Artful History

“There have been times in the history of man when the earth seems suddenly to have grown warmer… I don’t put that forward as a scientific proposition, but the fact remains that three or four times in history man has made a leap forward that would have been unthinkable under ordinary evolutionary conditions.”

With these words at the opening of the second episode of his masterly television series, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark introduces an engrossing account of the unexpected flowering of creativity in 12th Century Europe.

Civilisation - Title

The start of another artful hour

The same might also be said, albeit at some risk of over-statement, of the genesis of Civilisation and the documentary series that came after it — gems such as Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man or Alistair Cooke’s America. There was a movement, an impulse in television documentary in the late 1960s and early 1970s that seems to have set a new standard of excellence. In this case, however, the reasons for the new impulse are reasonably clear: the creation of BBC2 with a remit to contribute to educational programming in the UK and the arrival of David Attenborough as controller of the new channel, a man determined to find subjects that would showcase the capabilities of the new technology of high-resolution colour television — BBC2 was the first European TV channel to broadcast regularly in colour.

Attenborough’s conception was to build a program around the most beautiful pictures and buildings produced in Western Europe, accompanied by the music of the time and narrated by a prominent art historian. To cut a long story barbarically short he lighted upon Kenneth Clark as the ideal presenter and a few short years later, in 1969, Civilisation: A Personal View — to give the series its full title (1) — was broadcast. I have just watched the entire series for the first time on DVD (2) and it is quite wonderful.

I didn’t think it would be at the start because the construction is, perhaps of necessity, rather laboured. The style of the programs is more sedate than the rapid fire of modern programming and Clark takes a couple of hours to get into his stride. But when he does so, the effect is riveting.

The concept of the series — taken from Ruskin — is that great nations may only truly be known by reading the book of their art. Clark takes as his starting point the collapse of the Roman empire, overrun by the barbarians, and the descent into a cultural darkness that shrouded Europe for hundreds of years. From there, in thirteen hour-long episodes he traces the re-emergence of Western civilisation from the 10th century onwards, approximately a century at a time.

His story is woven, as Attenborough intended, around the artefacts of this emergent civilisation— the buildings, sculpture, ornamentation, tapestries, paintings, music, opera, poems and plays that sprang forth from the human mind as it struggled to comprehend the world and the meaning and vicissitudes of existence.

Kenneth Clark

Clark is a formidable but amiable host. He was a highly respected art historian before making a late career in television. The immediate impression he gives is rather patrician — well-cut suits and tweed jackets, polished accent, bald pate accentuating a high brow above strangely narrowed eyes, just a pair of dark slots. But listen to that refined voice for just a few minutes and you realise you are in the company of a superb and benevolent intellect. His wit and perception surprised me time and again, lifting insight from this cathedral facade or teasing intention from the pose of that statue. This was a subtle and supple mind, one that reached into places I didn’t even know existed.

Clark’s pieces to camera are complemented by lengthy visual segments accompanied only by music. These may be too slow for some. At times Civilisation contrives to make Sagan’s thoughtful meander through the Cosmos look indecorously rushed. The camera pans slowly through the interior of a church, or drifts admiringly over the contours of a sculpture, or closes gradually on a detail from a painting as choirs sing or orchestras play. But the pace has been well measured for its purpose: appreciation.

Even so, the richness of the narrative is staggering. I found I had to watch each episode twice to absorb the better part of the detail. I was consoled to learn that the programs were originally broadcast twice a week, in part to justify the extreme expense of the production but also because Attenborough rightly perceived that people would be hungry to see it again.

Despite the repetition, I have been overwhelmed and hesitated to even start this blog post. I don’t know how to do justice to Clark’s artful story. It is hard for me to navigate by the key points or the most telling insights because there were simply too many of them. The best I can do — and it is poor fare since I cannot hope to convey the visual wealth of the program — is to pick out a few fragments of Clark’s arresting erudition and wit.

Sometimes it even spills over into wittiness. Here he is in the very first episode quoting a Celtic account of the Viking invasions of Ireland:

“‘If there were a hundred tongues in each head’, said a contemporary Irish writer, ‘they could not recount or narrate or enumerate or tell what all the Irish suffered of hardships or of injuring and of oppression in every household from those valiant, wrathful, purely pagan people.’

Then he looks into the camera and says, “The Celts haven’t changed much.” The cheeky sod, I thought, until I realised that Clark’s wife was Irish, so perhaps it was a whimsical marital jibe.

