Brian Sewell: Obituary

Brian Sewell Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Brian Sewell: Possessed of an acerbic manner

Brian Sewell was Britain's most famous and controversial art critic.

Possessed of forthright opinions and a fine disregard for the art establishment, he succeeded in sharing his fascination for all things cultural in a manner that was extremely contagious.

The combination of his high-pitched plummy voice and singular style of presentation made his television programmes compulsive viewing for millions.

His gleeful and often scathing dismissal of anyone who held a view other than his own made his newspaper columns delightful and infuriating in equal measure.

Brian Sewell was born on 15 July 1931. Brought up in London, he discovered much later in life, that his father was a minor composer named Philip Heseltine, better known by his alter ego Peter Warlock.

His mother, whom Sewell described as something of a "girl about town", was one of a number of Warlock's mistresses and the couple never married.

Perhaps because of the circumstances of his birth she refused to let her son out of her sight and even prevented him going to school.

She did, however, imbue the young Sewell with a love of art, taking him to the National Gallery.

It was only after she married that his new step-father insisted he had an education.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption He held a firm opinion about almost everything

He fell in love with Murillo's painting of The Holy Family when he was six and insisted his mother buy him a robe like the one worn by Jesus.

He attended the independent Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in North London before being offered a place to read history at Oxford.

However, he turned it down, preferring to study for a degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute, where he was tutored by the art historian Anthony Blunt.

Sewell worked as a dealer at the auctioneers Christie's, despite finding it almost unbearable to sell pictures to those he thought undeserving.

Meticulously researched

His first taste of the limelight was in 1979 when Blunt was exposed as "the Fourth Man" in the Burgess-Maclean spy scandal.

Although Sewell always denied that he and Blunt were intimate, it was Sewell who helped his mentor flee the press and, in the process, found himself in the media spotlight.

His long career as an art critic gave him the opportunity to vent his extreme opinion. He lamented the dearth of great women painters, who he said simply "lacked the creative faculty".

He called other art critics "a feeble, compliant, ignorant lot". Of the Turner Prize for contemporary art, he said: "Ignoring it is the kindest thing one can do."

Image caption He professed to dislike television but was often happy to appear on it

Sewell's foray into television brought his distinctive appearance - a whip-whirl of white hair, dark currant-bun eyes, a defiantly unfashionable mode of dress and what one critic called his "mouse-like quiverings" - to an audience much wider than the arts circles he so frequently pilloried.

In programmes such as The Naked Pilgrim and The Grand Tour, he took viewers on cultural tours of Europe. If audiences tuned in for his comic turn, they stayed for his accessible expertise.

Beyond his singular enunciation, complete with seductive sibilance and unbelievably extended "oooohs", his explanations were vibrant, rich in detail and meticulously researched.

Despite its success, Sewell found no joy in this "moronic" television work, accusing his own production crews of being "fundamentally unserious". They, in their turn, called him "hell to work with".


This was mild compared with the attitude of many of his arty peers. On one occasion, 36 assorted art world figures wrote collectively to the Evening Standard, demanding he be sacked.

They accused him of "virulent homophobia and misogyny" and being "deeply hostile to and ignorant about contemporary art".

Sewell responded: "We pee on things, we pee into things, we pee over things and we call it art. I don't know what art is, but I do know what it isn't."

His disdain for many living artists was famous. David Hockney was described as "a vulgar prankster" while he scorned Bristol's promotion of the street artist Banksy.

Image caption Holding forth in a BBC Three documentary on circumcision

"The public doesn't know good from bad. For this city to be guided by the opinion of people who don't know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn't matter if they [the public] like it."

He was serially evicted from those galleries and museums he had besmirched in print, and on one occasion was attacked with an umbrella in Bond Street by an outraged art dealer.

Sewell reacted to these debacles with equanimity, sometimes with a fit of the giggles.

Away from the canvas, he proved equally idiosyncratic in his pronouncements on everything from Palestine to pornography. He lived in a vast Wimbledon mansion, alone with only his beloved dogs and copious paintings for company.

He rarely spoke about his sexuality but said he preferred to be called queer rather than gay. "I never came out," he once said, "but I have slowly emerged."

And he condemned the legislation of gay marriage, saying that resources had been wasted on the wrong campaign.

"The battle still to be won is against prejudice, the most insidious of enemies."

He harboured a great love for classic cars and was an aficionado of stock car racing, making a programme on the subject for BBC Radio 4.

Sewell was also a patron of NORM-UK, a charity that campaigns and distributes information on human circumcision.

He was a figure both of fun and authority; his refusal to compromise or dumb down often alienated him from his art world peers, but bizarrely ensured his enduring mainstream appeal.

Brian Sewell himself always claimed confusion with this paradox. He said: "People are terrified of me. I'm really quite cuddly."

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