Little boy blue

Brian Sewell doesn't know what art is, but he knows what it isn't. And it isn't art when it's by women. Especially not when it's by his mother. Still, he loves dogs
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The Independent Culture
The most spectacular thing about Brian Sewell - our most famous art critic, or at least the one you'd probably be able to name if you had to name an art critic - is just how totally brilliant he is at making enemies. This may even be his art. He's been screamed at. He's been removed from the mailing lists of a number of galleries and museums. A group of 36 assorted art world personaggi once wrote to Sewell's newspaper, the Evening Standard, demanding he be sacked. He was once even attacked by a dealer on Bond Street. "It was raining, and he kept hitting me with an umbrella that was closed, but not furled," he remembers. "It was not pleasant, but as a weapon to inflict pain an unfurled umbrella is utterly, utterly hopeless and I'm afraid I just got the giggles." What provoked the assault, Brain? "Oh, he felt I had rather imp-yoooo-ned his honour."

The other brilliant thing about Brian is the ludicrous way he says his o's as hugely stretched-out ooooo's. He often sounds like a rather posh, outraged pantomime dame who has just had her bottom pinched. He does not much care for other art critics. "A feeble, compliant, ignorant lot." He does not much care for other columnists. "Why would anyone want to employ that William Rees-Mogg? Accumulated experience, I imagine, although I've seen very little evidence of it." He has taken against Germaine Greer. "That great art historian whom I heard the other day, saying yet again, that all the Impressionists died in penury. Monet was stinking rich! They were all comfortably off apart from Sisley, who wasn't any good. And that Lisa Jardine! She is always talking such balls about Leonardo." He tries hard to offend me. There have been no great women painters, he says, "because they just don't have the creative faculty".

"Absolutely," I nod encouragingly, just to really annoy him.

"If you threw every single painting made by a woman into the Atlantic, the only complaint would be that, along with a lot of futile dross, a few pretty boudoir things were gone."

"We are a hopeless, useless sex," I sigh.

"What is wrong with you?" he cries, really crossly. "I want you to go out of here screaming with rage!"

Trouble is, I actually find him quite magnificent. Plus, I think he has to make enemies because he just does not know how to make friends. And there is something rather endearing about this, in a pec-yoooooo-liar sort of way.

We meet at his big house in Wimbledon. He has just moved in so it's all rather higgledy-piggledy: paintings stacked up against walls, boxes everywhere, mantelpieces crowded with sculptures that have yet to be given a place. The telly is up and running, though. It's a huge telly. He loves telly, he explains. "I can watch any crap so long as it's not repeat crap. I particularly like that programme on Saturday evenings." Blind Date? "No. Although I have watched it on occasion and found it rather pleasing." Gladiators? "No. That is excr-yoooo-ciatingly boring. It's the hospital one." Casualty? "Yes. I love it. But then I can actually be quite vulgar in some directions." No! "Oh yes. I like Branston pickle on vanilla ice- cream." Brian, that is vulgar. "And cheese and marmalade sandwiches," he adds.

He is, of course, already not talking to his neighbours. "They have put up barbed wire to keep out the wild foxes, so I've decided to have absol- oooooo-tely nothing to do with them. And they're French." He loves animals in the way people who don't much like other people always do. For many years he lived in Kensington, where he was even known as "The Bardot of Kensington's stray bitches". He moved here because of his two rescue mongrels, Mop and Nusch - "a name I made up because it has a lovely bedr-ooooo- my sound". He had a stroke in 1994 and, although he's since had a bypass operation and a pacemaker fitted, he is still not up to doing a great deal. "Some days, my blood pressure goes to zero, and I'm just a soggy bag of blood." He could no longer walk his dogs in Kensington Gardens and, as such, needed a house with a very big garden they could romp about in. The two dogs seem hideously yappy. "Oh, shhhhh," he begs fondly. "Dooooooo shhhhhh."

Humans do not seem to interest him greatly. He is furiously antisocial. He will not go to parties. If he ever gets a Christmas card "then it goes straight intoooo the bin". He is deeply worried about the situation in Kosovo. "The thing I find so unbearable is not what is happening to the peasantry, but what is happening to the cultural remains. If it spreads into Macedonia, for example, the churches around Ohrid and Skopje might be destroyed." Is a nice church worth more than human life? "Oh, there will always be more human beings. The loss of human beings is not anything as serious as the loss of a great work of art." OK, I say, let's pretend you had a Titian. Or a Michelangelo. And the house was on fire. Which would you save? The painting? Or the dogs? "Ah, this completely undoes my argument. It would be the dogs. But that's my personal argument. My impersonal argument is that it ought to be the picture."

