Date of Birth: 15 June 1931, London, UK
Birth Name: Brian Sewell
Brian Sewell, first came before the public as the loyal friend of Anthony Blunt when that traitor was publicly exposed in 1979; his celebrity, however, began when he was appointed art critic of the Evening Standard in 1984.
In that role, Sewell waged witty, unwavering and vitriolic battle against what he what he regarded as the posturing inanities of modern British conceptual art. His readers were at once amazed and gratified to discover that this seemingly effete highbrow, whose outrageously camp voice (“Lady Bracknell on acid”) they knew from radio and television, should reflect all their own prejudices.
Those inclined to scepticism over the artistic potential of formaldehyde rejoiced to find that Sewell thought Damien Hirst (whom he had initially admired) had degenerated into “a fairground barker, whipping us to wonder at his freaks”. Those who recoiled from the scabrousness of Gilbert and George were delighted to read of “the sheer vanity of this Tweedle-Dum and Dee”, which “must repel even those who want to like their work, or at least admire their ingenuity”.
There was satisfaction, too, in learning that “John Bratby paints no better than Rolf Harris”. And though few Evening Standard readers would have heard of John Bellany, they could not but gasp at Sewell’s reaction to an exhibition held in the aftermath of this artist’s recovery from a liver transplant: “Who died, I wonder, from not receiving this donated liver when Bellany’s was judged to be the more important life?”
Sewell was no less severe on the British art establishment which supported the works he found so repellent. The Arts Council was chastised as “an incestuous clique, politically correct in every endeavour, the instrument of the unscrupulous and self-seeking, rewarding the briefly fashionable and incompetent”.
A particular bugbear of Sewell’s was the Turner Prize, that “annual farce”, which, under the auspices of the Tate, exposed “a sad little band of late labourers in the exhausted pastures of international conceptual art”. The seemingly daring British avant-garde, Sewell loved to point out, was actually dated and provincial: “Such things have been done before (and better) in the golden ages of Dada and Surrealism.”
In dealing with conceptual art, Sewell saw himself as the lone voice which dared to point out that the emperor had no clothes; other critics, he claimed, were more interested in gaining the good opinion of their peers. “Nothing matters more than intellectual probity,” he thundered, “and on that altar the critic must sacrifice even his closest friends.”
Certainly Sewell attacked “the homosexual mafia in the art world”, who puffed their own kind without the least regard to the quality of their work. He reckoned, for instance, that David Hockney owed his fame “entirely to his homosexuality”. His own views, however, were tainted by a strong misogyny. “By and large,” he held, “women are bloody awful painters. Don’t ask me why; they just are.”
At the end of 1993, Sewell provoked a furore with his review of an exhibition at the Tate, in which various women writers had been asked to choose a favourite painting by a woman. Sewell took exception to most things in the exhibition, in particular to “a frightful female nude by Vanessa Bell; ugly and incompetent, it could hardly be the favourite of even a purblind lesbian.”
Had the choice been free, he concluded, “I am sure that all but the most doctrinaire of boiler-suited feminists among those writers would have chosen works by men.”
This review elicited a letter of protest to the Standard, signed by 35 worthies, including George Melly, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, and Marina Warner. The signatories took “the greatest exception to Brian Sewell’s writing”, and concluded that “the capital deserves better than Sewell’s dire mix of sexual and class hypocrisy, intellectual posturing and artistic prejudice”.
Naturally, this outburst only increased Sewell’s popularity with the Evening Standard’s readers, whom he had always taken good care to please: “I think sincerely of the man or woman, for that matter strap-hanging home to Wimbledon. It is essential to tackle the topic with either an element of humour or such gusto as will hold the attention of someone at the end of their working day.”
For his pains in expressing his opinions Sewell was punched in the eye by a young painter, jostled at a “video exhibition”, and screamed at by feminists. But he stuck to his beliefs with admirable courage.
“If membership of the art world,” Sewell wrote, “implies that the critic must voice the views of the generality of that world and be its instrument, then criticism in this country is moribund, the contrary voice as stifled as it was in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.”
On the other hand, Sewell reflected, the effort made to suppress his own writing “suggests a measure of insecurity that I find quite heartening.”
Brian Sewell was born in London on St Swithin’s Day 1931, and brought up in Kensington. At school he was nicknamed “Sewage”. His father, only latterly identified as the Old Etonian composer Peter Warlock, committed suicide before Brian was born but after putting out the cat. Brian would later share both his gloomy nature and his love of animals.
His mother brought him up in isolation, being more likely to take him to dinner with Augustus John than introduce him to another child. Brian visited the National Gallery every week, and grew up with an astonishing command of adult pursuits such as Greek mythology, Roman history and opera.
He was also a regular worshipper at the Carmelite church in Kensington Church Street. For the rest of his life he would feel guilty if he walked past that church “without nipping in for a quick genuflection and a dab of cold water”. He was also grateful for an upbringing which had enabled him to understand the intensity in Christian art.
On the other hand, he was also conscious, from an early age, of “the irredeemable nature” of his homosexuality, which set up an extreme conflict with the teaching of the Church. To complicate matters still further, the arrival of a stepfather, Robert Sewell, when he was 11 meant a sudden change to Anglicanism. It also meant being sent to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Hampstead, which he loathed.
After leaving school he spent a year painting, from which he discovered that he had some talent, but nothing whatever to say. For a while he toyed with the notion of going into the Church: “My ambition was to be Archbishop of Canterbury; certainly a bishop.”
He survived National Service, then turned down a place at Oxford in favour of the Courtauld Institute, where he experienced what he described as “a conditioning of the soul”. This involved losing his faith in God and learning to appreciate art.
