Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
BRIAN SEWELL (# 25)
Born in London, England
Father born in England / Mother in Ireland
Ethnic heritage / Father: English / Mother: Anglo-Irish
Brian Sewell is the outspoken, often controversial, art critic for the London Evening Standard. He studied the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute; during his National Service, he was an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps; he worked at Christie’s, specialising in ‘Old Master’ paintings and drawings; he had a brief career as an art dealer; and then he began writing and appearing in the media. Brian Sewell has been art critic on The Tatler, briefly the television critic for the Mail on Sunday, and contributed to a number of other publications; he has presented several well-received and award-winning television series; and has written a number of books on the arts, including a candid two-volume autobiography, called Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite. He is a connoisseur of music and opera, of vintage cars, of fine looking men and handsome dogs. He despises superficiality, populism and the ubiquitous ‘dumbing down’ of our culture. Brian Sewell was named Critic of the Year in 1988, 1993 & 2004 and Art Journalist of the Year in 1994; he won the Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism in 1995, the Foreign Press Award for Arts in 2000, and the prestigious George Orwell Prize for Journalism, in 2003.
Brian’s mother was born in Dublin, into an established Anglo-Irish family, but spent most of her early days in London’s Hampstead. Intelligent, beautiful and a talented cello player, she was also a devoted and vivacious socialite. Brian’s father was an unconventional, occasionally notorious figure whose way of life was, at that time, seen as racy, if not scandalous: Peter Warlock was a well-known composer and combative music critic who wrote extensively and made major contributions to the scholarship of early music. He died young, seven months before his son’s birth, and it was Brian’s misfortune, in terms of the stifling conventions of pre-War London society, to be born ‘out of wedlock’. Brian clearly inherited his father’s sharp mind, and his ability to interpret the arts and to write analytically about them and about the world around him in a daring and original way. Having been on the outside from the day he was born, Brian chose to stay there as an observer, looking on, and his art criticism has become famous for the fearlessness of its interpretations, for its independent tone, and for ruffling the feathers of the art establishment. The doyens of the art world have often been irritated or annoyed, while his readers have found delight in his penetrating insights into the cosy world of ‘Fine Art’ and all those who prosper from it.
Brian was educated at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, at that time in Hampstead, an experience which he found to be something of a mixed bag. Some fine education and some not insignificant camaraderie with fellow pupils was partly spoiled by his first encounters with bullying - somehow he seemed different: “I felt I was an outsider from the very beginning. I was an illegitimate child and I had never known my father. Initially, I did not even know who my father was, so half of my roots were quite unknown to me. My mother did not marry Robert Sewell, the man who became my stepfather, until I was 10 years old, so there was a period of over eight years when I was aware in one way or another that there was an absentee in my family and that had to be explained. Eventually, my mother did explain this anomaly in very simple terms: illegitimacy in the 1930s brought with it a stigma to which one could never confess, so there was always concealment. Of course, I was inevitably very much part of that concealment, and I had to comply with my mother’s wish never to be seen as a ‘fallen woman’. So you see, I was well conditioned to being the outsider from the very beginning. When, at 15 or so, I knew that I was irredeemably homosexual, this confirmed my status as a thoroughgoing outsider. Of course, all the other boys were thinking and talking about girls while I was thinking, if not talking, about them. I remember the School arranging dances, to which girls were invited, but I never went; I saw no point, I had no wish to dance with girls.”
Brian continues: “When I was 16, my mother sent me off to attend an academy for Ballroom Dancing once a week; she felt this was a necessary accomplishment for a young man to acquire. So I learned to do the Foxtrot and the experience was hateful. I did not like the feel of women; I neither liked nor desired their touch; I knew I was the outsider and had no desire to join in this heterosexual charade. But of course, I asked myself, ‘Do I really have to live a solitary life?’ ‘Could I make it with a girl?’ ‘Do I always want to be alone?’ And all those questions and problems which keep tumbling around one’s head as one gets a bit older. I thought: ‘I shall have to make a go of it, even if there is no sexual appeal.’ But ultimately, it became quite clear to me that I should never be able to ‘make a go of it’.”
In his recently-published memoir, Brian writes: “I am inclined to say that the school gave me nothing; certainly it gave me no prizes, not even the prize I deserved for my Distinction in Art and the History of Art ... But the school did give me something - rugger, cross-country running, confidence in my body and a dawning awareness that whatever I was to do or become would be determined by my own actions...” Undoubtably, solid educational foundations had been laid, together with the strength and confidence to fight back, and these would serve Brian well throughout the life that lay before him.
“In my younger days, boys were prepared for life by dancing lessons and National Service, and of the two, I much preferred the latter.” So, at the age of 21, Brian took the train to Aldershot to enlist. While it might be a surprise to many, not only did he survive the gruelling basic military training but he also grew as a person. Brian writes: “Only a fool could do two years’ National Service and resent it as a waste of time. Its benefit to society was formidable. It removed every young man in the land from the unemployment pool for two full years and paid him a mean pittance while training him in essential societary skills, often teaching him a trade that made him readily employable...”
