My Dear BB… : The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark review

The high-octane correspondence between 20th-century art world doyen Bernard Berenson and the young pretender Kenneth Clarke is enthralling

Thank God for the survival of the university press. In the last century, when Lord Clark of Civilisation and Bernard Berenson, the garrulous scholar-prince of I Tatti, that fabled villa outside Settignano, were both at the peak of their fame and influence, many publishers would have stampeded like wildebeest to cash in on the commercial potential of such world-class arty gossip.

Who could resist an art book spiced with the outrageous snob appeal of names such as Philomene de la Forest-Divonne, Logan Pearsall Smith, the celebrated connoisseur Lord Duveen, Desmond McCarthy, Clive Bell, Maurice Bowra, Iris Origo, Isaiah Berlin, Roger Fry and the “society hostess” Lady Cunard? In the days of Cyril Connolly, formerly of this parish, and Hugh Trevor-Roper, this kind of high-octane letter-writing was catnip to the more exquisite parts of the book trade.

But it’s now more than 40 years since Civilisation dominated our screens, and the world of Clark and Berenson is a goner, at one with Nineveh and Tyre. Luckily, we have Yale to thank for this beautiful edition, replete with pages of illustration, and lovingly edited by Robert Cumming, an American professor of connoisseurship.

If the names of Cunard, Duveen and Divonne and their dandy cohorts send you screaming for the hills, this doorstop of correspondence is not for you. Nevertheless, the story – two stories, actually – that it tells remains an enthralling footnote to one of the great art historical relationships of the 20th century.

At face value, there’s the jaw-droppingly ruthless self-confidence with which the very young Clark (he was barely 22), just out of Oxford, insinuated himself into the work and household of Berenson, one of the giants of contemporary art history and the celebrated author of The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, the book that awakened America to the treasures of the Italian Renaissance. Clark’s self-promotion was all the more remarkable because, as “K” himself put it, Berenson “liked best an audience of well‑dressed ladies”.

It’s not obvious who was exploiting whom. Clark, visibly on the make, was guaranteeing himself an entree to the top table of an achingly exclusive club that included Edith Wharton, Ramsay MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, Sibyl Colefax and Cyril Connolly.

Berenson, now “my dear BB” to his ambitious new assistant, found himself working with a young man who was, if possible, a snootier and more autocratic perfectionist than himself. Clark, who had to earn his living as an art historian in London, and was often away from I Tatti, certainly initiated and sustained their correspondence as the junior partner. But Berenson, reluctantly at first, and then with a slightly awkward warmth, joins in. When, in 1933, the 30-year-old Clark was appointed to run the National Gallery, it must have looked to Berenson as if his wager had paid off in spades. Intriguingly, both sides of this strange alliance kept a meticulous record of their exchanges.

The picture that emerges is nothing less than the life and times of the Anglo-American arts establishment in the “low, dishonest decade” of the great dictators. We watch Clark meeting everyone, dining with the PM at No 10, and then with the king and queen at Windsor. A whirl of dinner and house parties somehow does not stop him also promoting the work of his own generation: Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Victor Pasmore.

Europe, meanwhile, is sliding towards world war again. The years 1939-45 are among the most fascinating covered by these letters. To an astonishing degree, the lives of these gifted and privileged scholarly curators were slightly disturbed, but never really disrupted. Berenson hid his most valuable art, and somehow managed to cling on in I Tatti until September 1943. Once the German army had left, he was back, as gossipy and feline as before.

In Britain, total war brought in the Labour government. By 1947, we find Clark complaining to BB that “our new form of society with all its forms, coupons etc greatly complicates life, and there is no one left to do the simplest things for one”. They would persist in their correspondence until BB’s death, aged 94 in 1959. As a reader, you come away wondering at the often stilted artificiality of this epistolary relationship. What kind of friends were they, in fact ? There is none of the intimate charm found in the celebrated Lyttelton-Hart Davis letters, in which mentor and pupil plainly adore each other. As editor, Cumming gives the game away in his afterword, cleverly saving the best till last.

Apparently, Berenson had never liked Clark, whom he snobbishly considered to be an arriviste, a “homo novus” in his own words. Clark’s, he cattily confided to his diary, “is not a success story, and mine is”. Clark, who outlived him, got his revenge, nailing the Lorenzo of I Tatti as “a charlatan”.

Nevertheless, Berenson’s greatest gift was for “talk”. In Civilisation, Clark was consciously reprising the mood and spirit of their tete-a-tetes on their ramblings around I Tatti, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. And each was ambitious enough to correspond with a beady eye on posterity.

To order My Dear BB… for £20 click here


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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