“Anthony (Blunt) taught me how to look at architecture, but (Johannes) Wilde taught me what no other art historian did, that it is right and proper to enjoy looking a pictures. Looking at pictures is a sensuous activity, now out of fashion.”
Through Blunt, Sewell encountered Guy Burgess. “I found his hand on my knee. I thought, shit, I’m not into this. I have to scoot. He was smelly and dirty.”
Originally Sewell had no intention of following up his first degree by taking a doctorate. Blunt, however, persuaded him to continue with his studies, and took Sewell under his wing at the Royal Library at Windsor. “The only trouble,” Sewell observed, “was that he forgot to pay me.”
Even so, Blunt became a close friend, though never, Sewell insisted, a lover. Sewell rather saw himself as a was the court jester, eager to amuse Blunt with the latest gossip from the art world, without ever erring on the side of generosity. His companionship proved particularly valuable to Blunt, during the crisis of 1964, when the traitor was under interrogation by MI5. Sewell, however, claimed that he knew nothing of this.
In 1958 he joined Christie’s as a prints and drawings expert, and remained there until 1966. He seemed to have found his metier, until he resigned in a huff after failing to gain a place on the board. “I sleep with the wrong people,” he replied when asked why he had not been made a director. “I was tied to Christie’s with an emotional bond, and felt betrayed in the end.”
Next, he became an art dealer, for which, however, he was not well qualified temperamentally. On one occasion a potential buyer was informed that the picture he wanted to purchase was too good for him.
He moved into 19 Eldon Road, Kensington, in 1972, a road down which his pram had once been pushed. It was one of the most interesting and eye-catching houses in the area, adorned with higgledy-piggledy sculptures dating from the Coronation year. Former owners included the art collector Chester Beatty, who had once hung Van Gogh’s Sunflowers above the fireplace in the front room, and Arpad Elfer, a Hungarian photographer who had held full-scale orgies on the roof garden. Over the years Sewell shared the house, as he observed in 1994, “with four women (including his mother) and nine bitches”.
On November 14 1979 Anthony Blunt was warned that the next day Margaret Thatcher would reveal his treachery to the Commons. On the morning of November 15 Sewell drove him from his flat off the Edgware Road to a hiding-place at Professor James Joll’s house in Chiswick.
He then stalled relentlessly as reporters pressed him to divulge Blunt’s whereabouts: “I shall tell you what he had for breakfast, but nothing more.” It was outrageous, he said, that the government should have named Blunt after granting him immunity from prosecution 15 years before. Splashed all over the front pages, and photographed walking his dogs, Sewell instantly proved a natural for the media.
Tina Brown, then editor of Tatler, was so impressed by the performance that she employed him as art critic. Sewell was confirmed in this new calling what he called “the sad end to a once promising career” when he moved to the Evening Standard in 1984. “Under no circumstances must you get rid of that nice Mr Sewell,” Max Hastings’s mother told him when he became editor of the Standard in 1996. He wrote all his reviews on an old Adler manual typewriter.
That year The Sunday Telegraph employed Sewell as a general columnist. He was one of the first to attack Tony Blair’s deliberate blokeishness; suggested an army composed entirely of homosexuals would have certain advantages in mobility; crusaded against cruelty to animals; and wrote a fine article against abortion. The Evening Standard also employed him as a columnist as well as an art critic: he wrote an op-ed piece opposing same-sex marriage on the grounds that matrimony was a sacrament. In the winter of 1998, he left Eldon Road for a house in Leopold Road, Wimbledon, which he described as an “Edwardian monstrosity”. Here there was a lake, a coach-house and a vast walled garden for his rampaging dogs.
Rather surprisingly, Sewell was a great enthusiast for cars, ever ready to review the latest Land Rover, and eager to rhapsodise about the Daimler Sportsman (“4.5 litre straight cylinder engine and a pre-selector gearbox”) he had once owned. At the age of 22 he bought his first car, a blue and grey vintage Wolseley, and in later middle age claimed to have once driven his famous gold-plated Mercedes at 140mph.
He confessed himself unable to account for the viciousness of his reviews. “I am a church mouse,” he insisted. “I am essentially a sweet, kind, giving sort of person, but when I write it is as if I am possessed. I cannot reconcile my own nature with what appears in my writing. I just accept it.”
He published three collections of his criticism, The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus (1994), An Alphabet of Villains (1995) and Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art (2012). Another book, South From Ephesus (1988) gave a good account of both the archaeology and of the sex in Turkey, and Sleeping with Dogs (2013) was an account of his lifelong affection for canine companions. But the great work on Michelangelo which he had once envisaged as his passport to immortality was never written.
Only in the second of his two volumes of memoirs, Outsider (2009) and Outsider II (2012), did Sewell fully explain his role in the Blunt spy scandal, revealing that he had known of Blunt’s treachery years before it became public, but remained loyal none the less. Moreover, Sewell suggested the identity of the fifth man in the Cambridge spy ring: Andrew Gow, a Cambridge don and friend of Blunt’s, who had told Sewell about Blunt’s clandestine career.
Sewell’s work for television included a programme about the North West Frontier in India, which he did not like a bit, and an attack on Leonardo da Vinci.
After suffering a heart attack in 1994 Sewell was always in doubtful health, which he confronted with the same steel that he had shown in resisting those who abused him as a critic.
“We’ve got you down as an atheist,” a Sister in the hospital told him the night before an operation. “No, no,” Sewell protested, “I’m an agnostic. But if something goes wrong, you must call a Roman Catholic priest.”