In a recent interview, Brian elaborates: “I was very fortunate in having to do National Service; it was the right time and I was the right age to experience it. Nothing in the life of a boy of 18 now is equivalent to National Service. Of course it was hard and it knocked off all the odd corners, but it was a wonderful foundation for the Welfare State, because it taught us that we have to care for each other, and it taught us interdependence. Almost everybody had some skill, some ability which they could use to contribute towards the general good of the platoon. I might sound reactionary but I feel that it made a better, more mature and more rounded man of me than I might otherwise have been. I value what it taught me and it felt as if we were one big family.”
Brian studied History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and was there greatly influenced not only by the outstanding scholarship of Anthony Blunt but also by other teachers who had fled the recent turbulence in Europe and who brought with them the best European traditions of teaching in this field. Brian writes about the pedagogy of the Courtauld at that time: “In my young day the fabric was densely woven and there were no holes: then art history was the history of painting, sculpture, architecture and associated skills, from the birth pangs of the Italian Renaissance (with nods to ancient Athens, Rome and Byzantium) to the present day; it was the history of those who worked in these fields; it was the history of patronage from the Church, the state and individuals; it was also the history of nations, dynasties, the middle classes and the poor; the history of political ambitions and the conflicts of religions - it was, indeed, the history of history itself. We recognised art’s connections with literature and music, theology and heresy, philosophy and theory.” The Courtauld taught Brian how to look and how to interpret paintings, sculpture and drawings, how to recognise originals, imitations and fakes, how to see progressions and trends in the work of individual artists, and how to identify emerging styles and movements.
At the age of 27, Brian was offered a post at the very heart of the art world in London, at Christie’s - a fine art auction house where works of art are treated as commodities and traded, where the true monetary value of art is established. From the saleroom at Christie’s, works of art go to the great publicly-funded galleries of the world, to adorn the walls of affluent private collectors, or indeed to become but incarcerated treasures, secreted away in the vaults of super rich investors, perhaps not to be seen again for decades. Inevitably, fakes, works of dubious provenance and questionable authenticity are common in the crepuscular world of fine art trading.
Brian learnt a great deal at Christie’s; he also contributed a great deal too, for by then his knowledge was both solid and comprehensive. Following many years of successful endeavour, Brian might, with some justification, have thought himself well on the way to joining the Board of Directors but discovered that there was in his case a major impediment. His putative advancement was unexpectedly blocked at a critical directors’ meeting by Patrick Lindsay, a serving member of the Christie’s board: his objection was nothing if not forthright: “We’ve got one homosexual on the board; we don’t need another...” Brian recalls recently: “The prejudice was so strong that all the virtues of my scholarship, all my ideas, my hard work and the progress I had made at Christie’s all counted for nothing. The only other possible interpretation is that Patrick, who was my immediate boss, was worried by the possibility of my becoming his equal in authority and then possibly, at some stage, exceeding it. What he didn’t realise was that I was never even remotely interested in power but I was interested in doing my job at Christie’s properly.” Having spent nine years at Christie’s, Brian resigned. A long career as a writer and art critic ensued, and though sometimes unpredictable and often frustrating, it was a career that was also deeply fulfilling, especially as it led to the generation of books, articles and television appearances.
Brian has been the art critic of the London Evening Standard since 1984 and has developed an unrivalled reputation for being fearlessly honest and outspoken, combative even, but his reviews invariably offer well-argued, authoritative and highly intelligent interpretation. Like all proficient critics, he offers the reader exposition and elucidation but sees it as his duty also to evaluate, with unfailing candour, what might be proclaimed as a major art exhibition or the work of an individual artist with a claim to pre-eminence. Predictably, Brian’s reviews are often dreaded by indifferent curators and artists alike, some of whom have comforted themselves by alleging that his pen is venomous. Of course, it would be misleading to imply that Brian’s reviews are characterised by censure only; he delivers praise wherever praise is due and can be generous.
Brian was recently asked why he considers himself to be an outsider in the world of contemporary art; his reply is evidence of his fierce independence as a critic: “I owed nothing to anybody in the art world and I have no great friend in it. But I have spent decades looking at art as a ordinary man in the street.” An outsider, perhaps? He smiles. “It seemed to me that this was a very cosy world [the art world] in which the critics supported the curators and the curators supported the artists, generating a sort of complex symbiosis with the Arts Council itself facilitating a myriad of undertakings and interactions. Of course, the major dealers are themselves part of this exclusive club too. And then there was me, coming from outside the charmed circle and failing to subscribe to the common perspective. I had a choice: either I joined the club or I said what I thought. I sometimes felt that a gigantic fraud was being perpetrated, a deliberate attempt to deceive the public. An awful lot of rubbish was receiving the most egregious praise.”
