Monday, February 29, 2016

Thanks, Lord Clark

At my high school graduation ceremony, many students received well-deserved awards in math and science and the humanities. Some of these awards came to me. Somewhere I still have the certificates and the plaques. The watch I received has long since bitten the dust. The award I have most cherished all those intervening years was the book derived from the television series "Civilisation", written and narrated by Sir Kenneth Clark. That book still resides on my bookshelf and has followed me everywhere since that June day. I could have jumped for joy when I realized it was a prize for me.

My son gave me the remastered DVDs of the "Civilisation" series for Christmas this year. At the moment, I am working my way through the 13 programs in the series. These programs transport me through time and space as wonderfully now as they did then. Let me tell you why.

Thanks to Lord Clark, I discovered the cultural heritage of Europe. He began with the struggle of European civilization to rise from the Dark Ages, and he led his viewers through century after century of art and literature and invention and music and architecture up until the 20th century. Although I was generally pretty competent in history, my knowledge lacked the depth as well as the breadth of Clark's presentations. He showed me the rich heritage available to study and to visit and to appreciate. He tantalized me with glimpses of the European cultural patrimony I have inherited. He instilled in me the longing and the dream someday to see these paintings and walk in these places and touch these buildings. I knew of some of these things, but now I saw them on the television screen and that opened a whole world to me.

When I spent my junior year at the University of St. Andrews, I travelled for three weeks on the Continent with two friends. I didn't actually have Clark's book with me, but his voice and his examples were always near. I stood amazed in front of Notre Dame du Paris, and in the Louvre, and in Saint Chapelle. When we got to Rome, I tried to see as many things as I could remember. When we walked round Florence, I felt as if I were in the programs, and when I saw Michelangelo's "Slaves", I had no words. (Never mind my first sight of the Capella Sistina...) It was an utterly overwhelming trip. I also filled that year with several trips to London and its treasures, and I spun round Scotland, England, and Wales as well.

The first course I enrolled in for my senior year when I got back to William and Mary was the intro art history course. I needed to delve deeper into what I had seen. I also needed to make my list of what I would see and do if ever I had a chance to return to Europe. The doors had been opened and have not closed yet. Many of you know I have a limitless appetite for art museums, architectural treasures, historical sites, and cathedrals. I'm always adding to my list, too.

I tried to incorporate these treasures into my teaching. I hope that sneaking art and architecture and literature into my classes grabbed a few students' interest and led them to look and hear and read more widely as a result. I doubt I'll ever know, but I  tried to pass on to them what Lord Clark did for me.

Lord Clark showed me what to look for and I am chipping away at that list. (I still hope to get to Aachen and see the head reliquary of Charlemagne,)  Clark died in 1983. I wish I had written him a fan letter to tell how much that BBC series has meant to me. Now back to the DVD...