More often he is serious. Contemplating 10th Century crucifixes, Clark perceptively observes:

“We have grown so used to the idea that the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity, that it is a shock to realise how late in the history of Christian art its power was recognised… The simple fact is that the early Church needed converts, and from this point of view the Crucifixion was not an encouraging subject.”

Speaking of the elaborate Cluniac style of ecclesiastical art that appeared in southern France in the 12th Century Clark suspects that this eruption was due to an “irrepressible, irresponsible energy”, and notes memorably that “the Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins.”

Such inventive imagery is typical of the man but Clark often also reveals a sensitive touch. He recalls the pilgrimages, which were partly motivated by the desire to gather relics to be displayed to the faithful in ornate enclosures — the bones of saints, fragments from the cross, milk of the virgin’s breast. While we might easily scoff at such artefacts today, Clark is more understanding and extends a placating hand: “that is the medieval mind. They cared passionately about the truth but their sense of evidence was different from ours.”

That eloquent and compassionate understanding is a common thread but it is by no means always sympathetic to the Church. Talking in a later episode of the Catholic restoration that followed the Reformation and erected the colossus of St Peter’s in Rome as a re-assertion of authority, Clark says:

“The sense of grandeur is no doubt a human instinct but, carried too far, it becomes inhuman. I wonder if a single thought that had helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room; except, perhaps, in the reading room of the British Library.”

That tail-end remark is a sly allusion to Karl Marx, who crops up in the final program on the inhumanity of industrialisation that in turn stirred the first movements of humanitarianism. The comment foreshadows the supplanting of religious by more critical or inquisitive impulses to guide artistic creation as the centuries passed. It was in early 17th Century Holland where these ideas started to take root. Clark observes:

“When one begins to ask the question ‘does it work?’ or even ‘does it pay’ instead of ‘is it God’s will?’ one gets a new set of answers and one of the first of them is this: that to try to suppress opinions which one doesn’t share is much less profitable than to tolerate them.”

What a beautifully succinct introduction to the emergence of the Enlightenment. It brings Clark momentarily into the realm of science. His touch here is sure though somewhat limited — Clark seems more impressed by engineering than science — and he really only mentions Newton en route to introducing Christopher Wren, mathematician and astronomer turned architect. Along the way he is candid about the extent of his knowledge:

“I can’t pretend that I have read the Principia, and if I did I wouldn’t understand it any more than Samuel Pepys did when, as President of the Royal Society, it was handed to him for approval.”

Catching up with Wren, who built the Naval Hospital at Greenwich on a scale that seems unimaginable today, Clark — standing in that grand building — marks an interim summary:

“What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall. In fact the Painted Hall in Greenwich hospital is one of the finest rooms in England.”

But this story does not have a happy ending. Not yet at any rate:

“Every civilisation seems to have its nemesis, not only because the first bright impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness, but because of unpredictables — in this case… the growth of the population. The greedy became greedier, the ignorant lost touch with traditional skills, and the light of experience narrowed its beam so that a grand design like Greenwich would now be thought of as a waste of money that no accountant could condone.”

Following this trajectory, the final episode opens on the Manhattan skyline, which Clark notes wistfully was built in about the same time as it took to construct a single medieval cathedral, not of course as a monument to God but “to the glory of mammon.” It is not that Clark is advocating a religious world view — far from it — but he is decidedly for the humanising power of art, through its capacity to overcome materialistic ambitions by enlarging our self-knowledge.

Having watched the whole series of Civilisation I certainly feel enlarged, even if I’m not entirely sure how (3). The effect is difficult to capture, as this patchwork post makes clear; re-reading it now I see I have conveyed nothing of the delicacy of Clark’s deep feelings for great works of art. But he has spun a web of knowledge that clings, not altogether tenaciously to the frame of my mind. As time passes it may fray and tangle, but my hope is that every now and then, when a new fact flies into my head, it will set the web twanging.

I hope also I might have said enough to persuade you to watch Civilisation yourself. But you can’t borrow my copy because I am going to play it again.



(1) The title was controversial since the series could not hope to encompass the whole of civilisation. There is no treatment of the law, and Spanish art is hardly mentioned. Clark was well aware of these short-comings but was constrained by the 13 hour format, which fitted into the quarterly scheduling used by the BBC, and could see no way avoid large omissions. In the introduction to the illustrated book that accompanies the series (which I have greedily purchased), he confesses that he would have preferred a title in the 18th Century style: Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day.

(2) The only DVD extra is a fascinating interview with Attenborough on how the series was brought into being.

