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The lights may have gone out in 1914, but the British upper classes quickly learned how to survive (and thrive) gracefully in the dark. Witness Sir Kenneth Clark: one-time boy wonder, named (at age thirty) to the directorship of the National Gallery and, later, the first art critic to become a television personality of international repute. In these languid, rambling memoirs (which leave off in 1939) Sir Kenneth sets out to convince us that -- though a scion of the Edwardian ""idle rich"" and a self-professed ""aesthete"" -- at heart he was and is just an average sort of bloke. Gentlemen may never seem to boast, and Sir Kenneth is not one to monkey about with the Code. So what he here dishes up is a cold supper of mildly caustic reminiscences of those Important People he has known, loved, or seen through, garnished with a doggedly ingratiating false modesty and the occasional liberal noise calculated to keep non-U readers from thinking revolutionary thoughts. Written in the English Manner, the memoirs are sublimely impersonal -- equally compounded of pride, discretion, and psychological obliviousness. Clark's wife emerges as little more than ""the best dressed woman in London"" and a ""born hostess""; his children, though ""the joy"" of his life, are almost invisible; his mother -- an intriguing figure -- is shrouded in mystery. Only the portrait of Clark's father, drawn with affection if not insight, possesses a trace of humanity. The rest is anecdotal and chit-chatty, with bits and pieces about art and art politics sandwiched in between the comings and goings of the high and the mighty. They are all here, from Vanessa Ben and Sir Phillip Sassoon to Winston Churchill, Henry Moore and Bernard Berenson. Ramsay MacDonald appears in his dotage to warn young Kenneth never to let the Tories get him. Kenneth says that he never did. Aesthetes are above politics. But, as these memoirs demonstrate, they are not above class. Still, to the enthusiastic audience of Civilisation, Clark's genteel if singularly unrevelatory remembrances may be a real delight.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1975
Publisher: Harper & Row