Brian Sewell is one of those English national treasures that doesn’t export well, like unpasteurized cheese. The problem in Sewell’s case is the universe of reference he inhabited. If one thinks of England from the standpoint of “high culture,” it’s really a very small place. A handful of luminaries occupies the cultural firmament that has much of the “old boy” element about it even now. There’s only one firmament, as well — in London, of course — there are none in Birmingham or Liverpool or York. It’s an exclusive set, rather like one of the old clubs in St. James’s. But its generative power is prodigious and Sewell is one of its best products. He’s largely unknown in the United States, where his work has very thin soil to strike root.
I came upon him by chance through the film series he made on the Grand Tour (YouTube playlist here). Having now read many things he wrote, I’m glad I had my introduction through hearing him speak while dashing about Italy in his beloved old Mercedes. The force of his personality and character comes through especially in his voice, not because of the old-fashioned High RP diction native to him at which some have poked fun — I find it both delightful and amusing — but rather because his voice brings to his words an expressivity I search for in vain in his written works. He was a “character,” as we say in the States, not by styling himself in any particular way, but naturally, which is the cornerstone of his charm. His reputation in the public eye was cemented by his art reviews in The Evening Standard, which were, let us say, “unsparing.” As someone trained under Anthony Blunt — expert on European art history, former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and Director of the Courtauld Institute — Sewell received a professional formation to rival the best available anywhere in Europe. He became an expert on Old Master drawings. The Brave New World of modern art came along well into Sewell’s middle age and erupted in London with particular vehemence. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Sewell took exception to much of what became modish. Damien Hirst’s sharks in formaldehyde and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed furnished with the residues of her nocturnal explorations into the nether regions of female experience are hardly objects to inspire rapture in someone whose taste inclined most natively to the drawings in the Queen’s collection at Windsor Castle.
Sewell was decidedly not an “old boy.” As a point of comparison, let’s consider this eyebrow-raising disclosure from the Wikipedia page on Anthony Blunt (here), Sewell’s main mentor in his student days at the Courtauld Institute and his close friend for life:
He was a third cousin of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother: his mother was the second cousin of Elizabeth’s father Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. On occasions, Blunt and his two brothers, Christopher and Wilfrid, took afternoon tea at the Bowes-Lyons’ London home at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth II.
He was fourth cousin once removed of Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896–1980) 6th Baronet, leader of the British Union of Fascists, both being descended from John Parker Mosley (1722–1798).
Blunt’s vicar father was assigned to Paris with the British embassy chapel, and so moved his family to the French capital for several years during Blunt’s childhood. The young Anthony became fluent in French, and experienced intensely the artistic culture closely available to him, stimulating an interest which lasted a lifetime and formed the basis for his later career.
This is the milieu into which Sewell had to insert himself as a figure in the institutional life of London’s “high culture” — a term that because of its class nature sets me up for a good pummelling from many quarters in these levelled days of political correctness. But for heaven’s sake, read the description and tell me that class has no part in the matter. Third cousin of the late Queen Mother through the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne? Afternoon tea in Mayfair in the house where Queen Elizabeth II was born? That’s the world into which Sewell sought entry as an art historian. He had none of the advantages of pedigree that Blunt enjoyed. He was the illegitimate son of the minor composer Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine) and a mother who had no social position at all. Warlock died by his own hand seven months before Sewell’s birth and Sewell never knew the truth about his parentage until he was past the age of 50. He had to find his way and his place in that class-ridden world of London’s high culture as a nobody with only his talent and wits to secure his position.
Both Blunt and Sewell were gay. What for Blunt was something one glossed over with a knowing look was for Sewell a glass ceiling in his professional life that ultimately led to his leaving Christie’s, where he remained junior when his ability and performance should by right have made him senior. Blunt’s ruin through exposure of the fact that he had been part of the Cambridge Five, a Soviet spy ring operative in England — another spin on the “old boy” thing, involving Guy Burgess and others from Blunt’s days at Cambridge — found Sewell coming without hesitation to his friend’s aid by sheltering him from barrage by the media. That act of loyalty to a lifelong friend cost Sewell dearly as a professional. Having gone freelance after leaving Christie’s, he found himself without work after helping Blunt withdraw from public life. The aftermath of that difficult passage, however, is what brought us the irascible Sewell that most people consider to be the main character of the man. But it’s not the larger truth of the person, in my opinion.
