Dali, dogs and denunciations: they're all there in the life of Brian Sewell
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Wednesday 24 October 2012
The revelation by Brian Sewell, the London Evening Standard's eminent art critic, that he had an affair in 1963 with the strenuously heterosexual Tatler editor Mark Boxer sent shockwaves around the art and journalistic worlds.
Yet it's only the latest of a series of revelations in the 80-year-old Sewell's life. He is the gift that keeps on giving – a wonderful writer, a caustic and pungent phrase-maker with a love of bitchy put-downs and wrecking-ball denunciations, the details of whose extraordinary life (Volume Two of his memoir, Outsider, is out in November) are matched only by the vividness and glee with which he relates them.
He first appeared in 1979, when his friend Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, was outed as a former Russian spy. Brian Sewell was his spokesman – and for the first time the British public heard the exquisite, fluting, vowel-attenuating music of his unique voice (so much posher, everyone said, than the Queen's).
Over the last 33 years, he has almost achieved the status of national treasure, but Sewell never succumbed to the temptation to be loveable. He always kept his barbs sharpened, his pen toxic, his dislike of mediocrity deadly serious. He's a confirmed elitist ("The public doesn't know good from bad") and no respecter of persons – so much so that, in 1994, a letter co-signed by 35 art world "panjandrums" (his favourite word) was published in the Standard attacking him for his "formulaic insults and predictable scurrility", along with much else. He should be cherished as an unappeasable speaker of the truth as he finds it.
His memoirs feature a number of bombshells. Here is a selection:
He discovered that when his mother was pregnant with him, his father (writer and composer Peter Warlock) offered her £5 to procure an abortion. She refused. There was a blazing row and, days later, Warlock put his head in a gas oven.
Unable to square his homosexuality with his devout Catholicism, Sewell abstained from sex for 10 years. Then one day he seduced a civil servant called Eric. The cork spectacularly left the bottle. Thereafter, he reports in his memoirs, "I was often bedding two, three, four, even five lovers a day."
At Christie's auction house, he was often used as good-looking bait to "seal the deal" with rich socialites who were considering buying valuable artworks. Once, a High Court judge fell to his knees, pleading with Brian to come across.
The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí once took him to see a 70-foot statue of Christ in his garden; he asked Brian to remove his clothes and masturbate while Dalí took photographs (but there was no film in the camera).
He's the proud owner of a glove that was sent to Picasso from the bombed-out town of Guernica and later signed by the artist.
He has three dogs, called Winckelmann, Gretel and Lottie. He says he'll know he's died when he wakes up one morning to find all the 17 dogs in his life standing around his bed. Can he be just a big softie at heart?
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