The early 20th century saw the emergence of a school of UK writers, ranging from Ronald Firbank to Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton, who were mostly upper-class, gay, Roman Catholic and rebels. Today the London art-critic Brian Sewell embodies all their main characteristics, and so it’s small wonder the younger generation in the UK feels he’s a figure from some distant past. But appearances on TV, combined with columns of art criticism in London’s Evening Standard, have made him, at 81, into something of a national icon, not least for his caustic reaction to artists such as Damien Hirst, famous for his shark pickled in formaldehyde — a figure unlikely to appeal to someone whose ideal is Michelangelo.
A desire simultaneously to amuse and shock, typical of many of the above school, is certainly the case with that of Sewell. Outsider, the first of two volumes of autobiography [paperback October 2012], alternates between explicit sexual confessions and devastating pen-portraits of prominent figures in the art trade, notably at the London art-dealers and auctioneers Christie’s where Sewell worked from 1958 to 1967.
Sex first. Sewell narrates that he experienced considerable gay activity at school. He once attended a reunion dinner at which homophobic jokes were rife and so stood up and said: “There is not a man at this table with whom I did not have sex when we were boys,” and left. He lived a chaste life, however, for much of his 20s, until one morning on the way to mass he challenged God to give him a sign. Nothing happened, so, as he relates, he underwent a metamorphosis “from celibate to whore.”
A contact in the UK Civil Service educated him in the ways of gay erotics, telling him that love and sex were different, but both were important. He started to attend parties at which “the sexual activity was immediate, common, multiple and public” — and this at a time when gay acts were an offence punishable in the UK by two years in prison. Elsewhere, so much sex was available, he says, that he wondered if it was indeed the sign from God he’d requested. His encounters in those days could easily add up to 1,000 a year, he states. His former intention to train for the priesthood disappeared forever.
Outsider: Always almost; never quite
By Brian Sewell
Sewell was actually the name of the author’s stepfather, and for a long time his mother wouldn’t tell him who his real father had been. In fact it was Philip Heseltine, aka Peter Warlock, the would-be occultist composer and, according to Sewell, inveterate bi-sexual. In this context he writes “I have encountered many heterosexual men who do not care a damn what kind of sex they have so long as they have it.” This is followed by an account of lunchtime prostitution in the carpet warehouse at Christie’s where for an entrance fee staff could “conjugate with a working girl or two on the heaped treasures of the Silk Route.”
Sewell studied at London’s Courtauld Institute where the Director was Anthony Blunt. He’s full of praise for Blunt’s scholarship and generosity in this book, though his unmasking as a spy is reserved for the next volume. He does remark, though, that everyone at the Courtauld must have assumed that Blunt was in some way involved in Burgess and Maclean’s defection to Moscow in 1951. But it’s well known that Sewell continued to stand by Blunt after his disgrace, and lost both his US visa and his reader’s card for the Courtauld Institute (the bigger loss, he felt) as a result.