“It is very interesting when you look back over the artists and the work that was being celebrated; in more recent times, most have been completely forgotten. If you go back to the exhibitions and revisit the painters or sculptors who, 30 years ago, were being described as important, you see how few of them have come through. And if you go back to something more recent, Charles Saatchi’s extraordinary show, Sensation, held at the Royal Academy in 1997, only a little more than 15 years ago, more than half of the artists who caused such a ‘sensation’ at the time have simply faded away to nothing. They were simply not good enough; the art establishment has gradually ignored them, and finally they are simply left out. I was the one who dared to say from the beginning that there was no substance there.”
In having the audacity to observe that the ‘emperor had no clothes’, Brian caused acute annoyance and irritation to those influential members of the charmed circle who had brought these artists to prominence. As a consequence, for writing what he believed were honest and well-considered reviews, Brian gradually became an unwelcome visitor to new shows and to exhibitions at the leading galleries. In his biography, he writes: “I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella... I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter) and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre.”
In 1994, a letter was published in The Evening Standard, signed by 35 major curators, artists and other prominent figures in art world, accusing Brian Sewell of homophobia, demagogy, hypocrisy, misogyny, artistic prejudice, formulaic insults and predictable scurrility. Brian responded in force, supported by a number of equally prominent signatories, as well as by a goodly number of The Evening Standard’s readers. Many joined him in protest against what seemed to be the almost never-ending programme of neo-conceptual art in most of London’s galleries and arts venues. Brian wrote: “I know that even the world of ancestral art prefers arse-licking to honest argument. In the face of all this, however, I still believe that art criticism should be passionately engaged with the art itself, that the critic should be morally and intellectually honest, and should bring to bear, not an often ill-informed opinion, but the knowledge and the experience that are the grounds for judgment. The critic must treat his readers as equals when he discusses complex ideas and layers of meaning in the work of art; he must never pretend to see what cannot be seen ...”
Without doubt, Brian continues to be controversial but he is the most read and, for many, the most respected art critic in London. While he is accused of artistic conservatism, those who read him with open minds will know that he is more than happy to embrace contemporary art and to write encouragingly about any new work in which he sees merit. However, he has been consistently dismissive of prominent artists whose work is without substance: he has been vocal in dismissing a number of Turner Prize entries; he has been an outspoken critic of trends within Tate Modern; and he maintains, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that in showing real trends in contemporary art, Charles Saatchi has actually been doing at his private gallery what Tate Modern should have been doing.
Of course, over the years, Brian has made a number of famously provocative statements, about Banksy, about the city of Bristol, and about Liverpool, but to fail to see the humour and mischievous intent in Brian’s writing is to fail altogether to understand him as a critic.
Brian has said recently: “Of course I continue to speak out, of course I still do, but it is like ‘pissing in the wind’: I feel I have no influence where it matters. I have never been consulted by a Government minister with responsibility for Culture or the Arts; indeed, I have never even been spoken to by such a minister. Other people are brought in to help with formulating strategies for the Arts, but not me, never me. I have never been a part of the Arts Council; never been approached by the British Council; never been asked to curate an exhibition; never been asked even to write the catalogue for an exhibition. I have never been asked to do any of these things since I became an art critic. I have been excluded from the BBC; I am not invited on any programme dealing with the arts world, either on the radio or on television. For the BBC, I seem not to exist. So, as you can imagine, there is within me this feeling of exclusion, a serious feeling of exclusion, because I cannot think of another critic who has been so totally excluded from these small pleasures and privileges as I have been.” It is sad to reflect that these are the words of arguably the country’s most prominent art critic; readers of this article are encouraged to ponder how this might have come about and what may be the long-term consequences for the health of the arts in Britain.
In conclusion, on being asked if he had the choice, would he exchange his position as a outsider for that of an insider, Brian replies without hesitation: “No, I cannot change my position. It is also a moral position which I feel I cannot change; I am who I am.” We agree that for some of us, for some who are outsiders from the very outset, it is most likely that we shall remain outsiders to the very end.
Interview Date: 27th August 2013
Updated: 13th September 2013
Brian Sewell’s candid biography, Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite, was published in two volumes by Quartet Books (2011 & 2012)
Update (September 2015)
We have to report the very sad news that on Saturday, 19th September 2015, Brian Sewell passed away at his home in Wimbledon; he was 84 and had been suffering from cancer for some considerable time. Perhaps Britain’s most famous, most colourful, and most controversial art critic, he will be greatly mourned by everyone who values criticism that is forthright, honest and intellectually robust. And, despite the crusty persona and the acerbic wit, he was a man of enormous charm and warmth.
Born: 15 June 1931; Died: 19 September 2015.
May he rest in peace.
Evening Standard art critic since 1984, Brian is known for being fearlessly honest and outspoken, yet his reviews are invariably well-argued, intelligent and authoritative. Styling himself an outsider in the world of contemporary art, Brian demonstrates his fierce critical independence: “I owed nothing to anybody in the art world and I have no great friend in it. But I have spent decades looking at art as an ordinary man in the street. I … believe … that the critic should be morally and intellectually honest, and should bring to bear … the knowledge and the experience that are the grounds for judgment. The critic must treat his readers as equals when he discusses complex ideas and layers of meaning in the work of art; he must never pretend to see what cannot be seen ...”
Photography: London 27th August 2013