Art critics, like artists, can be hog-tied by fame. Find success as a flower painter and the market will make you paint flowers. So, too, with Brian Sewell—who died on 19 September, aged 84—whose public loved to see him as a reactionary curmudgeon, although he was, in truth, neither of those things.
This became clear at my first meeting with him, 20 years ago. Sent, as a terror-struck art critic for the New Statesman, to interview Sewell for a profile, I asked if he would pick one picture in the National Gallery’s collection and talk to me about it. To my delighted alarm, he chose Velázquez’s Christ After the Flagellation, Contemplated by the Christian Soul (1628-29), a work that gave him the chance to play Brian Sewell to the full. It was a bravura performance. There was purse-lipped talk of Velázquez’s handling of Our Lord’s abdominal muscles, his homoeroticism, of why the angel was holding his robe in the unusual way that he was. Sewell may have used the word “callipygian”; I had taken the precaution of looking it up in case. All this was expected. What was not was his passion, and his generosity.
Getting it right If there is no question that Sewell wrote with greater authority than any other British newspaper critic, he also wrote with more sincerity. Both of these he put down not to inherent genius or a Courtauld Institute education but to the years he had spent working at Christie’s auction house.
“If you are making decisions that may affect someone’s life,” he said, “you have to get it right.” Getting it right as a critic took space and time: before the Evening Standard changed hands in 2009, Sewell’s exhibition reviews might cover two pages, or more. Majestically, they would appear after everyone else’s, their author having slowly honed their aperçus to a fine point and then typed them up on his typewriter.
Rapacious sexuality Getting it right also meant coming clean about his sexuality, which Sewell did in a pair of memoirs, published in 2011 and 2012. These catalogued a life that had clearly been in many ways unhappy: his birth to an unwed mother in a time when illegitimacy was scandalous; the childhood lack of a father; a rapacious sexuality that was, perhaps, a response to both of these. The eye Sewell used to record his own sexual exploits was as accurate and unblinking as the one he turned on art. When a friend, a Royal Academician, having just read the second volume of his autobiography, said: “But Brian, surely you can’t have slept with a thousand boys in a year?” Sewell gently countered, “Not boys. Men.”
The story is notable for more than its punctiliousness. The academician in question was a woman and an abstractionist, two categories of being that Sewell was held not to like. Actually, his most devoted friends were women, and his tastes in art more catholic than his Middle-England following supposed. That art was intelligent, serious and skilled mattered more than that it was old, representational or male. Sewell, to the dismay of his readers, was a huge fan of the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, best known for drawing clowns’ noses on original Goya prints. His yearly attack on the Turner Prize was more than just the bile of an ageing critic who did not understand the modern world. To Sewell, art was a serious business, a thing apart; a moral undertaking. A lapsed Catholic who found emotional intimacy difficult, he felt at home in galleries in a way he did not in churches or relationships.
This, though, was not what interested his public. What they wanted–and what they often got–was a sharp-tongued maverick, cast, they mistakenly believed, in their own blimpish image. For this, Sewell was partly to blame, although not entirely. The media quickly recognised his value as a camp wasp, and edited his persona to suit. Had he ceased to dip into the glossary of High Victorian phrase—“panjandrum”, “hobbledehoy”, “callipygian”—his readership would have been unhappy; so, too, his proprietor. It is typical, if depressing, that the first response to the news of Sewell’s death of one of the Evening Standard’s sister titles was to run an online piece entitled “Brian Sewell’s nine most withering put-downs”.
The last time we met, before his long illness, we were joined in the galleries of the Royal Academy by a third critic. He, too, had just finished Sewell’s memoirs: was there nothing, he asked, that Brian had not done? I added that I seemed to be the only man in London he hadn’t slept with. Sewell, with an insouciant smile, turned to me and said, sweetly: “Oh, didn’t we?” The third critic has looked at me oddly ever since. For the record, alas, we did not.