Outsider: Almost Always, Never Quite Brian Sewell

Quartet, pp.343, 25

As a boy, Brian Sewell was unimpressed by opera but enraptured by pantomime which, he reveals in Outsider, sowed in him ‘an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow Twanky in Aladdin’. Panto’s loss has been art criticism’s gain for, his tremendous erudition and exquisite prose aside, Sewell is surely the funniest art critic of our time, and easily the campest.

In his ‘Prelude’ he remarks that he has ‘dug deep into indiscretion’, and ‘some may say that I have dug deeper still into prurience’. They would have a point. The first chapter, which is about his mother, or ‘principal demon’,  sets the tone. She ‘had, I think, as much sexual restraint as an alley cat’, and during his childhood she ‘may have been something of a prostitute’. She claimed to have had an affair with the Maharajah of Kutch and, if ‘she disliked being in bed with two men, she disliked even more being one of two women with one man, which’ — however inexplicably — ‘was often the alternative’.

A spinster when Brian was born in 1931, she never told him who his father was, but when he was in his fifties divulged to a third party that it was Philip Heseltine, alias Peter Warlock, a minor composer and probably a suicide, whom he never met. In 1942 she married Robert Sewell, an old soldier and keen Tory, who adopted Brian, shot his dog, unwittingly taught him how to masturbate, and was posthumously revealed to have been a bigamist.

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Masturbation features extensively, and his interest in it was precocious. When he was eight (and Sewell was still ‘Uncle Robert’), his mother found him ‘at it’ in an unlocked bathroom, and warned him, ‘If you do that, you’ll never go to a university.’ He then had no idea what a university was, but by the time he did he knew her threat to be empty. At Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Hampstead, his solitary pleasure became a social one, involving many of his school-mates and a couple of private maths tutors.

At 18, though, having found God, Sewell took a vow of celibacy, which was confirmed by an encounter with Guy Burgess, food-stained and smelly, a few days before the latter’s flight to Moscow, and sustained during his studies at the Courtauld Institute and his National Service, which he still views, despite his ‘shrewdly calculated rape’ by a corporal, as the most important period of his education. Then, after seven celibate years, he lost or abandoned God, and underwent a ‘metamorphosis from celibate to whore’, enjoying for a time what he calculates to have been ‘a thousand fucks a year’.

His heterosexual experience is extremely limited. When he was a young man in Paris an elderly lady from South Carolina, who was employing him to show her the sights, ‘had her way’ with him, his pleasure interrupted ‘when her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair’. And once, on a trip to the United States with Roy Strong, they visited a bar in Baltimore where ‘young women without knickers danced among our glasses while we gazed upward, aghast in my case, gloating in Roy’s’ — inexplicably, again — ‘at what we had never seen before’.

In addition to all the sex, Sewell writes of his other passions. There are many lyrical passages about his dogs (invariably bitches) and his cars (often Daimlers), and a great deal about the academic and commercial aspects of art: the curriculum he followed under Anthony Blunt (whom he adored) at the Courtauld on which, as on art known from motor tours of Eeurope, his scholarship and eye are sharp as ever and four chapters on his career in the art department at Christie’s, where he worked from 1958 to 1967. ‘Looking back on my years at Christie’s, time and again I see what fools we were, how naïve, how complacent and how blind.’

The folly, complacency and blindness were mainly those of others, it seems, and Sewell is ferocious in his settling of ancient scores, listing, rather tediously for the general reader, endless misattributions made by directors ‘who could hardly distinguish a Gainsborough from a Sawrey Gilpin’, dodgy deals, and professional and personal betrayals. Outsider ends with his resignation, aged 35, ‘because I was damned for being queer’, though he was hardly alone in that.

He raises the possibility of a sequel, which would certainly be welcome, though one hopes it would be better edited, saving him from such solecisms as ‘flare’ for ‘flair’ and ‘waste’ for ‘waist’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Art, Biography, Book review, Memoir