Serpent's Egg

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Brian Sewell: a fearless writer, a peerless scholar and a loyal and generous colleague

For over 30 years Brian Sewell, who died on Saturday, was the art critic of the Evening Standard. Nick Curtis remembers a brilliant man

  • Evening Standard, Monday 21 September 2015

When I first joined the Evening Standard in 1993, Brian Sewell had already been the paper’s art critic for nine years and was one of the few “destination writers” in the business — those whose style and authority were reasons enough for readers to pick up a newspaper. He was constantly courted by other publications but liked to say he preferred the Standard because it was read by everyone in London, from secretaries to royalty.

The democratic thrust of that statement might seem at odds with his high-minded devotion to and analysis of art. But Brian believed people should be challenged intellectually rather than patronised by dumbed-down ideas. There was a strong demotic streak to his character, a filthy sense of humour and an earthy love of dogs, cars and sex. It was this, along with his passion, erudition and coruscating use of language — not to mention an instantly recognisable voice described by John Humphrys as “posher than the Queen” — that made Brian popular and respected among a vast swathe of the population beyond the art-world cognoscenti.

In those early days, the Standard’s then-editor Stewart Steven asked Brian if he was perhaps a little too hard on Nicholas Serota’s regime at the Tate, to which Brian responded with a pithy: “Balls!” Once, I took him to lunch and watched as he heaped Nescafé granules into an espresso: the insipidity of restaurant coffee, and the fact that British hotels were happier to furnish “masturbating Mondeo man” with pornography than provide a proper caffeine hit, was a recurring bugbear of his.

For a short while, I shared a desk with him, making way when he came in to proof-read his weekly review against his meticulously typed original manuscript. He was never less than courteous and funny and I remember some rare conversations: about the sexual allure of fat women, about a BMW he wanted to buy that had supposedly been owned by Sean Connery and had been “nibbled by apes” in Gibraltar; about his dogs. He would leave elegantly hand-written phone messages for me if someone rang: I think my friends timed their calls to hear his voice. More recently, at the launch of his first volume of autobiography, Outsider, Brian — already very frail — paid generous tribute to the arts desk assistant, the sub-editor who handled his page every week for more than a decade, and the arts editors who commissioned him, claiming that if he had ever made any kind of sense it was down to them.

​They feared him and they loved him: The art world remembers Brian Sewell

‘He demolished each of my efforts with such grandeur that it felt flattering to be duffed up by him’ – Charles Saatchi, gallerist and collector

‘He was sceptical about much contemporary art but his passionate criticism encouraged debate’ – Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate galleries

‘He vivisected artists with a glint of a scalpel and the relentlessness of it was right and correct’ – Jake Chapman, artist

‘His writing encouraged and challenged readers to visit galleries when they might not have done so’ – Deborah Swallow, Courtald Institute

‘Not all his reviews were favourable — I still shudder at what he said about our Norman Rockwell show’ – Ian Dejardin, Dulwich Picture Gallery

He will be missed by the wider public and within journalism but most of all in the art world, where even those who felt the stab of his pen or vehemently disagreed with his views respected his integrity and intensity. “He was a fantastically opinionated critic, someone who valued antagonism as a necessary process of looking and thinking about art,” says Jake Chapman, who with his brother Dinos received both favourable and damning reviews from Brian.

“One time he said he was really impressed by a work that we made, and we had a sense that that admiration might last. But the next review was scathing. I sent him an etching asking him to try and at least be consistent with his attacks on our work.

“He had an unmitigated love of art, his position was supremely conservative and very old-fashioned, but that is not to say he didn’t think there was not something at stake in making art. He was very good at vivisecting artists with the glint of a scalpel. That is the proper job of a critic, really. And the relentlessness of it was absolutely right and correct.”

Charles Saatchi echoes the almost masochistic relish artists and collectors took in Brian’s fierce judgment. “I was just finishing hanging the last work for the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition, minutes before the opening of the press preview,” Saatchi recalls. “Out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone else in the room, inspecting me crossly. Before I could fathom the reason for the gentleman’s indignation, the RA’s head of exhibitions, Norman Rosenthal, took me by the arm, and announced ‘You must meet Brian Sewell’.

Legendary critic: Brian Sewell, who has died aged 84, pictured in 1979

Evgeny Lebedev: He embodied the Standard’s best qualities

When my family bought the Evening Standard in 2009, we had a strong sense of its influence in the culture of not just London but Britain as a whole.

This influence was based on deep knowledge, sound judgment and the affection and respect of millions of readers. The journalist who most embodied these qualities was Brian Sewell.

I have a long-standing interest in art history, having studied it when I was younger.

That meant I was familiar with Brian’s work because he was hugely respected by both teachers and students alike.

I read his magisterial essays long before my family owned this newspaper; and once we did, I felt pride as well as instinctive joy when I saw his byline.

The withering put-downs might have helped make him famous but there was also a deep love of culture and huge generosity toward young talent.

Brian was a mentor and inspiration to many young artists.

Fine critics are a vital part of any culture. They help us to feel and to think. Brian certainly did that, and without him in our midst it will be harder to do both.

I join readers of the Standard in giving thanks for his many years of outstanding journalism, which we recognise today, and shall never forget.

“Brian peered even harder at me at the introduction, his flinty eyes unable to conceal his displeasure. I knew who he was, of course, as he had never written a favourable word about any show I had produced in 15 years. But he had demolished each of my efforts with such grandeur and refinement, it felt somewhat flattering to be duffed up by him.

