Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite: Brian Sewell

★★★★

Brian Sewell is now best known for being the art critic of the Evening Standard: ferociously knowledgeable, scrupulously precise and utterly intolerant of pretension. His exhibition reviews are the only ones I trust completely, and I should have read this first volume of his memoirs long before now; but I mistakenly assumed that it would be like the other art-world memoirs I’ve read. Those were dull, lifeless books, little more than a chance for the author to boast of his distinguished friends, settle scores with old enemies and rattle off a list of the famous paintings that he’s sold. I should have known better; and in any case, several people have recently urged me to read it – some struck by the elegance of the writing and others by Sewell’s brutal frankness.

Having made a career out of judging art with an honest and ruthlessly critical eye, Sewell now turns that eye on his own life. The result is by turns moving and scurrilous (though not, I think, as sexually explicit as the second volume is said to be). For me, however, the most wonderful moments are those in which Sewell begins to speak of art: it’s as if sunlight has suddenly pierced through the clouds and flooded across the book. His passion for his subject is not only tangible but infectious. 

In this volume Sewell takes his story from his birth in 1931, through his schooldays, his time in the Army on National Service, his studies at the Courtauld Institute, his time cataloguing at Windsor and the Royal Academy and his brief, unhappy career at Christie’s, finishing with his departure from the company in early 1967. Throughout this period two themes keep recurring, which seem to underline his sense of never quite belonging anywhere: first, his illegitimacy and, secondly, his homosexuality. It’s astonishing, in more tolerant times, to read about how crippling a social stigma illegitimacy was in the 1930s: Sewell and his mother were cut off from their wealthy family and left to manage on only a small allowance. Speaking of his dazzling, creative, domineering mother, Sewell offers his first really shocking comment: ‘My mother may have been something of a prostitute‘, without preamble, when wondering how she coped with the financial side of things. Their complex and overpowering relationship seems to have continued until her death, although it was damaged by her marriage in 1942 to Robert Sewell, whose surname Brian was given, and then the bonds were cut even further by Sewell’s efforts to maintain his independence when living in London after National Service.

As for his homosexuality, he is remarkably sensitive and matter-of-fact about the difficulties of being gay at a time when it was still a criminal offence. I had braced myself for far more flamboyant descriptions of his sex life, since that’s what so many reviewers have focused on, but there is really very little here to disapprove of. That’s largely because Sewell nurtured ambitions to become a priest and consequently spent a large chunk of his twenties in self-enforced celibacy. In fact, the sexual reminiscence which took me most by surprise was his throwaway description of being seduced by an elderly American widow, one of several ladies for whom he was acting as cicerone in Paris: ‘I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure when her diamante spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair‘. That mixture of frankness and schoolboy naughtiness is fairly typical of the book’s overall tone and it’s very, very difficult to dislike.

Different people will find different things to enjoy in the book, but of course the area that most absorbed me was when Sewell wrote about art and art historians. Having followed in his footsteps in certain ways, most notably at the Courtauld, I can’t help but savour his tales of tutorials with Anthony Blunt and Johannes Wilde, in the days when the Courtauld was a different place both spiritually and geographically (it was then in Portman Square; it’s now in Somerset House on the Strand). Although still very much a fledgling institution, only just emerging from its interwar reputation as a kind of finishing school, the Courtauld was beginning to glitter with academic brilliance and Sewell’s contemporaries included many of the greatest scholars of their generation.

This was the moment at which art history in Britain became the pursuit of professionals rather than amateurs: a development that is arguably responsible for the very different character of the discipline today, in which the field has been mined so thoroughly and deep that you sometimes feel there is nothing left to say. No student nowadays would have the same opportunities that Sewell had on his graduation: to write catalogues for Royal Academy exhibitions, or to publish a book on the Fontana drawings at Windsor, or to take on responsibility for the National Trust properties in the south-west of England (an offer he didn’t accept). That’s partly because we have a less dazzling breadth of knowledge: theory rather than connoisseurship is the dominant theme of many history of art courses, although the Courtauld still stands out in that respect. But it’s also true that the field has been so professionalised that such opportunities simply don’t exist any more for a young graduate who hasn’t been through the levels of the hierarchy.

