Sir Kenneth Clark’s Australian Epiphany

Published January 2020

Sue Rabbitt Roff

Just over seventy years ago, in late December 1948, Sir Kenneth Clark passed through Fremantle as a passenger on the maiden voyage of the RMS Orcades to Australia. Clark was on board at his own expense, having been invited to Melbourne to give a lecture on ‘The Idea of A Great Gallery‘ and to advise the Felton Bequest on its purchases for the National Gallery of Victoria.

Clark corrected the proofs of his Landscape into Art on the voyage out from England, and posted them to his secretary from Aden. He said he’d been helped by someone he met on board.This may have been Barbara Desborough, an Australian who pursued him remorselessly throughout nearly a month at sea, in Australia and then followed him back to Britain.

Eighteen months later, in mid 1950, two Sydney red tops – the Sun and the Truth – reported Mrs Desborough’s divorce hearing. The newspapers quoted from a letter she had written to her husband admitting that

‘I fell in love with him [Clark] and became his mistress during our voyage to Australia…I later went to Melbourne and continued my affair with him there in the Menzies Hotel.’ (Sun June 28 1950)

It was noted that despite this

‘Sir Kenneth was not joined as a co-respondent in the suit’

because the Judge held that

‘while Mrs Desborough had committed adultery with Sir Kenneth, there was no evidence in law against Sir Kenneth.’

There was a studio photo of the former Director of London’s National Gallery and recently retired Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University.

The Truth (2 July 1950) reported that Mrs Desborough went to Victoria to take her son to Geelong Grammar in late January 1949 telling her husband she would

‘merely lunch with Sir Kenneth and then would attend one of his lectures.’

But it transpired that she had committed adultery with Sir Kenneth at the Menzies Hotel after a weekend they both spent as guests of Sir Keith Murdoch at his Cruden Farm thirty miles out of Melbourne. While media mogul Murdoch ruled in Melbourne, he apparently wasn’t able to keep this scandal out of the Sydney press.

In his letters to his secretary in London discussing the proofs of Landscape into Art Clark dissimulated (or perhaps not) about the journey out to Australia, telling her that he found the company rather heavy going and was dreading Christmas onboard. In April 1949 he wrote to one of his fellow travellers asking for his nomination to a golf club.

‘The return journey was climatically much superior to the voyage out’

he reported

‘and the company on the whole more exhilarating.’

As Sir Kenneth said in his Melbourne lecture:

‘We may not be able to say precisely what is good or bad in art any more than we can in morals.’

Sir Keith Murdoch was Chair of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria. He also established the Herald Professorship of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1946.

The first incumbent of the Chair was Joseph Burke, who had been recommended by Sir Kenneth. Burke worked in Clark’s department of ‘home publicity’ in the British Ministry of Information in London during the war before becoming a very senior civil servant involved in negotiations with the Americans about atomic bomb development, including attending the Potsdam Conference. He is described in a biography of Clement Attlee as

‘an intelligence officer who knew a lot about art.’

Sir Kenneth only accepted £5 (about £150 today) apiece for his appraisals to the Felton Bequest, thereby avoiding conflicts of interest such as his erstwhile mentor, Bernard Berenson, had not very successfully juggled. He insisted on paying for his own return voyage on the Orcades which cost £470 (the receipts are in the Tate Archives in London) or about £14,000 today.

The scion of a cotton thread manufacturer who figures out how to spool it onto wooden reels in 1850, Clark came from the ‘mezzanine floor’ of the British class structure as he himself put it. He was living off the family trust though that was beginning to run low by the 1950s. He resigned from his advisory role to the Felton Bequest in December 1950, with gracious statements of appreciation on both sides and no reference to Mrs Desborough. Sir Keith died of cancer in 1952.

Sir Kenneth Clark gave his lecture on The Idea of a Great Gallery in Melbourne on January 27, 1949 after three weeks in Australia.  He’d spent the war years making the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square a truly public space for Britons and others to see and learn about art despite the Blitz.

He’d also set up the War Artists Advisory Committee that was a major support to contemporary British artists as they depicted the war at home and abroad.

Now in his late forties, Clark had always been regarded as a boy wonder and/or young fogey who was given the Directorship of the National Gallery at the age of thirty.

