Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.
After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like
…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)
It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:
I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)
But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:
I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)
But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:
In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)
[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)
If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.
• Art-Bandit — Outsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)