And so it’s bewitching to read about this golden age in which you could still buy parcels of unsorted drawings at Christie’s with little more than your pocket money, and in which Sewell rubbed shoulders with the men now considered the greatest scholars of their age: primarily, for me, A.E. Popham, John Pope-Hennessy and Philip Pouncey. Sewell has little time for the latter, recounting a story which exemplifies the moral labyrinth of the art trade; and he is slightly ribald about Pope-Hennessy’s extracurricular activities with his male students. But that is Sewell’s way: he respects a good eye, honesty and loyalty and he is more than ready to puncture the puffed-up egos of the art world. (No wonder he had to wait to publish this until most of his contemporaries were dead: he is especially vituperative, perhaps with good reason, about his boss at Christie’s, Patrick Lindsay.) Even those on the fringes of the art world spring back into life: of William Francis Forbes-Sempill, 19th Baron Sempill, a Scottish laird whom Sewell met during his tour with the American ladies, he notes, ‘He was the kind of man who could, and did, park his seaplane on the Thames when asked to lunch at the Savoy.’

And then the art. It’s not so much Sewell’s description of specific works of art that caught my eye, but the pervasive sense of his adoration of art and his almost spiritual engagement with it. He charts his enduring love for the Renaissance and Baroque and his growing appreciation of the eighteenth-century English portraitists whom he originally dismissed as dull, alongside sensitive digressions into the lives and work of more modern artists like Augustus John and John Minton. As the book concludes in 1967 there isn’t much on modern artists and the focus is firmly Old Master, although Sewell describes a deliciously brief correspondence with Picasso and finds time to include a throwaway but absolutely spot-on description of the style of Lucian Freud, ‘whose paintbrush crawls into a woman’s crutch with the insistence of a caterpillar into a cabbage heart‘. But he is at his most rhapsodic when speaking of the spirit of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, and the passage which most captivated me was his breathless recollection of a particularly marvellous loan that hung in one of the Courtauld’s study rooms during his days as a student:

In the attic room in which I then chose to read and write there hung a marvellous painting by Caravaggio, a temporary loan to the Institute’s collection, to be removed at a moment’s notice and thus to be greedily and urgently absorbed. Facing the window, it caught the long warm rays of the autumn sun and sang of things languid and sensual of which I knew nothing but sensed much, for it seemed to touch part of my nature, then half recognised. When I should have been writing essays on Filippo Lippi and Tino da Camaino, instead I sat and gazed, enthralled, enchanted, transported, at the four indolent boys who inhabit Caravaggio’s Una Musica, making the music of the love song rather than in praise of God – very different putti from those of Donatello and Luca della Robbia.

Pure, heartfelt and sensual, this passage caught my breath. If only I could write like that with the feeling of the enraptured adolescent but the underlying authority of the critic; and if only I had lived in such days, when the magic of a painting by Caravaggio was still something little known and underrated: a symbol of all there was out there to be discovered. But Sewell’s spirit doesn’t linger in these romantic phases and, with calculated ribaldry he goes on to describe the circumstances of the picture’s discovery. It had been spotted by Sewell’s future colleague at Christie’s, the gifted connoisseur David Carritt, in the midst of an assignation with its owner, a naval captain. ‘I cannot recall,’ Sewell muses, ‘whether David kept his counsel until the captain’s energies were spent or whether he brought the proceedings to a sudden halt with the disconcerting cry ‘Look! Look! A Caravaggio!

Although Sewell warns us himself that an autobiography should never be trusted as fact, I do get the feeling that he is being as honest and open as he can. Indeed, that is the primary shock of the book – not the detail or the language, because frankly it’s very tame compared to what people will happily read in fiction, but the precise and unflinching honesty from a man who freely admits that he is now too old, at almost eighty, to care any more about causing offence. Moreover, he writes that he finally decided to publish his memoirs in the hope that others who find themselves suffering as he once did can gain courage from the fact that they are not alone. I wouldn’t insult Sewell by calling it a ‘brave’ book, because that implies pity and I don’t feel that this combative, brilliant man deserves or needs pity. It is a powerful and moving account of an age which allowed great discoveries to be made, but which also enshrined the shabby pettiness and arrogance of an era that – thankfully – was already on its way out. Sewell’s experiences in the art trade are particularly sobering for me, although to those who work in other disciplines it might not be quite so evident how far we’ve come in the intervening years (thank God).

In reading the book, I was reminded of the enthusiasm and all-consuming passion that I’d once felt for art history, before it became more of a job and less of a vocation, and I want to grasp that feeling before it fades away again. I would love to read some of Sewell’s collected essays, and I’m reminded of the books on my shelf by Blunt and Gombrich which I haven’t picked up in far too long. And of course I want to follow Sewell’s journey in the second volume of Outsider, even though reviews suggest that there might be more sex and less art in that one. Nevertheless… What I will take away from this first volume, a modest but important piece of inspiration, is the lesson that Sewell learned from the quiet conviction of Johannes Wilde: that ‘art history is not merely the disciplined recounting of dates and documents, but an adventure into the spirit and humanity of man‘. You could, in fact, say much the same of Outsider itself.

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