Anyone with any knowledge of artists and art-dealers in the London of that era is going to find this book absorbing, to say the least. Few escape Sewell’s censure, though it has to be said that he’s generous with praise where he feels it’s due. The Jews who fled Nazi Germany to London in the 1930s, he writes, so benefited the arts and academia as to constitute for the UK “a second Enlightenment.” Generally, though, it’s a tale of the advanced state of forgery and deceptive attribution in the late 20th century. Dealers would routinely pay a bribe to have a picture they wanted placed inconspicuously in the middle of a catalogue, and another to have it falsely attributed.
There are farcical moments, such as when Burne-Jones’s gigantic canvas entitled Sleep of Arthur at Avalon, six meters by three meters, falls off a wall and engulfs a senior Christie’s director, who further damages the painting in his effort to extricate himself. The event is matched by Sewell’s account of how he patched up Rembrandt’s Portrait of Titus using brown shoe polish.
The author’s general position is cautiously conservative. He thinks football and cricket are games for fools, but enjoyed rugby, had a lifelong fascination with luxury cars, and believes that the UK’s National Service (compulsory conscription) had a good effect on his generation. And he thinks the UK’s welfare state is something to be defended.
But he also tells of a recruit to Christie’s who “knew nothing of the Old Testament, nothing of the New, nothing of the legends of the saints, nothing of Greek and Roman myth and history,” and as a result wrote a description of a painting of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as “Three men going for a walk in a wood.” Such ignorance is commonplace now, Sewell writes, under an educational system that despises such things.
As for art, Sewell’s belief that Renaissance figurative painting was executed by master craftsmen for the benefit of all social classes, and that conceptual art such as that practiced by Damien Hirst is utterly worthless by comparison, is hard to refute. The result is that Sewell emerges looking like a hero fighting against a tide of idiocy, and this in spite of all the scandalous material, both artistic and sexual, that makes Outsider such very entertaining reading.