I don't think Brian Sewell is just a professional controversialist. I don't think he's the art world's equivalent of, say, a Julie Burchill or David Starkey. Yes, he can be malicious and purblind. Yes, he can be thrillingly snobbish. Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, he complains, "is probably the emptiest, most inflated of his works... Gateshead is itself a self-inflicted wound... an awful place... most of the North is awful." And, yes, he can be heroically vain. He is much in favour of having his own TV arts show. Still, he does seem to speak a certain truth. I find I always want to cheer when he lays into the Turner Prize, or the Arts Council, or conceptual artists. "I don't know what art is, but I do know what it isn't. And it isn't someone walking around with a salmon over his shoulder, or embroidering the name of everyone they have slept with on the inside of a tent."

Great art, to him, is his way of being emotionally engaged in the world. The first painting he remembers? "Murillo's The Holy Family, which I saw in the National Gallery when I was six, maybe seven. It was very exciting. Jesus was wearing a little blue robe, and I made my mother immediately take me to Barkers to buy me a robe in the same colour." When, I ask, was he most recently moved by a painting? "The last time I found myself inarticulate - literally inarticulate, because I could not speak for gulping - was when Caravaggio's The Last Flight from Egypt came to the National Gallery three or four years ago. I had to leave the room I was so overcome." Paintings that mean something to him mean a lot to him, because, possibly, they are the nearest he comes to human contact without actually having to have any human contact.

Brian's father, a composer, rather inconveniently gassed himself before Brian was born. "He put the cat out first, with a saucer of milk, which has always endeared me to him." He suspects his father was a manic-depressive, as Brian himself is. "Waves of depression descend, and knock days out of my life. It's very upsetting for the dogs. I did see someone about it once, but they prescribed a drug that made me worse." He has not tried therapy. "I don't think anyone could tell me anything about my relationship with my mother that I didn't already know."

His mother, Jessica, was a painter of "...boring still lifes, boring landscapes, that sort of thing". She was beautiful, "although not in a tinselly way. She carried a certain air of tragedy". She was not a happy woman. "Life had knocked her about rather savagely. The man she really loved was my father, and he let her down quite badly." Brian thinks he became his father's substitute. His mother was jealously possessive. She would not allow him to go to school. She would not let him mix with other children. He never had a birthday party, or went to another child's. His childhood was, mostly, his mother. And books (he was a precocious reader). And the National Gallery. And masturbation. Were you ever caught at it? "Once, when I was eight. My mother said: `If you do that you will never go to university,' and then shut the door. As I had no concept of what a university was I was quite mystified." Later, when he was finally dispatched to school, a teacher told him such things would make him blind. "But as I had been doooooing it for years, and was perfect-sighted, I just did not believe him."

His mother eventually married again. Brian's stepfather - "who had something to do with tax" - was initially very in love with Jessica. "I recently found, and read, the letters he wrote to her. He was passionately in love. Pathetic." Pathetic? "That any man could have been so dyooooped! She married him solely to ensure I was comfortable. I was the price he had to pay to marry her. Poor soul."

Brian was finally dispatched to school at 11, at his stepfather's insistence. He was sent to Haberdasher's, a rather run-down establishment at the time, but the only one that would accept him without previously having had any kind of formal education. He did not fit in easily. "I did not know about other boys. I was quite uncomprehending about them." Plus, he had developed a kind of mature pomposity that did not make him popular. "We had an English mistress, Irene Johnson, who asked us what we had read over the holidays. And while the others said `Oh, my bumper Christmas Book for Boys', I rattled off names like Warwick Deeping." Actually, and as unlikely as it sounds, he was quite good at athletics. And this might have won him some friends, had his mother not scuppered it all for him. "When I was 16 or so, in our house competition, I was doing the high jump, the long jump, the 100 yards and the 400 yards. It was a handful to manage, so mother said: `If you're nervous, take a swig of this.' I took a swig from the flask she offered me. It was neat gin." What was the effect? "It had disastrous consequences! Disastrous!" Did she know what she was doing? "Oh yes. She must have known what she was doing." No wonder Brian grew up to prefer dogs.

Of course, I wonder about his adult relationships. And his sex life. Has anyone, I ask, ever meant more to you than a Mop or a Nusch? "I think, actually, the answer is probably yes, although I don't want to admit it. I've actually been in love with someone for 27 years." Gosh, I gasp. "But it's a married person, so I only see them three or four times a year." Is it a woman, Brian? Or a man? What is your sexuality? "I think that is rather my affair," he replies. I try to trick him. OK, when SHE leaves, is it painful? "Unbearable!" he cries. And when HE arrives? "Such elation!" I fail. We are not especially good at outwitting each other, it would seem. I ask if he's lonely. "Oh no. So much to dooooooo." Still, I suspect he might be.

All in all, I spend three hours with Mr Sewell, long enough for him to forget to be horrid. He serves coffee in china cups on a little tray. He offers me a KitKat. Then, because it is raining quite badly, he offers to give me a lift to the station in his Honda. At the station, I give him an impulsive peck on the cheek goodbye. He gets quite flustered. "Oh. Ooooooo," he goes, blushingly, in his pantomime dame way. He is, I think, supremely not used to any affection. Which is why, I insist, we should try to give it to him whenever we can.

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