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.
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.
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.