He had served an apprenticeship in the Old Masters under Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, but his personal collection contained French and other Impressionists. He was close to contemporary British artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Gwen John and Lucien Freud despite spending his working hours schmoozing King George V, Queen Mary and other wealthy collectors.

He thought Henry Moore ‘the most controversial of living British artists.’ He and his wife Jane made Moore their children’s guardian during the war.

In his Melbourne lecture Clark urged the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Felton Board to put their money on ‘the purchase of experimental work’ because

‘this seems to me particularly necessary in this country, where you have a young and vital and adventurous school of painting.’

Australian painting was just emerging from its French impressionist period (as was seen in the first ever exhibition of Australian art at the London National Gallery in early 2017). Clark saw a place for Australian Impressionism in the popular art of ‘gardens and sailing boats and bathers.’ But he also urged the managers of the Gallery and the Bequest to see that ‘your painters who are trying to create a native style’ cannot rely on the old masters:

‘What they need to guide and stimulate them is a sight of the best modern work, something which still has about it the thrill of experiment. They are trying to discover a fresh way of seeing, and they must be allowed to study the work of those European and Latin American artists who are doing the same.’

Clark congratulated the NGV on its ‘great courage’ in buying contemporary British art works (which he had recommended) including those by Victor Pasmore and Henry Moore. He also recommended (without a fee) works by John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Gwen John and Lucien Freud for the Adelaide Art Gallery of South Australia.

It may be that Clark himself was discovering a fresh way of seeing, having been taken by Joseph Burke to meet thirty year old Sidney Nolan who had gone to Sydney to escape the menage a trois he had throughout the war years with his patrons, Sunday and John Reed. It is interesting that Burke, a former British intelligence officer, did this despite Nolan still being technically on the run before he could take advantage of the Australian government’s 1949 amnesty for war-time deserters. Burke also recommended that Clark visit the Reeds at Heide to see the paintings Nolan had painted there during his years as an absconder, advising Clark that Ned Kelly was ‘the bush ranger anarchist and hero of the local school boys and communists.’

Clark himself had more than once said that the purpose of the War Artists Advisory Committee in London had been ‘to save our friends’ by keeping the artists out of the armed services and giving them work, as his most recent biographer puts it, although several did go to war zones and Henry Moore’s drawing of the Blitz became iconic.

Clark himself put some of his own money on paintings by Nolan and Russell Drysdale to take back to his collection, though he ran into unexpected import taxes in the process.

Once back in London Sir Kenneth championed young Australian artists such as Nolan and Drysdale to the point that Joseph Burke called him the ‘deus ex machina’ of the sudden blossoming of an Australian art market. Nolan in particular became a frequent visitor to Clark’s Saltwood Castle. His most recent, authorised biographer, James Stourton, writes that:

‘Nolan was the last major contemporary artist that Clark was to befriend and champion’

– and that was in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Clark wrote to his own mentor Bernard Berenson in March 1949 that:

‘I enjoyed Australia far more than I had expected to do. I find it hard to say why without seeming patronising, but the brilliant climate seems to have had a magical effect on the Anglo Saxons, removing their inhibitions and hypocrisies. Of course they are very naïve – hardly out of the pioneering stage – but they are a gifted people, only held back by laziness.’

Pace Gallipoli and Singapore.

He thought the landscape was like a Piero della Francesca. But he could also begin to see what the Aboriginal artists were painting.

Landscape into Art was published in mid-1949. The last section discusses Cezanne, who had been important to Clark since he first saw his work as a teenager in Bath. Clark says Cezanne

‘was quite incapable of using the traditional devices by which post-Baroque artists had achieved the illusion of depth… we see how he felt that a picture must exist as a design of flat patterns even before it creates an illusion of depth.’

There is in his landscapes, Clark wrote, a ‘frontality of attack’ with its ‘powerful horizontals which run parallel to the picture plane, and support the simplified mass’ that ‘produce an immediate assault on the eye.’

Nearly 15 years earlier Clark had expostulated in The Listener of October 2, 1935 – the day, as Martin Hammer points out, that Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia and set the course of the next decade – against the new forces of surrealism and abstractionism in modern, especially German, art. Barely thirty years old and newly appointed director of the National Gallery, Clark declared :

‘We need a new myth in which the symbols are inherently pictorial’ that

‘must contain the possibility of pictorial symbolism.’

