Professor Timothy Clark

Doctor of Letters


Mr Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This afternoon we celebrate the outstanding career of a Bristolian whose early education took place a stone’s throw from this hall, and whose most recent post, as George C. and Helen N. Pardee Chair and Professor of Art History in the University of California at Berkeley has a certain Bristolian resonance (if you pronounce it Berkeley in the English style). Timothy Clark moved with his family from Preston to Bristol in the mid-1950s, and was enrolled at Bristol Grammar School. It is a particular pleasure to have his first form-master, Mr Maurice Isaac, with us here today.

Memories are fresh of his acumen as a historian at this early stage: how he saved the bacon of his history teacher in the First Year Sixth by presenting an essay on the nineteenth-century papacy to a Chief Inspector who just happened to be an expert on that subject, and was quoted (though no doubt not uncritically) in the essay. The University also played a part in his intellectual development. It was when he was attending a lecture before the university by the celebrated historian of the French revolution, Alfred Cobban, that he witnessed a coruscating example of the academic put-down. ‘Where would you place Soboul?’, asked a mild questioner from the audience after the lecture. ‘Somewhere beneath contempt’ was the professor’s reply.

Timothy Clark left Bristol for his university career, and took the mildly unconventional course for a Bristol grammar school pupil of selecting Cambridge rather than Oxford as his preference. His prowess as a historian continued to develop. A fellow student who shared supervisions with him at that time recalls his own ‘typically short, rushed, superficial’ essays, followed by the performance of his colleague: ‘[This] would be brilliant, weighty, thoroughly researched, elegantly phrased yet never lightweight, always seeming to plumb the depths of the subject, whether it was Adam Ferguson or Rousseau or Hegel. It was a highly mortifying experience’ (so testifies the colleague).

What may be of special interest to a Bristolian audience is the fact that Timothy Clark also found time to baptise the proudest product of the city’s aeronautical technology. His father, F.G. Clark, was Publicity Manager at Filton, and credits his son with first suggesting the name of ‘Concorde’. That final ‘e’, which implied a gracious compliment to the French, was hotly contested by the Conservative Aviation Minister, Julian Avery, but Filton stuck to its guns, and Avery’s successor, Tony Wedgwood Benn, later gave it his definitive blessing.

Reading History only a year ahead of Timothy Clark, but being at a college separated from St John’s by the full length of Trinity Street, I heard of him only through mutual friends, who however whispered the message that he was planning to work on Impressionism. This project led him inevitably to the Courtauld Institute. A brief period of teaching at Camberwell College of Art was followed by a couple of years of research in Paris. Here the record must remain rather sotto voce, since the annals of that extraordinary artistic and political movement of the period, the Situationist International, contain the information that he was formally excluded from its membership in December 1967. This was however hardly unusual since virtually all the Situationists resigned, or were excluded, one way or another (the first English member, Ralph Rumney, only a few months after he had joined).

For present purposes, we can draw a veil over this connection, and focus instead on his university career as an art historian in the English-speaking world. This began at the new University of Essex, from 1967 to 1969. It involved a two-year period in California, at UCLA, between 1974 and 1976, where he taught such students as Serge Guilbaut and Thomas Crow. Then came a period as Professor at the University of Leeds, at a Fine Art department that had traditionally allied history of art and the training of artists, where he encountered Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton. But I am running ahead in itemising these appointments without mentioning the first fruits of his study of the art of nineteenth-century France: two books that appeared in 1973 and galvanised the world of art history under their ringing titles, The Absolute Bourgeois and The Image of the People. These were studies that went straight to the heart of the revolutionary politics of the mid-century, to that ‘revolution’ of 1848 that Marx had pondered, and waxed ironic about, and to the manoeuvres of an artist like Gustave Courbet as he measured up to its challenge in his painting.

It is rare for academic works to acquire immediate prestige and authority in the way that these two books did. The authority was promptly discharged in the form of an article published in the Times Literary Supplement for 24 May 1974, which excoriated British art history as being ‘out of breath, in a state of genteel dissolution’. According to this diagnosis, the pioneering work of the German art historians in the first half of the century had been jettisoned by their successors. Yet what he proposed was not a recuperative exercise in revive that special phase in art history’s development, but a new approach, invigorated by the best of the theoretical models then becoming available: not the old-fashioned pursuit of the ‘representative artist’ dear to veteran Marxists, but a revised view of artistic creation that took account of the more elusive models of subjectivity developed in Benjamin’s writing on Baudelaire, and Sartre’s on Flaubert. It was perhaps unfortunate, in the long term, that this approach became identified by the restrictive label of the ‘Social History of Art’.

You will have observed that I take for granted the process by which Timothy Clark, beginning as a historian, became an art historian. In fact, one of the central messages of his work is that the art historian must be a historian, first and foremost. But such a historian must also be alive to the multifaceted character of modern culture, and the history of its critical interpretation. This is the burden of his wonderfully subtle study of Impressionism – finally published in 1984, two decades after those Cambridge rumours, and bearing a title delicately filched from Baudelaire: The Painting of Modern Life.

By this time, Timothy Clark was occupying a Chair at Harvard, and he would later move to the West Coast, and Berkeley. Suffice it to say that the reputation of this department over the past fifteen years has been second to none, and the reason is as simple as ABC. A for Svetlana Alpers, their specialist in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, B for Michael Baxandall, their Renaissance expert, and C for Clark, universally known for the works I have described. But three stars do not make a firmament, and other outstanding art historians have powerfully advanced this reputation. From the other end of the alphabet, as it happens, is Anne Wagner, Timothy Clark’s former head of department and also his wife, who is with us here today. Nor must I omit to mention Whitney Davis, current head of department and from some years back a welcome visitor to Bristol.

I will conclude by confessing that those early rumours about Impressionism have proved slightly misleading. What Timothy Clark has really been thinking about all these years is the more inclusive field of Modernism. His book, Farewell to an idea, published at the end of the last millennium, is quite simply the first major text in art history to grapple successfully with the task of laying that mighty ghost to rest. It is dedicated to Anne Wagner, to be shared with his children, Sam, Hannah and Ruby. But it is also addressed to posterity, and posterity (as he explains) means us.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Timothy James Clark as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

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