Brian Sewell (1931-2015)

beautifulbrianwithdogsIt isn’t my intention to repeat the tediously familiar stories peddled by obituarists relating controversies which Brian’s inclination to mischief and provocation helped encourage. Instead I want to address two issues unconsidered elsewhere: his astonishing generosity and the disgraceful but typical hypocrisy of the BBC towards him. Brian was a working man. He called himself ‘working class’, a description some dismissed as affectation. It wasn’t. Like his commuter readers he needed to work in order to survive. Neither was he rich. Nevertheless, he still donated liberally to promising but needy art history students and charities, in particular those dealing with homelessness and the welfare of animals, and he encouraged friends to do the same. Equally, buying work from promising youngsters in order to get them started was to him a duty. He was also selflessly free with his time, knowledge and contacts. When he was your friend you felt it.

In early 2000 I quit editing Art Review, for which Brian had contributed many superb pieces on 20th century art’s main figures and which always arrived in uncorrected typescript as though having emerged perfectly like a Mozart manuscript. He telephoned and asked me what I would do now. I told him that I was devising the inaugural issue of The Jackdaw, which would continue the opposition to State Art’s absurd and damaging monopoly I’d begun only tentatively (for commercial reasons) at Art Review. He mused a second and said that to give such a venture any chance of long-term survival it would be very expensive. I disagreed, arguing that I could keep costs down by not employing anyone, including myself, or renting an office and having poncy stationery. I’d tried to raise investment for the idea but no one took the bait. The next morning I received in the post from Brian a cheque for £10,000. This staggering act of generosity and confidence was undeserved and his insistence I accept it terrified me. I told him I’d pay it back as soon as I could. Circumstances – including my unique hopelessness as a capitalist – meant that it took me thirteen years to honour my words – thirteen! – and only then as a result of an unexpected legacy. It was a relief to be able to redeem the debt not least because, in consequence of a change in the Standard’s ownership leading to revised employment conditions for the staff, Brian was having to do the same work for a fraction of what he’d formerly been paid. He needed the money. But never once in all those years did he raise the subject of my debt let alone ask for it to be repaid. And, of course, he refused any interest on the grounds that, as he wrote to me, ‘my failings are many but they do not include usury’.

Without Brian The Jackdaw would not have survived beyond a handful of issues. I don’t think many who follow the terrain would disagree with the assessment that, of all his contemporaries in art criticism, in art historical terms he was easily the most knowledgeable. Given his ability to speak clearly and articulately – without artbollocks (which he always pedantically insisted to me should be properly spelt artballocks) – and because of his reputation as an elegant and amusing essayist – don’t forget he won both the Orwell and Hawthornden Prizes – he was hurt by the fact that Radio 4 never once asked him to appear in a review role on either of its main art programmes, Front Row or its predecessor Kaleidoscope. The list of waffling no-hopers in art criticism those programmes have employed would fill pages, but they never asked him. He would never have admitted it publicly but this omission hurt. What a surprise then that not six hours after his last difficult breath, his death made the main BBC news where he was lauded as an influential leading critic, blah blah. If they thought this was true why did they so rarely use him? The answer is simple. The BBC’s programmes, which in the visual arts are uncritical advertisements for their subjects, are willing promoters of the disgraceful sewer that is State Art, about which Brian held damning views. Over the years he suggested many programmes, all rejected. It speaks volumes that the BBC asked Grayson Perry to give the Reith Lectures, but not Brian. Of all the many independent voices we never hear, his cruel neglect in particular demonstrates that in visual art you will be marginalised unless you toe the establishment line.

David Lee

The Jackdaw November/December 2015