He seemed to find this in Sidney Nolan in particular of the Australian artists he championed in the 1950s and 1960s. Look at Nolan’s paintings lined up on an internet page and one can see that the composition of almost all was the strong icon often plumb in the middle of the board, drawing the eye forcefully to the narrative contained in the painting. The vanishing points are those of the commercial artist that Nolan was before the war. It worked over and over again – Nolan is said to have made 40,000 painting before he died in 1992.

Colin MacInnes wrote in 1961 that:

‘Nolan is an artist who has evolved from the conceptual to the figurative instead, as is more usual, the other way about.’

Several commentators have remarked that the evolution was by way of faux-naive folkloric art. (My father, who attended the Art School of the National Gallery of Victoria in the late 1940s on his American GI Bill entitlement before the two prams in the hall defeated him, used to say Nolan was the Grandma Moses of Australia.) And his fellow artists teased him for his picture plane – or his lack of one as Brett Whitely put it in 1961. Even Sir Kenneth eventually suggested he look into the question of perspective.

But when the predominantly Melbourne-based figurative artists published their Antipodean Manifesto in August 1959 challenging the Sydney abstractionists with their view that:

‘Today tachistes, action painters, geometric abstractionists, abstract expressionists and their innumerable band of camp followers threaten to benumb the intellect and wit of art with their bland and pretentious mysteries’

that ‘reveals.. a death of the mind and spirit,’ Nolan would not sign it.

As the Australian art critic Robert Hughes wrote:

‘The best-known Australian figurative painter was not in this melee, or even in Melbourne. He could not be persuaded to sign the Antipodean Manifesto. He was in London enjoying his life as our most famous expatriate… Nolan, ever complicated, wouldn’t touch it.’

The British art critic John Russell wrote in 1957:

‘The art public was longing to find a figurative painter whom it could respect, and in Nolan it found him.’

But the zeitgeist was changing and London was no longer its only centre. By the 1960s the young gallerist and protege of Sir Kenneth Clark, Bryan Robertson, was writing that:

‘The main hope for the future springs, happily I believe, from the London-New York cultural axis.’

Clark’s then inamorata (his wife had a lot to put up, which probably goes a long way to explaining her alcoholism), the figurative painter Mary Kessell, had introduced him to the young Robertson when he was managing the small art gallery of Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge in 1948, before the Australian voyage.

Robertson came from modest suburban London origins. While Clark spent his youth having the servants rehang the pictures in the family mansion, Robertson spent much time abed with asthma, teaching himself a great deal about art from reproductions.

In 1952 Robertson asked Clark for a reference for the directorship of the Whitechapel Gallery, in the wrong end of London. He told Clark he was excited by

‘the educational side of organizing large scale exhibitions and arousing interest among the public. Its (sic) something I really can do, with great gusto, and love doing. So the Whitechapel is a very alluring thought!’

Clark had already funded Robertson to a Paris trip, and wrote in strong support, securing him the Whitechapel job.

Robertson was Clark’s ally in promoting the Australian artists in London through the 1950s, and travelled in Australia for 6 weeks to select paintings for a survey exhibition at the turn of of the decade. But he was half Clark’s age and had a far more contemporaneous eye.

Six months after he had returned from Australia, in mid 1949 Clark had another artistic epiphany when he was in Venice for the Bellini exhibition.

‘Walking back to the Hotel Monaco, at the corner of the Piazza’ he recalled, ‘I could see through the open doors of an exhibition gallery, large canvasses covered with scrawl of aggressive paint. No greater contrast to the quiet and comforting voice of Bellini can be imaged. They screamed and shouted from the back of the banal modern gallery. At first I was horrified, but in the end I went in before visiting the Bellinis, and recognised these explosions of energy were the work of a genuine artist. It was the first European exhibition of Jackson Pollock.’

But this infatuation (his first biographer, Meryle Secrest who knew Sir Kenneth in his last years, wrote:

‘He followed his developing eye and was swept along in the enthusiasm of the moment… Grasping and letting go: he veered between the compulsiveness of the born collector and indifference.’)

did not last and when he was invited to give the first annual Reed & Barton design lecture in the USA in 1962 he bade farewell to his flirtation with modernism with The Blot and the Diagram.’

