Lord Kenneth Clark began his seminal 1969 television series Civilisation by quoting Ruskin: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.” Perhaps the same can be said of great men. James Stourton’s superb new biography, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, revisits Clark’s long career of deeds, quotes extensively from his large corpus of written work, and examines the televised art that he produced (“Civilisation was in a sense Clark’s autobiography”) to present a compelling picture of a great man.

Stourton, the former chairman of Sotheby’s U.K., begins at the beginning, describing Clark’s Edwardian childhood as the neglected son of rich parents (in Clark’s words, “many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler”); Clark’s discovery of the power of art as a sensitive Winchester schoolboy (“nothing could destroy me as long as I could enjoy works of art”); and his exposure, at Oxford, to Ruskin’s ideas that “beauty was everyone’s birthright” and that “art should belong to all.”

Stourton then turns to Clark’s long and spectacular career, and uses it to highlight aspects of his personality—and to mark the path that led to Civilisation. At twenty-seven, Clark was offered the Keepership of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest public museum in Britain, and he accepted knowing that “administration would prevent me from writing the great books that I already had in mind.” Three years later, in 1933, Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery, where his sincere efforts to bring art to the people foreshadowed his celebrated future as an art populist champion. He encouraged the trustees to eliminate entrance charges; he strong-armed resistant scholars into contributing to “popular” Gallery handbooks (they felt it was “joyless” work; Clark considered scholarship for scholarship’s sake to be “knitting”); he arranged, as a sign of life and hope, a Picture of the Month when many of the museum’s great treasures had been buried, under his direction, in Welsh caves as the storm clouds of World War II gathered.

Clark’s commitment to public service and popularizing art landed him on the boards of numerous institutions, including the British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, the Governing Council of Bath Academy of Art, the Home House Trust, the Council for the Festival of Britain and many others. He also found time to write a number of still-read volumes, including Leonardo da Vinci, The Nude, and Ruskin Today, which Stourton references to demonstrate Clark’s verbal virtuosity. “[B]eside prosaic horses . . . are wild ethereal horses, with nervous heads thrown back,” Clark enthuses about Leonardo’s drawings; and of the Mona Lisa, “the surface has the delicacy of a new-laid egg.”

Along the way, Stourton serves up plenty of personal material to reveal Clark’s “true unbuttoned character,” including details about his sophisticated marriage to an unhappy, alcoholic wife, as well as his prolific string of mistresses and amitiés amoureuses—though the impression is not of a cad, but of an introverted man aching for affection. We see, also, his love for Saltwood Castle, the “intensely romantic” medieval complex where he lived; he repeatedly put to market his personal art collection to maintain his home.

Clark helped create and regulate much of the early video content in Britain.

But it was in 1954, when Clark was offered the chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority, that the winding path to his magnum opus began to straighten. Despite the fact that he didn’t own a television, he accepted the position knowing that “Television gives people what they want. It is not keeping people from reading, they are not reading anyway.” For the next three years, he helped create and regulate much of the early video content in Britain. And “one minute” after his chairmanship ended, he was asked to present a series of programs on art, which inaugurated a decade of appearances on British television, nearly sixty programs focusing on painters and palaces, and which “helped establish a cultural agenda on British television.”

Thus was Clark positioned, in 1966, to produce the thirteen-episode survey of art, music, architecture, and culture that was Civilisation. The show’s spectacular success led Clark to worldwide fame, a peerage, and a moment at the National Gallery in Washington where “the galleries were crammed full of people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and stretching them out towards me.” After his speech, he reported that he “retired to the ‘gents’ where I burst into tears. I sobbed and howled for a quarter of an hour,” so overwhelmed was he by the acclaim.

But why the acclaim? What nerve had he touched? “Religion is at the heart of his story,” writes Stourton, and you don’t get any deeper than that. And yet Clark himself was surprised by this. “Strange how my history of civilization has really turned into a history of religion. I fear it will please nobody.”

Which raises the question: what was Clark’s religion? Stourton provides clues. Clark’s preferred reading included the Early Church fathers (which Stourton flags as “unexpected”), and theology is described as one of Clark’s chief occupations. Stourton reports that “he liked to sit and contemplate in an old church, and claimed to have crossed the road and entered St James’s Piccadilly every day when he was in London.” And, when once questioned about whether by ascriptions of God-given artistic genius he really meant “God,” Clark hesitated and then declared “As a matter of fact, I do!”

Despite his sensitivity to religion, his articulated beliefs were more muddled: “I cannot get it into my head,” he wrote, “that the C of E [Church of England] is not concerned with God, but with good fellowship, cricket, flowers etc. . . . The trouble is that my notions of religion are derived either from the medieval saints or the seventeenth-century preachers, and I don’t realize how things have changed.” And while he expressed personal doubts about Christianity (“I cannot accept the doctrine of the Atonement”), nevertheless “Clark was to astonish the crew during the filming of one of the early episodes when he carried the medieval Cross of Lothair up to the altar of Aachen Cathedral, and burst into tears.”

Stourton ends his book with a description of Clark’s final deed, his reception of “Communion according to the proper rites” by a Catholic priest, with the words “Thank you, Father, that is what I have been longing for.” Stourton considers whether this was simply an instance of Pascal’s wager, or a display of good manners towards his Catholic second wife, but concludes that “Clark’s long fascination with the Catholic Church and its history had been pointing to such an outcome.”

And in the end, whether he resolved his theological questions intellectually is really beside the point. Clark understood—and loved—the civilization that made him, and he shared that love with the world, in deed, word, and art. Stourton reports that Clark’s wife told his daughter that after he had been given extreme unction “a beatific smile came over his face; he then went to sleep, never to wake up.”