Obituary: Brian Sewell, art critic

Brian Sewell, Art critic with a profound passion for his subject ' and an acerbic turn of phrase loved by reader. Picture: TSPL
Brian Sewell, Art critic with a profound passion for his subject ' and an acerbic turn of phrase loved by reader. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 15 June, 1931 in Leicestershire. Died: 19 September, 2015 in London. Aged 84.

Brian Sewell was always controversial – some suggest he made a career of it. He delighted in annoying the art establishment with his withering opinions on contemporary artists and reserved his acerbic tongue, in particular, for pouring scorn on the annual Turner Prize at London’s Tate Gallery. He was savage about some contemporary artists – Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst in particular – and thought the graffiti artist Banksy “should have been put down at birth”.

Sewell’s strong, unflinching opinions provided excellent copy and editors loved his forthright views. His opinion of a Hirst exhibition was succinct: “Put bluntly, this man’s imagination is quite as dead as all the dead creatures here suspended in formaldehyde.” But Sewell also had a profound knowledge and passion for art, with specialist knowledge of the early Renaissance. He was fearless, eccentric and a forbidding personality but never dull. The more outrageous he was, the more his readers were swept along by Sewell’s erudition, rudeness and sheer bravado.

Brian Sewell was the son of the composer Philip Heseltine – better known as Peter Warlock – who took his own life before Brian was born. He was brought up by his mother in Kensington, who took him on visits to the National Gallery as a child. He attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in London and read the History of Art at London’s Courtauld Institute. It was there that he became great friends with the art historian Anthony Blunt.

When Blunt, then the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was exposed in 1979 as the “Fourth Man” in the Soviet spy ring, Sewell sheltered him in a friend’s house in Chiswick, claiming he was “an honourable man” and that the information Blunt had passed to the enemy was “minor and futile”.

The press besieged Sewell’s house in Bayswater and this rather foppish character became a media celebrity, not least because of his shrill voice. He addressed the media scrum in aristocratic tones with a somewhat patronising manner. The BBC Today programme presenter, John Humphreys, described his voice as “so posh he made the Queen sound common”. That eccentric voice made Sewell an instant media celebrity.

After graduating in 1957 Sewell worked at Christie’s specialising in Old Master drawings and paintings. He demonstrated a real scholarship for identifying Old Masters. After National Service as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps he became an independent art adviser and dealer.

But it was the press interviews after Blunt’s exposure which rocketed Sewell to fame. The plummy voice was much mimicked and he was accused of upstaging the spy.

Tina Brown immediately offered him the post of art critic on Tatler and after four years he moved to London’s Evening Standard. It was a post in which he revelled, and he had direct influence in the art world of the capital. He wrote in an epic style – the vocabulary he used was often archaic and the lengthy sentences confused the sub-editors – but he was widely read and despite some art grandees writing a letter in 1994 complaining about his “predictable scurrility” Sewell’s career prospered.

Such was his fame and his ability as a wordsmith that editors gave him a free rein and Sewell railed on a host of subjects, including those who watched Cilla Black shows or read ­Jeffrey Archer novels. He reported with abject horror that he was never served proper mayonnaise in Gascony. His articles about his beloved dogs – one, a Jack Russell, was named Mrs Macbeth – and cars saw Sewell at his most relaxed.

Politics and politicians set off many a tirade. When Tony Blair asked for the voters’ trust over the Iraq war, Sewell went into overdrive: “Trust them? I would sooner trust ferrets to feed a pet rabbit lettuce.”

Sewell was a natural on television. Often seen on Have I Got News For You? and Question Time, in 2003 he scored a considerable success when he presented The Naked Pilgrim. Sewell followed the route of the pilgrims of the Middle Ages to Santiago de Compostela. One episode included a visit to Lourdes – particularly poignant as Sewell had wrestled with his own recent loss of faith.

He published widely but gained much admiration for his wonderfully forthright and honest volumes of autobiography, Outsider and Outsider II. Despite all the fame, he shunned publicity – yet revelled in it – and dismissed being gay as a “disability”. That did not stop him confessing to having been wildly promiscuous.

It probably amused Sewell that when Alan Bennett’s television play A Question of Attribution was aired in 1994 James Fox, cast as Blunt, chose to play the role with a direct imitation of Sewell’s voice.

Many will have happy memories of a British eccentric who was contradictory, witty, disarmingly honest, excellent company and definitely fallible.