He acknowledged that the abstract expressionists and their cousins marked a shift in the zeitgeist such had been seen several times before in art history. In this he specifically name-checked Jackson Pollock –

‘the kind of painting and architecture which we find most representative of our times – say, the painting of Jackson Pollock and the architecture of the Lever building – is deeply different from the painting and architecture of the past; and is not [emphasis in original] a mere whim of fashion, but the result of a great change in our ways of thinking and feeling.’

Sounding like a ton-up vicar, he suggested that ‘the closest analogy to action painting is the most popular art of all – the art of jazz. The trumpeter who rises from his seat as one possessed, and squirts out his melody like a scarlet scrawl against a background of plangent dashes and dots, is not as a rule performing for a small body of intellectuals.’

Clark chaired the Arts Council in the 1950s (putting Bryan Robertson on its committees) and then moved into television broadcasting, culminating in the thirteen programmes of Civilisation (which the Japanese know as Some Aspects of Western Civilisation) that barely nod at the twentieth century. The book made from them ends with the sober thought:

‘One may be optimistic. But one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.’

The young fogey was morphing into a wistful old one.

In 1961 Thames and Hudson published a heavy and expensive tome on Sidney Nolan with sections written by Colin MacInness, Kenneth Clark and Bryan Robertson. Shortly before, Robertson had published a eulogy of Jackson Pollock with Thames and Hudson, as sole author.

Robertson was a booster for Pollock in general and Blue Poles in particular from the mid 1950s. In his 1960 book on Pollock (dedicated to his widow Lee Krasner), Robertson devoted several pages to Blue Poles with its ‘spattered paint swiftly flicked from a loaded brush.’ This, he wrote,

‘is painting by remote control’ where ‘no brush or intermediary tool of any kind acts as a barrier between the spectator and the convolutions of the paint. Immediacy and fastidiously contrived spontaneity reign supreme.’

Robertson is credited with having introduced Britons to modern art during his nearly two decades at the Whitechapel Gallery in the fifties and sixties. As well as Nolan, Boyd, Whiteley and other Australians he exhibited Mondrian, de Stael, Malevich, Rothko, Tobey, Guston, Poliakoff, Rauschenberg, Kline, Johns, Louis and Motherwell. He gave Pollock, who died in 1956, his first British retrospective in 1958.

It maybe wondered how he attracted so many of the Americans in particular to the Whitechapel in London’s not yet gentrified East End.

The designer of the Jackson Pollock exhibition was a young London architect Trevor Dannatt, who at 98 years old still recalls the events of the 1950s clearly, as I found when I spoke to him recently on the 60th anniversary of the 1958 exhibition.

He told me:

‘Bryan had his finger on the pulse. He managed to get a remarkable set of exhibitions. This was the result of what you might call American cultural projection as part of the cold war and was probably CIA-funded. He was what I would call catholic in his tastes.’

Staging Jackson Pollock

‘Bryan asked me to do the installation. We travelled to Berlin and we assessed all the pictures, took all the measurements and I conceived the arrangement in an architectural mode. It was a big installation, unusual for the time, to enhance the organisation of the pictures.’

Dannatt had never seen Jackson Pollock’s work before he went to Berlin. ‘It was very architectural, space enhancing. I was in consonance with the artworks. Bryan and I considered where each painting should go in the construction of the four white walls.’

Oddly (or predictably) – given that 7 of the 32 shows Robertson mounted at the Whitechapel were by women – Robertson’s obituarists when he died in 2002 rarely mentioned the 1965 retrospective exhibition of the work of Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner. In the exhibition catalogue Robertson quoted a prominent American art historian who commented that Krasner was often credited – not quite a decade after her husband’s death in a drunken car accident in 1956 – ‘with having almost single-handedly forced up prices for contemporary American art after the death.’

But not totally single-handedly. Bryan Robertson also wrote in the 1965 Krasner catalogue that:

‘I attended some conferences involving disposition of the Pollock estate. Along with others I advised Lee to release the paintings in a slow but regular manner.’

Which is to say, he advised that the drip paintings should be dripped onto the market. There were rather a lot of them, such that most were numbered rather than named.

Robertson was tipped for the directorship of the Tate in 1964 but was pipped by a safer pair of hands. The Guardian obituary in 2002 considered that he made the Whitechapel if anything more influential than Tate Modern.

But in 1969 he was out of the Whitechapel and in 1971 took up the directorship of the Neuberger Museum of Art being built at the State University of New York’s new Arts campus at Purchase, 30 miles out from New York City.

