A fail-safe route into the combative life of the art critic Brian Sewell (1931–2015) is by way of extended quotation. Here he is on the very first page of his voluminous memoirs, recently published in a single edition by Quartet, writing about the woman who brought him up:
My earliest recollection of my mother is of my looking down on her and recognising fear. I have no memory of looking up at her, or seeing the bodyless head in which analysts who bother themselves with the earliest artistic impulses of the child would have us believe, the great smiling face of the adult looming over the cradle or the pram, but looking down from the not inconsiderable height of an overhanging branch has stayed with me all my life, not because of the adventure of climbing there—that I remember not at all—but for the startling clarity of a powerful emotion that I had never seen before and did not comprehend. The tree still stands in the garden of Cefin Bryntalch, an unlovely Victorian house in Powys recently described by agents selling it as “innovative for its use of Neo-Georgian style which is worked into the expressive forms of brick vernacular revival” (house agents rival art critics in the meaningless jargon of their propaganda).
In the end there is something rather exhilarating about the sky-high levels of bitchiness on display in this carefully wrought charge sheet, so much so that I began to make a list of the various people, artifacts, institutions, and professions that Sewell is taking a pop at. There is his mother, obviously, and the “fear” that she has of her pint-sized, curly-haired son as he stares down at her, but a little investigation soon discloses at least five subsidiary targets. These include psychoanalysts (although the author of such a psychologically revealing book as The Complete Outsider might well have profited from a spell on the analyst’s couch), realtors, and art critics, but also the unlovely house in which he spent his childhood. And then, most significantly of all, albeit only ticked off for juvenile incomprehension, there is Sewell himself.
As a general rule, most memoirists with scores to settle tend to calm down as the years fly by; Sewell isn’t one of them.
As a general rule, most memoirists with scores to settle tend to calm down as the years fly by; Sewell isn’t one of them. The wounds are still fresh and the bandages constantly ripped off. To a roll call of parents, realtors, and unlovely Victorian houses can be added, before very long, the “primped, perfumed and appalling” wives of his old school friends, the distinguished artist Sir William Coldstream (“he had the mentality of a haberdashery assistant”), Sir Alec Martin of Christie’s (“a formidable and ridiculous old fraud”), and that grand panjandrum of the early twentieth-century art world, Roger Fry, here stigmatized as “the most pontifical, vainglorious, grandiloquent, superficial and, unfortunately, influential of all English art critics.” Naturally, this cavalcade of high-end disdain makes for a fascinating psychological puzzle. Are the spite and the fault-finding genuine—a kind of perpetual default setting—or are they done for effect, worked on and factitiously contrived, a part of the complex personal myth that one can see Sewell weaving around himself almost from the moment he was born?
The future art world gadfly’s origins were obscure, but, in the context of the semi-bohemian landscape he later came to occupy, by no means unpromising. He came to believe his father was the musician Peter Heseltine/Warlock (1894–1930), who committed suicide six months before his putative son’s birth. His mother, by contracting what later turned out to be a bigamous marriage to his stepfather in 1942, prompted his grandmother to make a new will “in which no further provision of any kind was made for me. In effect I was wiped from the family history.” The stepfather’s death left his second family penniless. It was a shabby-genteel, hand-to-mouth existence—Sewell suspects his mother of having worked as a prostitute—while not exactly lacking in exalted connections and fanciful redoubts. One of them was Madame Lipescu, a mistress of King Carol of Romania, to whose Savoy Hotel suite Mrs. Sewell was occasionally bidden (in later life, Brian was reminded of the whiffs of expensive perfume and body odor she gave off “when [he was] required to squeeze the obstructed anal glands of a beloved bitch”). There was also, here in war-time London, a fair amount of danger, exemplified by the summer day on which, hand in hand on Kensington High Street, mother and son were blown by a bomb blast through the window of a nearby shop.
Aged three, clad in buttoned topcoat with velvet collar, he looks like Christopher Robin with a perm.
The accompanying photographs testify to what an odd little chap—to use the English vernacular of the time—young Brian must have been. Aged three, clad in buttoned topcoat with velvet collar, he looks like Christopher Robin with a perm. Aged sixteen, several inches shorter than any of his team-mates, hair sprouting off the top of his head like a furze bush, he stands in the back row of a school rugby team photograph like some changeling dropped out of the clouds. The school was Haberdashers’ Aske’s, in northwest London, about which he complains (“I hated most of my schoolmasters”), but whose teaching was sufficiently adept to gain him a place at Oxford. This, as a precocious teenage habitué of the London sale rooms, already prone to spending his pocket money on three-guinea bundles of uncatalogued drawings, he naturally turned down in favor of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Here he was taken up by Anthony Blunt, the authority on Poussin and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures—on a trip to Windsor with his patron, Sewell finds himself perched on a ladder when Her Majesty enters the room—and sent forth on the proper business of his life.