Nothing in my own background qualifies me to hold forth on the subject of art history with any kind of authority — I’m a card-carrying member of the Great Unwashed. I’ve had a passion for art all my life and I’ve done my homework, yes, but the homework has never progressed to the point of embracing Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. German Expressionists, oh yes — I can look at Franz Marc paintings all day long. Dada is fine too, I know how to take a joke — Ceci n’est pas une pipe LMAO. Got it. I did a paper in graduate school on Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art and the astonished professor found himself forced to give me an A despite his inclination to lower the grade because I had jumped the bounds of the canon in my German literature program. I’ve stood before canvases by Jackson Pollock and found myself intrigued. I’ve found myself in front of paintings by Mark Rothko and wracked my brains to find a way inside them. But when it comes to sharks suspended in formaldehyde, there I draw the line. And absolutely the last thing I want shoved in my face as art is somebody’s dishevelled bed rank with the emissions of bodily parts that have lain uncircumspectly in it. For goodness sake. Is it surprising that someone trained by one of the foremost experts on French art of the 17th century should take exception to such things, even when such “art” is thumbed up by the award of the Turner Prize? Let’s hear what Sewell opines (full article here):
The Turner Prize
The annual farce of the Turner Prize is now as inevitable in November as the Pantomime at Christmas, and with both, the weariness of familiarity undermines the relish; if the transvestite slapstick of the Widow Twanky and all other Dames is now utterly predictable, so too is the nature of the painting and sculpture chosen for the shortlist of the Prize.
Evening Standard, 1992
Evening Standard, 2001
Is Damien his own worst enemy? He is vain enough to proclaim that his work as Bacon’s shallow pasticheur belongs in the Wallace Collection with paintings by Rembrandt and Velázquez, Titian and Van Dyck, but one minute spent in the Great Gallery with these is enough to prove the arrogance of this delusion.
Are then his uncritical friends, allies and advisers his worst enemies – those who daily greet him with “Oh King, live for ever” and tell him he can do no wrong? The exhibition is supported by the usual events performed by the usual lackeys who can be trusted to “Praise him, praise him, praise him”. It is accompanied by a catalogue in which all 29 canvases are illustrated, but in no way illuminated by the text of a conversation in The Pig and Whistle between Hirst and John Hoyland, the grand old bore of British bucket-and-slosh abstract painting. In this the words most used and most superfluous are fuck and its derivatives – the fucking chair, fucking debris, fucking rectangle, fucking artist, fucking unbelievable… I take this as licence, for this occasion only, to declare this detestable exhibition fucking dreadful.
In truth, I feel nothing for her relaxations of the sphincter of her bladder, nothing for her masturbation, nothing for her sexual conjugations, nothing for her abortions and nothing for her current menopausal state. I am utterly unmoved by all the means that she ineptly employs to mirror or narrate her various experiences, her silly patchwork blankets, her feeble scratchy monoprints and drawings, her Kodak Brownie photographs, her neon signs, videos and records of futile live performances, and her variations on the shed I see only as clear evidence of an arrested infantile craving for the aedicula.
I do not recognise the almost mystical status conferred on her as an artist whose life, art and being are so interrelated as to be inseparable (surely the case too with every artist of any weight), when her life and being so greatly outweigh the very little that might (but only with extreme generosity) perhaps be classified as art. Being Miss Emin is her core activity. “Look at me, look at me!” she barks to get an audience and, then, like some fraudulent medieval marketeer of relics, gulls us into venerating the trivial keepsakes of herself that she now exhibits in glass cases.
Weighed down with self-expression, producing it has, no doubt, been therapeutic for Miss Emin and we, simple wanderers through the circles of her hell, now know the answer to her question, “What’s it all about?” You, dear Miss Emin, you — but you have never been enough.
