In 1969 the BBC aired a 13-part documentary entitled “Civilisation: A Personal View.” Hosted by an upper-class Englishman with crooked teeth and a penchant for tweed, it traced the history of European art, music and literature from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, ending on a note of slightly qualified despair. The humanist values celebrated in the series were being lost or forgotten. More and more, we worshiped the machine and the computer, and instead of living with joy, confidence and energy, we dwelt gloomily in the valley of the shadow of global destruction. Still, there had been Dark Ages in the past, and humankind just might squeak through, by — as the very first episode declared — “the skin of our teeth.”

Not surprisingly, no American TV network wanted to pick up an artsy-fartsy program highlighting a talking head who might be discoursing in front of Chartres Cathedral one week and discussing the sculptures of Bernini the next. Oh, ye of little faith! When Washington’s National Gallery of Art arranged a special screening of “Civilisation” in the fall of 1969, the queue to see the first episode stretched down the Mall and numbered in the thousands. The gallery quickly took to running each weekly installment multiple times. Finally picked up by PBS, “Civilisation” was a television blockbuster in 1970, its companion book sold a million and a half copies in its first decade and Sir Kenneth Clark — the subject of the superb biography “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and ‘Civilisation’  ” by James Stourton — emerged as high culture’s classiest superstar.

"Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation,' by James Stourton (Knopf)

Born in 1903 as the only child of an extremely wealthy cotton thread-manufacturing family, Clark could have spent his days shooting pheasants and sailing yachts like his father, or he could have partied with the Bright Young Things depicted in the novels of his Oxford classmate Evelyn Waugh. Instead, a love of art gave his life purpose and shape. Clark would become a collector, who acquired major works by Turner, Cézanne, and Renoir; a patron, who championed contemporary British artists such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland; and a scholar who catalogued the da Vinci drawings in Windsor Castle and brought out important books, notably “Landscape Into Art ” and “The Nude.”

Nonetheless, Clark initially made his mark in what we would now call arts administration. Following a short stint in Florence at the knee of the great painting connoisseur Bernard Berenson and the publication of a youthful book on Victorian architecture, Clark was appointed Keeper of Fine Arts at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Three years later, in 1933, when he was just 30, he became director of London’s National Gallery of Art. Deciding to step down from this post after World War II, he subsequently served on the boards of seemingly every institution that had anything to do with the arts, including the British Museum, the National Theater, the Royal Opera House, the Arts Council, the London Library and even the Independent Television Authority. He actually assumed the chairmanship of this last at a time when he didn’t own a television. Governing all this activity lay the two-part conviction that great art enhanced people’s lives and that everyone should have access to it.

Clark’s occasional chilliness and a sometimes Olympian hauteur were offset by his generous and warmhearted wife, Jane. Over the years the couple lived in several fine houses in and around London, threw fabulous dinner parties and knew simply everyone, including the king and queen. In later life “K”— as everyone called him — surrounded himself with other women, but never considered leaving Jane. As Stourton suggests, he tended more often toward “amitiés amoureuses”— amorous friendships —rather than passionate affairs.

Stourton emphasizes that Clark, for all his successes, regularly felt conflicted about how he was spending his life. While chairing councils and boards, he would yearn for his library and for time to work on serious books. Yet any long period of retreat and solitude made him antsy, and he would soon hurry back to the London arena. As a consequence, Clark came to believe — like his friend the literary critic Cyril Connolly — that he had never quite lived up to his gifts. After all, academics regularly dismissed him as just an aesthete or a mere popularizer — and in dark moments he felt that they were right, no matter how well he wrote about John Ruskin or Piero della Francesca. Even some admirers today feel that Clark’s most lasting book might be his elegant, irony-suffused memoir, “Another Part of the Wood ,” published nine years before his death in 1983.

For those who first saw “Civilisation” nearly half a century ago, the series still works its magic. But Stourton notes that younger audiences now find it dated, a period piece. Clark leaves out non-Western art, discusses male artists almost exclusively and sometimes sounds not just patrician but emphatically elitist. All true, and yet after re-watching some of the programs, I found myself . . . wistful.

I had devoured Stourton’s biography just after last week’s election and couldn’t help but compare our new president-elect — so coarse, mean-spirited and smug — with the cultivated and gentlemanly Clark. One had done nothing but enrich himself and make our world more garish and vulgar, the other had devoted his wealth, privilege and intelligence to bringing art and beauty to the widest possible audience.

James Stourton’s “Kenneth Clark” is outstanding from every viewpoint: Its author knows the art world, having been a chairman of Sotheby’s UK, his research draws on every available resource, and he tells us both about Clark’s private life and public career in equally fascinating detail. The chapters on the making of “Civilisation” are particularly engrossing. All in all, this is one of the best and most enjoyable biographies of the year.

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.

Kenneth clark
Life, Art, and Civilisation

Life, Art, and ‘Civilisation’

By James Stourton

Knopf. 496 pp. $35