“He was one of the very few art reviewers who took great care to look painstakingly at the shows he wrote about, studying each work intently whether he liked it or not. And as readers of this newspaper know, he wrote beautifully, carefully dissecting exhibitions that he greatly admired, or deeply loathed, with equal clarity.

“Our inauspicious first encounter led to Brian agreeing to have a cup of tea with me, and we found ourselves getting on unexpectedly well. So well in fact, that we became one of each other’s only good friends in the art world we inhabited. I loved our lunches, silly chatter of glorious cars, hideous people, lovely dogs and anything else that Brian found amusing. He was splendid in so many ways; I will very much miss his squishing of pomposity in general, and my exhibitions in particular. Most of all, I will hate no longer being able to enjoy his wickedly acerbic sense of fun.”

He demanded the best of the capital’s great institutions. “Brian Sewell would be horrified by any attempt to make him sound sweet or soft,” says the former National Gallery director Dr Nicholas Penny. “He was a severe critic who enjoyed castigating folly or ignorance. He relished the alternative felicities which occurred to him in the process. Those who knew him will always be able to envisage the out pursing of his lips as he framed the syntax of his invective or summoned up the polysyllabic adjective that would give most pain.

Respected critic: Brian Sewell

“But Brian was often right. And when he wrote in praise or defence of what he loved most he forgot himself and simply described something about which he felt deeply. Much that he loved most was kept in the National Gallery: some of Claude’s landscapes, Vermeer’s Christ Flagellated, works by Degas and Seurat come to mind. But his interests were entirely unpredictable and his learning quite astonishing. He could also be kind and courteous not only to old friends but to total strangers, perhaps especially after visiting the National Gallery.”

Despite the occasional savagery of his writing, few dispute that Brian had a softer side. “Brian first started reviewing exhibitions here at the behest of the late Kate Knowles, the gallery’s head of press,” recalls Ian Dejardin of Dulwich Picture Gallery. “On his complaining that it was too far to come, Kate simply turned up at his door and drove him out here. He adored her, as everyone did. Since then, until his recent illness, he reviewed nearly all our exhibitions. Typically, not all reviews were favourable — I still shudder when I think of what he said about our Norman Rockwell exhibition —  but we quickly learned that any review, good or bad, by Brian ensured increased visitor figures.”

“I’ve always had a lot of time for Brian Sewell,” says Dr Mark Evans, FSA, senior curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “He loved nothing better than a good rant; but he also was an acute critic who cared passionately about quality, and despised cant. I enjoyed taking him round the new V&A paintings galleries when they opened in 2003, and almost thought I had converted him to our cause; but he came back and damned us with faint praise all the same.

Brian Sewell at home in southwest London

“The last in a long line of excoriating English art critics, stretching back to the 18th century, who knew how to stay just on the right side of the libel laws, he was a controversialist by nature, and loved to bite the hand that fed him. Without Brian Sewell the world of art journalism will be considerably more quiet, bland and dull, and I am afraid that many will prefer it that way. Personally, I will miss him a lot.”

It wasn’t just artists, curators, collectors and gallery directors who suffered the lash of Brian’s displeasure of course. His fellow critics were frequently dressed down and derided: I remember a possibly apochryphal story of Brian, after one of his first heart attacks, indignantly checking himself out of a private hospital when he learned the art on the walls had been chosen by a critic he did not respect. One of the few who won his approval was Michael Prodger of the New Statesman. “Too many art writers are fence sitters or kowtowers but never Brian. And if knowing his own mind won him the enmity of the ‘Serota tendency’ he was every bit as stern when judging his own failings. Brian was on the side of the angels — and dogs.”

The National Gallery director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, said: “Brian Sewell was deeply devoted to the National Gallery. He believed that the collection set the standard for what the gallery did and so he had the very highest expectations. Even when he was being critical, and no one wielded the pen of acerbic wit more skilfully than he, his love for the Gallery shone through. His forcefully articulated views on the art world and his passionate personality will be enormously missed.”

Orlando Rock, the chairman of Christie’s UK, where Sewell worked for many years, said: “Everyone at Christie’s is sad to hear of Brian’s death. He was, undoubtedly, one of our most colourful and learned former colleagues. What always motivated him, and the reason why he will be so missed, is his love of great art and its power to move and inspire.”

Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota said he brought “intellectual rigour, clarity, style and verve to the art of criticism”, adding, ”each of Brian’s reviews was an honest expression of a point of view that was informed by his deep knowledge of many kinds of art. He valued craft and was sceptical about much contemporary art but his passionate criticism encouraged debate and discussion — which is, after all, one of the purposes of art.”

Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, said: “I followed Brian Sewell’s writing career over the past 35 years, ever since he first emerged from the wake of Anthony Blunt, and often admired his deep knowledge of Old Master painting, his fearless ability to provoke public interest in exhibitions, and the baroque, waspish extravagance of his prose style.”

To the end, Brian was also on the side of humanity, and of art. Deborah Swallow, the Marit Rausing director of his old training ground, the Courtauld Institute, calls him “one of the great alumni. The intellectual independence, great knowledge and acerbic wit, which are so evident in his writings and exhibition reviews, encourage and challenge readers to visit galleries and museums when they might not have done so.

“Indeed, Brian has done much to make art more accessible not only through his little-known work in prisons, where he taught history of art, but through his publications including his recent children’s book, The White Umbrella. He has made an immense contribution to the world of art in many different ways.”

The world is a flatter and less filthy place with his passing.


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