Evening Standard, 2011
Here we have the foundation of Sewell’s reputation as Grand Curmudgeon of the London art world. Disbarred from professional life as an expert in its institutions, he found himself shunted off to the role of newspaper art critic and from that position achieved notoriety by saying exactly what he thought, his opinion being anything but unschooled. From that notoriety came his subsequent television work, which he hated and which hated him in return: at the end of filming the series on the Grand Tour, the production crew made a point of telling Sewell that he was hell to work with. At least that feeling was mutual LOL. Thank goodness the filming managed to reach the finish line, because the series is a gem and shows Sewell’s fine mind and charming character beneath his irascibility. In addition to being extremely intelligent and massively erudite, he was hilarious, exactly the sort of person one would love to have to tea for a long natter — but not in the house in which Queen Elizabeth II was born. That would unduly restrict the range of topics available for conversation. And if there ever was anyone ready to dish the dirt, it was Sewell.
Grand Curmudgeon was, I think, a role into which Sewell found himself shoehorned because of the necessity of telling the truth in his reviews. As a reviewer he had to deal with what the art establishment put out for public consumption, and when sharks in formaldehyde hit the galleries only one outcome was predictable when Sewell was at the typewriter. Had he remained in the Courtauld Institute as an educator, I can’t imagine he would have earned the reputation he had as a reviewer, because he was a fundamentally kindly soul and he loved art passionately. I don’t believe he had any deep desire to become its avenging angel and punish aesthetic sin by the righteous sword of his Evening Standard column. Opinions are one thing, but the way one behaves in the world is quite another, and one doesn’t necessarily derive directly from the other. In the BBC’s obituary for him (here) that point comes out in Sewell’s own words:
He was a figure both of fun and authority; his refusal to compromise or dumb down often alienated him from his art world peers, but bizarrely ensured his enduring mainstream appeal.
Brian Sewell himself always claimed confusion with this paradox. He said: “People are terrified of me. I’m really quite cuddly.”
Cuddly is the last adjective you’d find on the tip of your tongue if all you knew of Sewell was his reviews of Hirst and Emin. For the cuddly side of Sewell we must look elsewhere. Who would have expected that the Grand Curmudgeon would write a children’s book? But he did, The White Umbrella. It received an excellent review from Rosemary Stories (article here) that reveals a decidedly uncurmudgeonly side of Sewell:
Brian Sewell has never underestimated other people’s capacity to be curious and enjoy the wonders of the world – if given the opportunity. As a volunteer tutor in prisons he taught art history without making concessions and his classes were greatly appreciated by prisoners of whom little was usually expected. Now he takes the opportunity of Mr B and Pavlova’s journey from Pakistan to England via Persia, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Germany and France to excite the interest of the curious young reader with asides about former travellers (eg Alexander the Great) or different foods, or languages, or Turkish rugs or great artists. (A surprise and delight to discover that Mr B (aka Brian) considers Käthe Kollwitz ‘the greatest woman artist ever’.) Lines of poetry also slip into Mr B’s mind. Thus a world of interest and opportunities for exploration is unfolded in a friendly, unpatronising, chatty narrative that will empower as well as delight.
So much for the Grand Curmudgeon, whose terrible swift sword was real but obviously far from the mainstay of Sewell’s true nature and character.
Another piece of evidence for that case is an interview I found on YouTube (playlist here) done in Sewell’s home with his dogs about him, whom he loved dearly. It’s a fireside chat, in which one sees and hears the real Brian Sewell, I think, and there’s nothing curmudgeonly about him. He’s thoughtful, wonderfully articulate, wistful at times, self-revelatory in an insightful way, brutally honest about his own life and its mishaps and often amused by them. It is, I think, the record of a person who has gone through great difficulty and held unswervingly to the thread of himself. Considering the era in which Sewell accomplished that feat, it’s a testament to great strength and character. He became sovereign in his selfhood — that’s the example of human beingness I find in him. By contrast, the equally amusing but perhaps slightly less charming Quentin Crisp became a constructed persona behind which one expected to find no authentic self — a Potemkin village of a human being, as it were. To strike Sewell is to hit flint. He’s as solid as houses and none of that solidity is bravura or posturing. It’s the real deal.