Financier Roy R. Neuberger said he had recruited ‘the noted critic and curator’ as the first director of the museum because

‘He had been the influential director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, where he was the first to introduce Jackson Pollock and other contemporary American painters to British art lovers. It was said that Robertson taught Britain to love modern art.’

Robertson was now in striking distance of both New York city and Lee Krasner who lived on Long Island and whom he had often visited in New York over the years, sometimes in the company of Australian artist Lawrence Daws.

In his 1965 Preface to Krasner’s retrospective at the Whitechapel Robertson also included Harold Rosenberg’s comment on the artist’s widow who

‘stands partway between artists and patron-collectors. As well as usually controlling the deceased artist’s ‘unsold production’ … she is courted and her views heeded by dealers, collectors, curators, historians, publishers, to say nothing of lawyers and tax specialists. It is hard to think of anyone in the Establishment who exceeds the widow in the number of powers concentrated in the hands of a single person.’

So Bryan Robertson probably wasn’t surprised when he was asked to attend a meeting in Washington in January 1974 a few weeks after the Australian Government bought Blue Poles to be the wow factor of its planned National Gallery.

The 45th anniversary of the sale of Pollock’s Blue Poles to the National Gallery of Australia for US$2,000,000 – the highest price in 1973 for any contemporary American painting occurred a few months ago.

The Washington meeting was triggered by the consternation among some Australians (and others) about the US$2,000,000 paid for what two of Pollock’s friends, Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, were saying began in drunken experimentation with painting techniques. Lee Krasner denied emphatically (but carefully) that any other artist ‘participated in the creation of this painting as it looks today.’ This claim is still repeated in the NGA website albeit under the heading ‘Painted by drunks!’

The NGA website elaborates:

In May 1973, (director-designate James) Mollison received a letter from art dealer Max Hutchinson, casually mentioning Blue poles was for sale. Mollison and his Acquisitions Committee agreed the painting was a ‘masterpiece’, while Whitechapel Gallery director Bryan Robertson prophesied, ‘The presence of Blue poles in Australia will inevitably change the course of Australian history, because it will affect the developing imagination and awareness of successive generations of Australians… It will become a talisman of a great nation.’

Mollison had been an employee of Max Hutchinson in his Sydney gallery. Hutchinson opened London galleries in the 1960s and in the 1970s he had two galleries in New York. In 1973 Bryan Robertson, based at Purchase N.Y., wrote the catalogue introduction to an exhibition of the work of the Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore at the Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York.

Robertson didn’t survive at the Neuberger Museum after its opening in 1974. According to the London Telegraph obituary in 2002:

‘His departure was hastened by his demand for some mature weeping willows to be flown in as the only possible backdrop for a Hepworth sculpture.’

In 1975 Robertson enlisted the help of his mentor, Sir Kenneth Clark, to be offered the Associate Directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria. Clark gave him a glowing reference, saying Robertson had for fifteen years given

‘a series of exhibitions of modern painting which were much the most important and influential to be shown in England.’

Everyone who cared for art had to find their way to the Whitechapel.

Clark considered that Robertson was

‘the most gifted gallery director (next to Sir John Pope-Hennessy) who has been produced in England since the war’

and would have liked to see him direct the Tate. Victoria would be lucky to get him.

But Robertson eventually declined the Australian post because, he apologised to Clark, of

‘Dread, really. Of going off to the other side of the world.’

Two years later Robertson suggested to Clark that they go to Australia for a month ‘with the BBC boys’ and make two or three programmes for which he suggested the rough title ‘The first and ultimate landscape’. This would, said the acolyte,

‘extend, in an odd way, Landscape into Art, because in Australia you find a deeply sophisticated landscape.’

In his mid-seventies, Clark wasn’t up for it. But if he had been, he would have found the National Gallery of Victoria removed to a purpose-built elegant blue stone building on the banks of the Yarra river, where it has flourished ever since 1968. On the 50th anniversary in 2018 of the relocation from its down-at-heel quarters next to the State Library of Victoria where Sir Kenneth Clark visited it in January 1949, NGV was indeed found to be ‘a great gallery’, holding its place alone of Australian art galleries in the top 20 most visited art museums in the world. An expansion is planned on the adjacent site, the old Carlton and United Breweries plant.