Even at this stage, you can see why Sewell—petulant, fastidious, and oozing wounded amour-propre—got on so badly with so many of the people he rubbed up against. What redeems this catalogue of put-downs and airy condemnation is the sheer unpredictability of the persona on display. There are times when all the gadding about, the name-dropping, and the epithet-flinging threaten to turn him into a type. More often, though, Sewell is like the character in the high-class novel who delights in confounding the reader’s expectation of him and reinforces the solidity of his role by every so often stepping out of it. The two years’ compulsory military service that most fifties-era young British men regarded as a waste of time offers him the chance to learn practical skills and hone his “ruthlessness.” The homosexual leanings he had detected at Haberdashers’ Aske’s (“I was, I am certain, already queer at school”) were countered by a piety that led him to think seriously about becoming a Catholic priest. And then there is his sense of humor—waspish and vengeful, certainly, but also capable of realizing great comic moments. Thus, while attending an officer’s training course, and ordered to address the assembled recruits, he opts to lecture on the absence of sexual imagery from pre-Columbian Mexican sculpture. “I can’t help feeling I’ve had my leg pulled,” the supervising officer remarks, “but it makes a change from how to look after a horse.”
Even the name-dropping is of a somewhat specialized kind, in which the luster and éclat is not so much recognized as semaphored at with what will very often reveal itself as faint disparagement: of the great post-war triumvirate of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney, for example, he remarks only that he knew them “long before I took to criticism and it never occurred to me that every word they uttered should be preserved by some devoted amanuensis.” Christie’s, the great London auction house to which he eventually proceeded, might have seemed a natural milieu in which these talents—if that is what they were—could be exercised. But, as ever, Sewell is pulled both ways, relishing his imbrication in the business of identifying, talking up, and selling art, but disillusioned by the gargantuan helpings of prejudice and snobbery on display: “We’ve already got one homosexual on the board,” some grand eminence declares when there is talk of giving him a directorship. In fact, the atmosphere at King Street, St James, Christie’s London HQ, is practically Firbankian in its shadings—a world of chilly cruelty and archaic protocols irradiated by a procession of Dickensian grotesques.
It is merely that by his last couple of decades he has become one of those omnipresent sub-celebrities known in the United Kingdom as a “National Treasure.”
Most six-hundred-page autobiographies (this one combines two volumes previously published in 2011 and 2012 as Outsider I and Outsider II) eventually run out of wind before the ship sails home to port. The Complete Outsider, so fascinating in its world-within-a-world account of London gay life in the days before the Wolfenden Report recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, so lyrical when art history is brought to bear on its figurative language (see the description of black GIs lying in wait for factory girls as “wicked stuff for Burra watercolours”), is just slightly less absorbing once Sewell has said goodbye to Christie’s, embarked on a career as a private dealer, and settled down—not really the mot juste, given the rebarbativeness of what got written by and about him—as the art critic of the London Evening Standard. It is not that Sewell’s sense of humor deserts him: when sheltering (at some personal cost) the disgraced Blunt after the latter’s exposure as a Russian spy and trailed by the media, he regrets that he can no longer call in at Harrods, the Knightsbridge department store, in search of a casual pick-up in the washroom. It is merely that by his last couple of decades he has become one of those omnipresent sub-celebrities known in the United Kingdom as a “National Treasure.” Again, the question of motivation rears its head. Did the art critic who so violently repudiated Damien Hirst, who criticized Hockney’s vulgarity, who maintained that there has never been a first-rate woman artist, and of whom dozens of people wrote to his editor to protest that he was “homophobic,” “misogynistic,” and “elitist,” really believe his pronouncements, or was he just having a little fun?
As very often happens with the flamboyantly opinionated, it may simply be that the stylization of one’s personality required by this kind of attitude is such that manner, stance, and judgment are ultimately inseparable from each other, and that the pundit who volunteered such glacial observations on great works of art was in danger of becoming one himself. All this leads to a further question, one posed by the book’s title. One should always be suspicious of people who make claims to outsider status, if only because it usually takes an insider to be in a position to make them. A genuine British outsider, you feel, would be someone like James Thompson the Younger (1834–82), the semi-impoverished author of The City of Dreadful Night (1874), whose existence on the margins of the cultural world of his day is symbolized by the story of his trudging through the rain to watch George Eliot’s funeral only to have his view obscured by the forest of lofted umbrellas.
Gay, illegitimate, lower-middle-class, and the practiced expounder of unfashionable views Brian Sewell may have been, but he also won a place at a major British university, studied at the Courtauld, hobnobbed with Anthony Blunt, wrote art criticism for a leading newspaper, and made television programs for the bbc. This is not to minimize the importance of the personal myth, or its role in making the average life tolerable. Without his idiosyncratic view of his path through life, Sewell would not have been the person he was. All the same, large parts of his career may be regarded as an object lesson in how to worm your way into the heart of the crowd.
1The Complete Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite, by Brian Sewell; Quartet Books, 627 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 30
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com