Sewell’s life experience radicalized him in a way I understand very well. If one goes through the process of coming to terms with wrenching truths in one’s own life — and a gay man in the era in which Sewell lived who decides to live true to his nature could not do otherwise — then the world’s humbug becomes a difficult thing to bear patiently. If one has trained oneself to face the truth whatever the cost, the world’s penchant for an endless succession of emperors and new clothes becomes at times maddening. If one is highly intelligent and has sharp native insight into the true lay of the land, then the urge to sweep away the nonsense and get down to facts can become very powerful. Life, after all, is to be lived, not frittered away in a series of tasteless and implausible fictions. If one has taken truth as one’s measure, it requires little effort to sort out the bottom line of most situations. When the issue in question is institutional ideology and its peregrinations through the elitist club that is the arts establishment, one’s own enmeshment as a professional could quickly lead to outrage. Sewell’s autobiography, which ended up being published in two volumes, has as the first word of the title “outsider.” By identifying himself over the course of his life as an outsider he claimed his good right to throw darts at those on the inside who cling to their self-deceptions and fob them off as realities. From a position of unflinching adherence to the truth, Sewell’s hand was forced into becoming the mouthpiece of an outsider position so upsetting to some denizens of the art establishment that a group of them in 1994 wrote an open letter to the Standard demanding that Sewell be sacked. He found the incident amusing. From the website “Outsiders in London” comes this quote from Sewell himself (article here):
“I owed nothing to anybody in the art world and I have no great friend in it. But I have spent decades looking at art as an ordinary man in the street. I … believe … that the critic should be morally and intellectually honest, and should bring to bear … the knowledge and the experience that are the grounds for judgment. The critic must treat his readers as equals when he discusses complex ideas and layers of meaning in the work of art; he must never pretend to see what cannot be seen …”
From the same article comes another quote from Sewell about exclusion from London’s arts establishment in which his training and experience should have guaranteed him a place:
“Of course I continue to speak out, of course I still do, but it is like ‘pissing in the wind’: I feel I have no influence where it matters. I have never been consulted by a Government minister with responsibility for Culture or the Arts; indeed, I have never even been spoken to by such a minister. Other people are brought in to help with formulating strategies for the Arts, but not me, never me. I have never been a part of the Arts Council; never been approached by the British Council; never been asked to curate an exhibition; never been asked even to write the catalogue for an exhibition. I have never been asked to do any of these things since I became an art critic. I have been excluded from the BBC; I am not invited on any programme dealing with the arts world, either on the radio or on television. For the BBC, I seem not to exist. So, as you can imagine, there is within me this feeling of exclusion, a serious feeling of exclusion, because I cannot think of another critic who has been so totally excluded from these small pleasures and privileges as I have been.”
This confession constitues confirmation that the “old boy” network is still alive and well, just as it was in Sewell’s youth. The criteria for being an “old boy” may have changed, but the phenomenon itself and its exclusivity operate no differently now than they did when Sewell was a young professional seeking entree into that world. Anecdotes of the treatment he received at the hands of some galleries and artists leave one’s eyebrows raised in shock. Scant wonder that dealing with that in-grown and self-satisfied world after he became an art critic caused in Sewell an eruption of bile. Given his life experience I can’t see how it could have been otherwise. He would have been perfectly justified in acting a good deal more curmudgeonly than in fact he did, so credit is due him for the degree of forebearance he exercised and the number of times he turned the other cheek to ill-treatment from the denizens of “high culture.”
Perhaps the most cognitively dissonant performance of Sewell’s career was his role as a judge on “Big Art Challenge UK,” available for viewing on YouTube here. His presence among the judges can only be pegged to his notoriety as a reviewer, and I cringe when imagining the invective that must have shot from his lips after filming each episode. If he found filming visits to his favorite places and works of art in Italy a test of patience, the strain on his reserves of forebearance (meager at the best of times, one suspects) from judging amateur artists angling for a cash prize must have required an immense effort of self-restraint. All the same, he’s never wantonly cruel to the young artists — he never becomes the Gordon Ramsay of the art world who reduces contestants to tears. He’s honest, no question on that account, but gently so unless provoked to greater force. Throughout the entire business, however, he’s clearly ill at ease and seems unsure of his footing as he interacts with young artists from such varied backgrounds — in some cases, one might say, from no background at all.
