Kenneth Clark, the distinguished British art historian who brought "Civilisation" to American television, captivating audiences with his wit, erudition and reconciling vision of human achievements, died yesterday at age 79 in a nursing home outside London, his family said.

The widely acclaimed 13-part television series broadcast here in 1970 made Lord Clark, already a leading figure in the art world, an overnight success with the general public.

Combining a learned, patrician manner with engaging informality, he swept through the history of Western civilization, and audiences were swept along with him.

Nine people who watched the series wrote him that it had stayed them from committing suicide.

Novelist J. B. Priestley said at the time that the series was itself a contribution to civilization, or at least civilized television. Critics praised it for successfully knitting together the disparate elements of art, architecture, music and poetry, producing a cohesive, unified whole.

Lord Clark himself found the business of being an instant celebrity yet another source of fascination. "So many people recognize me wherever I travel and I love it," he said. "I don't have a dull moment. I'm told that real celebrities find it a bit off-putting, but I feel strongly that people want to know life and learn about happiness. And knowing a little about history of art is a very good way of doing it."

Born the heir to a Scottish cotton-thread fortune, Kenneth McKenzie Clark--in later life, Baron Clark of Saltwood--set out at an early age to become a master in the world of art historians. At 16, he told schoolmates at Winchester school he wanted to work with the famous art expert, Bernard Berenson.

They mocked his ambition then, but when he met Berenson soon after, young Clark was invited to become his assistant and help in the revision of the authoritative work, "Florentine Drawings."

Lord Clark went on to become an authority on the Italian Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca. Two of his best-known works of art history and criticism are "Landscape into Art" and "The Nude," praised by critics for their clarity and elegance.

At 28, he was made keeper of the Department of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. Two years later, he became director of Britain's National Gallery, its youngest ever. He held the post from 1934 to 1945.

He was also the surveyor of the royal picture collection, a professor of fine art at Oxford University, a trustee of the British Museum and the Museums Council of France, and a vice chairman of the Royal Opera and the National Theatre.

Resigning as director of the National Gallery after World War II, Lord Clark then devoted himself to writing, lecturing, and later, to television appearances. He did 48 other TV programs before tackling "Civilisation."

"The first ones," he said later, "weren't at all good. I had to learn." He was later to become the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority, founded in 1954.

"When I was young," Lord Clark remarked once during that period, "I thought of myself as a scholar. Now I think of myself as a communicator."

One day, at lunch with David Attenborough, a BBC network chief, the word "civilization" came up. Lord Clark jotted down 13 headings on a piece of paper, and two years, 80,000 miles and $500,000 later, the series was on the air--first in Britain and then on public television here.

Lord Clark told one interviewer he didn't do any reading for the series. "Quite the contrary," he said. "All I did was forget things. The difficulty was to eliminate."

But he knew what he wanted to say: "that civilization is better than barbarism, to show how human beings have hiked themselves and what has added up to a human philosophy." Each period, he noted, made its contribution: in the 13th century, it was chivalry; the 19th century gave us the application of science and humanitarianism.

In the TV series, Lord Clark told the story of the Duke of Urbino who was asked once what was necessary to rule a kingdom. The Duke's answer was, "Essere umano: to be human."

It was a phrase Lord Clark used himself in interviews. "All I want is that people should have a direct relationship with life and with each other. As the Duke of Urbino said, be human."

By seeking to engage the inexpert public, Lord Clark wanted to free art from its scholastic cage. Art appreciation in America, he said once, is "too formal and pedantic. Kids at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are being harangued by earnest ladies. . . "

Lord Clark was hailed by Sir Michael Levey, current director of the British National Gallery, as having done more to increase "general appreciation of visual arts than any other single British figure since Victorian times.

"At its best, his urbane style of writing was unmatched among art historians."

His book, "Civilisation," a handsome coffe-table volume based on the television series, sold about 1 million copies in this country, but "Ruskin Today," which Lord Clark spent 15 years writing and which he considered far superior, ended up as a remainder by the publishers.

Lord Clark also wrote two books of autobiography, "Another Part of the Wood," published in 1974, and "The Other Half," in 1978.

In them, he described his childhood and his parents who, he wrote, were members of "that section of society known as the idle rich, and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been very few that were idler."

In the years after "Civilisation," Lord Clark often said that the years spent producing the television series were among his happiest.

"It seems ridiculous to say that the happiest years of my life took place when I was sixty-eight, but so it was," he wrote in "The Other Half."

"One nice thing I have found is that I don't seem to run out of ideas," he said in 1969. "They may be moonshine, but I hope they are not."

Lord Clark, described by friends as a fastidious man with impeccable taste in food and wine, as well as music and paintings, was married in 1927 to Elizabeth Martin, who died in 1975.

He is survived by his wife, Nolwen, whom he married in 1976, and three children, Alan, a member of Parliament, Colin, a TV director, and Colette, a director of the Covent Garden opera.