Books

The art critic who could have been a priest

Brian Sewell

The Complete Outsider 
by Brian Sewell
Quartet, 628pp, £20/$27.50
 

By the end of his life, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was one of the rare art historians and critics known to the general public. Unabashedly an “elitist” in the best sense of the word, he nevertheless achieved his fame by writing reviews for the mass-audience Evening Standard and appearing on television. Sewell refused to talk down to his readers. Nor did he ever scrap his elegant pronunciation – the norm in Sewell’s 1930s childhood, but out of fashion in later years.  

In his reviews, as funny as they were learned, Sewell explained why, say, Leonardo, Titian and Rubens were great, Whistler worthwhile, Cézanne over-rated and conceptual artists such as Damien Hirst, Banksy and Tracey Emin horrors. Sewell dismissed in a way frank to the point of ferocity not only the likes of Hirst and Banksy but also RB Kitaj and even David Hockney who disappointed Sewell in later years though he admired early Hockney. 

There was something innocent about Sewell’s refusal to toe the line of an art world he found corrupt. Some compared him to the boy who shouted that the Emperor was unclothed, and he himself called his collection of art reviews Naked Emperors. His love of art was too great and too sincere to endorse work he found over-rated bilge. 

Sewell first gained notoriety in 1979 when, ever loyal, he sheltered his mentor, the art historian Anthony Blunt, publicly disgraced as a Soviet spy. Despite encouragement to write about that incident and his time at Christie’s, where he worked in the 1950s and 1960s, Sewell resisted until, at the age of 80, he abandoned his reticence, only to find his first volume turned down, notwithstanding Sewell’s fame, by one publisher after another.  

It took Naim Attallah at the independent Quartet to snap up the first volume in 2011, followed the next year by a successor.

In his brief introduction, Attallah tells us that it was typical of Sewell to stick to Quartet, often short of money and not always able to supply his royalties, for the books he published during the few years before his death. Now Quartet has re-released the two volumes in one handsome if hefty tome. 

There is something of an old-fashioned novel about the book. In the way of traditional novels, the autobiography tells of a talented boy, hampered by circumstances, (in this case, being born out of wedlock).  

In Sewell’s case, there was a predicament unknown in old-fashioned novels: his homosexuality, a factor that played a part in Christie’s refusal to give him the partnership that was his due and led to his subsequent resignation. 

Sewell tells that he was in his fifties when his mother told him that he was the son of the composer Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock. Until her pregnancy, Sewell’s mother, who played the violin and cello, had made her way in London bohemia as an artist’s model. Catholic that she was, she refused the composer’s offer to pay for an abortion, so she told her son. Warlock/Heseltine was soon afterwards found dead, apparently a suicide of coal-gas poisoning, in his flat. Warlock’s often brilliant music is more worthwhile than Sewell gives credit for, but one cannot blame him for being unable to bear it. 

Brian’s mother educated her son by taking him to museums and galleries and meeting leading artists. When she married, her husband (who was discovered after his death to have had another wife) gave Brian a surname.  

In his youth, Sewell thought of becoming a priest only to abandon the idea because of his sexuality. He wrote that one Sunday on his way to Mass, he challenged God to give him a sign. None came and Sewell went in search of casual sex rather than attending Mass and, from then on, spent much of his free time in pick-ups.  

Sewell may have lapsed in favour of agnosticism and sexual promiscuity, but to the end he considered himself a Catholic. His understanding of theology informed eloquent non-art essays attacking abortion and, in 2012, dismissing the same-sex marriage then being promoted by the world’s politicians. Marriage was a sacrament meant for a man and a woman, Sewell proclaimed, and since same-sex couples were now free to enter into civil partnerships, there was no reason for them to have formal marriage as well. His television programme The Naked Pilgrim, following him on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, attested to his essential feeling for the faith he was born into.  

Sewell, whose non-art essays were awarded the Orwell Prize, called himself “queer” rather than “gay”, which he thought a silly misuse of language and not at all appropriate. Neither of those faults can be applied to this absorbing book which thoroughly deserves its reissue.