Civilisation: A Personal View

Civilisation: A Personal View (often called simply Civilisation) is the title of a book and a popular and influential TV series outlining the history of Western art, architecture, and philosophy since the Dark Ages. The series was produced by the BBC and aired in 1969 on BBC Two, and both the book and the TV material were written by art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who also hosted the series.


Civilisation was one of the first UK documentary series in colour, and one of BBC2's first major productions, at the time of David Attenborough's controllership. One of Attenborough's aims of the series was that it should showcase colour television. For technical reasons colour television was to come to BBC2 before BBC1 and so, as a channel aimed at minority audiences, it was possible to commission a major series about the Arts.

The director and co-producer of the series was Michael Gill (1923-2005). (The other co-producer was Peter Montagnon). At first, Clark's patrician attitudes annoyed Gill and the project was almost abandoned. However eventually Gill formed a great respect for Clark's aesthetic judgment. During the filming on location, they formed a close and enduring friendship.

The series was replayed on BBC Four and released on DVD in 2005. The DVD release included a short interview with David Attenborough about the commissioning and production of the series.


Clark attended an early public screening of one of the programmes and was received with huge applause and cheers. He was so overwhelmed by this recognition that he hid himself away in the lavatory and wept for fifteen minutes; he had long been respected in academic circles but was utterly taken aback by the response of the public at large.

Further proof of the programme's popularity was given in anecdotal evidence of Civilisation parties. Since ownership of a colour television set was rare on the series' first broadcast, those that did own one found themselves popular hosts.

The series had difficulty at first in finding a home on American television, but success was assured after the National Gallery of Art in Washington put it on at lunchtime in the gallery theatre. This seated 300 people, but on the first day 24,000 turned up.

The series' groundbreaking format, in which Clark travelled around the world to illustrate his thesis, became a template for such later programmes as The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, Life on Earth and sequels by David Attenborough, Alistair Cooke's America, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan.

Clark earned a peerage on the strength of the series.

Series outline

  1. The Skin of our Teeth - In this the first episode Clark travels from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from the Norway of the Vikings to Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen, telling his story of the Dark Ages; the six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
  2. The Great Thaw - In the second episode Clark tells of the sudden reawakening of European civilisation in the twelfth century . He traces it from its first manifestations in the Abbey of Cluny to its high point, the building of the Chartres cathedral.
  3. Romance and Reality - Beginning at a castle in the Loire, then travelling through the hills of Tuscany and Umbria to the cathedral baptistery at Pisa as he examines both the aspirations and achievements of the later Middle Ages in both France and Italy.
  4. Man - the Measure of all Things - Visiting Florence, where, Clark argues, European thought gained a new impetus from its rediscovery of its classical past. He also visits the palaces at Urbino and Mantua, other centres of (Renaissance) civilisation.
  5. The Hero as Artist - (List of Renaissance figures) Here Clark takes us back to 16th century Papal Rome noting the convergence of Christianity and antiquity. He discusses Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci, the courtyards of the Vatican, the rooms decorated for the Pope by Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel.
  6. Protest and Communication - Here Clark takes us back the (Reformation). That is to the Germany of Albrecht Durer and Martin Luther, the world of the humanitarians Erasmus, Montaigne, and Shakespeare.
  7. Grandeur and Obedience - Again in Rome of Michelangelo and Bernini, Clark tells of the Catholic Church's fight against the Protestant north, the Counter-Reformation and the Church's new splendour symbolized by the glory of St. Peter’s.
  8. The Light of Experience - Here Clark tells of new worlds in space and in a drop of water that the telescope and microscope revealed, and the new realism in the Dutch paintings which took the observation of human character to a higher stage of development.
  9. The Pursuit of Happiness - Here Clark talks of the harmonious flow and complex symmetries of the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart — and the reflection of these in the Rococo churches and palaces of Bavaria.
  10. The Smile of Reason - Here Clark discusses the Age of Enlightenment tracing it from the polite conversations in the elegant Parisian salons of eighteenth-century, through the subsequent revolutionary politics to the great European palaces of Blenheim and Versailles finally to Jefferson’s Monticello.
  11. The Worship of Nature - Belief in the divinity of nature, Clark argues, usurped Christianity’s position as the chief creative force in Western civilisation and ushered in the Romantic movement. Here Clark visits Tintern Abbey, the Alps, and there discusses the landscapes of Turner and Constable.
  12. The Fallacies of Hope - Here Clark argues that the French Revolution led to the dictatorship of Napoleon and the dreary bureaucracies of the nineteenth century and traces the disillusionment of the Romanticism artists is traced from Beethoven's, Byron's poetry, Delacroix's paintings to Rodin's sculpture.
  13. Heroic Materialism - Clark concludes the series with his discussion of materialism and humanitarianism of the past century. This takes us from the industrial landscape of nineteenth century England to the skyscrapers of twentieth century New York. The achievements of the engineers and scientists - Brunel and Rutherford for example - having been matched by the great reformers like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury


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