Well, it was work and he needed income — that’s the math to the left of the equals sign in this particular equation, one suspects. He acted in his assigned role competently and without brouhaha, which must be counted a success, but the Brian Sewell one sees as a contest judge is not the man sitting at his ease at home with his dogs during the lengthy interview mentioned above. An interlocutor can be a help or a hindrance to the expression of one’s thoughts. If the interlocutor is capable of following one’s thoughts as far as they reach, then conversation becomes liberating and creative. Otherwise it becomes an act of compromise, strained by continually trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Under those circumstances the best one can expect is diligence in the attempt to sustain the dialogue. In his own home with his dog nuzzling his arm for attention, Sewell speaks of art and life and experience with an ease that comes from being free of the need to accommodate. There his nature comes forth easily in all its facets as do his thoughts, and the result for the viewer is the emerging awareness of being in the presence of a remarkable human being.
Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own describes a process she herself went through which similarly brought her to a position of adherence to personal truth, albeit by a very different path:
… They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, for ever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs — the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives. Walk through the Admiralty Arch (I had reached that monument), or any other avenue given up to trophies and cannon, and reflect upon the kind of glory celebrated there. Or watch in the spring sunshine the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine. These are unpleasant instincts to harbour, I reflected. They are bred of the conditions of life; of the lack of cvilisation, I thought, looking at the statue of the Duke of Cambridge, and in particular at the feathers in his cocked hat, with a fixity that they have scarcely ever received before. And, as I realised these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Is that in my opinion a good book or a bad? Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky. …
That sense of being grounded in one’s own sense of things, of claiming “freedom to think of things in themselves” emanates clearly from Sewell’s work, as does the disregard for, or perhaps better said, the sense of exemption from received wisdom, which most often proves itself the opposite of what it purports to be. There, I think, we have the key to Sewell’s great success in the mainstream, to the respect and affection showered on him by the public at large who read his reviews, watched his documentaries and found in him a National Treasure. From the appearance of things he seems the least likely person in the world to find broad appeal with the British public — the posho accent, the camp, the rigorous intellectualism, it all has nothing to do with and no place in Blackpool or Brighton Pier. But despite all his quirks the public trusted him. They knew they could count on him to speak as he found in a way that made his opinion understandable. Sewell was commitedly egalitarian, not elitist, as both his words and actions prove, despite the impression he gave of being a toff. In putting aside — and being put aside by — the art establishment he achieved a position of equality with the people who read his writing and watched his films. He saw things in themselves, as any man of the street must do who has no vested interest in perpetuating the conceptual modishness of the moment conjured up by the aesthetic mafia who run the galleries and museums. I too would rely on Sewell for consistent truth in advertising, which I certainly don’t expect from a standard-issue curator at the New Tate. From the latter source I expect only a barrage of jargon and self-referential gobbledygook that will trigger my gag reflex if I pay attention to it too closely.
After recounting some of the adventures of his youth in the long interview mentioned above — among them a madcap trip by car with several friends to Italy to see art and architecture — Sewell remarks that he doesn’t think it possible any longer for young people to have that kind of experience. I think he’s right. Things on the ground in Italy haven’t changed so drastically that there are no longer things there to see, but certainly life has changed, and people have changed, as well. One only needs to see a group of millennials sitting with their phones in hand to see the truth of that point. These changes lead me to believe that Sewell is a kind of character we will not see in future. The conditions of life that shaped him have disappeared for the most part, the education he received is a thing of the past, and the tempering of self his context imposed on him has been replaced by a completely different pattern of life where individuality means nothing like what it meant in Sewell’s day — nor, for that matter, in my day. The art establishment continues apace along its merry path toward whatever it is that art aspires to these days. I find in Sewell’s work a legitimizing voice and a support for my disinterest in much of what goes on these days in the art world and for my continued and deeping interest in the art of the past. His work is a fine companion for that journey. I’m grateful for its presence in my experience. It’s a pity I didn’t come across it sooner, I’d have been happy to have that companionship much earlier in life.