Clark always felt that he lacked a good capacity for intellectual generalisation; and what he may lack in intellectual theorising, he makes up in intelligent, wide-ranging and occasionally ironic urbanity.


Civilisation (1)

Confined to my bed for a day with a stinking cold, I thought I would console myself by reading the original text of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which has been the subject of so much discussion and debate in recent weeks and which, although it was kept in my parent’s glass-fronted bookcase along with other family treasures, I’m not absolutely convinced I ever actually read, although I watched the original series, and have watched some episodes since. What struck me immediately is not the confidence and intellectual arrogance which some found so off-putting in Clark as the extreme sense of anxiety and pessimism about the fragility of what he finds it hard to describe as ‘Civilisation’. He describes his enterprise in an ironic, eighteenth-entury way as Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. He belonged to a generation who felt, rightly or wrongly, that the values of civilisation as they had been brought up to believe in had been at risk of being swept away during the second world war and were still at risk, so worth trying, however inadequately, to define. I think it’s this which gives the book, and presumably the programmes, their moral urgency, which the current programmes, with their much greater generosity of spirit to other cultures, maybe lack.


Charles I (again)

We went to our Charles I exhibition again yesterday afternoon in order to enjoy it as much as possible before it closes in less than three week’s time and is dispersed for another 350 years. Two things struck me. The first is that Charles I is wearing a pearl earring in the Triple Portrait (and, also, in the National Gallery’s equestrian portait and the Louvre portrait, too). He is apparently first shown wearing it (always the same pearl earring, always in his left ear) in a portrait by Isaac Oliver, painted when he was fifteen; and he was apparently still wearing it at his execution. I had totally forgotten, also, that the earring survives, inherited by the Dukes of Portland from the first Earl who received it as a gift from Queen Mary and that it’s on display in the Harley Gallery at Welbeck (strongly recommended). The other thing that struck me was the amazing quality of the painting of the clothes in Jacopo Bassano’s Journey of Jacob (Royal Collection). But then there is always something new to see and appreciate.



I thought that Hambleden was in Oxfordshire, but it turns out to be in the tail end of Buckinghamshire where it runs along the Thames:  a village of unexpected picturesqueness, in a valley on its own, with a monument in the churchyard to the Kenricks, the local landowners, which was apparently sketched by Horace Walpole when he visited it in 1764:-