(3) The success of Civilisation also served to enlarge television, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The jealous Head of Science Programming at the BBC, Aubrey Singer, stormed into Attenborough’s office and demanded a similarly ambitious series for science. Attenborough, a zoology graduate, acceded readily. The resulting series was Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (which I have also watched). This was followed by Cooke’s America (now on my to-do list). Attenborough himself was inspired to quit his office job to return to the field and make Life on Earth, the first of the natural history documentaries for which he is best known.

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17 Responses to Artful History

  1. David Dobbs says:

    This is just SO DAMNED GOOD. I’ve hated TV for years. But since moving to London I’ve been quite taken with many of the BBC series, and the best few of them are often deeply moving. It’s wonderful to see the impulses and actions that started them. And my regard for Attenborough, already immense, is doubled.

  2. Stephen says:

    Thanks David – You may want to wait a week or two because someone told me on Twitter this morning that the series is about to be re-released on Blu-ray DVD. Enjoy!

  3. ricardipus says:

    I had no idea that Sir David was involved in this (although the title of the series rings a bell). I am very familiar with his stunning later works though – Blue Planet, Planet Earth, The Life of Birds, and so on. Thanks for the very nice (and extensive!) review.

    • Stephen says:

      Cheers – I think I admire Attenborough more for his hand in creating Civilisation and The Ascent of Man than for his own natural history output (which I still love).

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great review, Stephen, and I’m eager to get my hands on this series myself now! My parents have the book, I believe (they definitely have Ascent of Man, so I’ll at least browse through that when I’m visiting them next month!

    Actually, this might be a good Xmas present for them. Hmmm. Thanks!

  5. Richard Gadsden says:

    I’ve been watching the BBC HD broadcast of this recently – it looks even more remarkable in HD – and it’s really an extraordinary piece of television.

    • Stephen says:

      Cheers- I was already tempted to ‘upgrade’ to the Blu-ray edition. I think this may clinch it.

  6. Becky says:

    Great post (sorry – only got to it rather late), and I love the quote about the change in mood of the 17th century. I hope, though, that Clark also noted that the Greenwich Hospital buildings took a very, very long time to complete. The painted hall was a finished veneer to make a statement about Stuart, then Hannoverian, power, and to distract from the continuous building works going on outside. It was perhaps more about appearances than about genuine care of or for the pensioners.

    • Stephen says:

      I’d have to check but as I recall he didn’t mention that particular qualification. As a viewer of science programs, I am well used to the omission of nuance and caveat and I guess history programming is the same. Nonetheless, I think the point stands that we don’t build hospitals of quite such grandeur these days (however long it takes).

      • Becky says:

        But then, I am very glad that hospitals are not built and decorated to glorify the House of Windsor!

        • Becky says:

          (The point being, that a Painted Hall was not much use to the pensioners so long as the accommodation hadn’t been built.)

        • Stephen says:

          With you on the House of Windsor thing (and take your point about slow builds not being of great benefit).

  7. Frank says:

    Stephen – I remember the series being on the first time round, though I was only 12 at the time and found it rather obscure and dry so I do not recall any of the detail. It sounds definitely “long form” – over what period of time did you watch it (twice!)?

    Re. the Naval College, I remember the first time I saw it, it was still being used as a refectory, so it smelt of school dinners! I didn´t enjoy the spectacle with the smell of over-cooked food in my nostrils.

    • Stephen says:

      Frank – I was given the DVD’s at Christmas and got to the end of the series just a couple of weeks before Easter. It was s a slow burn (as with Cosmos) — not helped by my habit of watching in snatches on the train (I ripped the DVDs to my iPhone) — but by the latter half I was truly hooked and accelerated my rate of watching.

      I haven’t watched every single episode twice but in putting together the blogpost I enjoyed going back to find the bits that I thought were most memorable; each time I came across something that I hadn’t remembered. So I think it’s something that I will be happy to dip into for an hour or so in the future. I am definitely motivated to get the blu-ray version so there may be a 2nd hand ordinary DVD version going cheap in the not-too-distant future.

      Sorry to hear your experience of the Naval College was marred by the bad food smells!

  8. Maryn says:

    Came to this late, would have missed it but for Dobbs’ post this morning. (Yay for links.) I hope it is not overly retro to admit I too loved Civilisation; I was an expat kid in Surrey when it aired for the first time, and it was captivating. (Though the Magic Roundabout narrowly beat it for hipness. Time for bed, said Zebedee. [Boingggg.])

    • Stephen says:

      Well, thank God for Dobbs! 😉

      Of course, you are absolutely right — nothing beats The Magic Roundabout.

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