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The life of Brian Sewell, 1931-2015

The art critic Brian Sewell has died aged 84. In 2011, Freddy Gray interviewed the waspish critic, and spoke to him about his duty to be frank about his personal life even if it shocked other octogenarians.

It must be so awfully boring being a fish, says Brian Sewell, as he looks out the window at his pond. You can only have sex once a year on a prescribed day. The frogs are just the same.

We are in his study. It is a large room full of books, mostly big art books. An old German Shepherd lies passed out on the floor. Poor Winckelmann, says Sewell, peering down at the dog. She is the love of my life. I can t bear the thought of her departure. But I know she s going. Sex and death are on Sewell s mind. His memoirs, Outsider: Always Almost, Never Quite, have just been published, and the newspapers have taken a keen interest. Everybody seems to have focused on the sex, which is rather boring, he says. Boring, maybe, but inevitable: he has put a lot of sex in the book. That s because there s a lot of sex in my life, he snaps. Well, yes. In the first few chapters, he speculates that his father sired him while being buggered and that his mother was a prostitute. He recalls many boyish fumbles and describes his later metamorphosis from celibate to whore as he abandoned Catholicism and pursued a vigorously promiscuous life.

Such revelations are a publisher s dream. Yet they seem odd coming from Brian Sewell the eminent art critic, ferocious opponent of things puerile and licentious. Might he be accused, like a Tracey Emin or a Damien Hirst, of trying to shock? There wasn t much trying, he says. It was easy. He is worried, though, about upsetting readers. I have a great many this sounds very vain, but it is a fact elderly admirers, people of my own age, who regard me as some kind of monument of how things should be. But I thought if I was going to write an autobiography, it would have to be honest, and as my homosexuality has formed my life, I could hardly leave it out. Sewell s conservative fans can relax. It s not as if he s about to join Stonewall. He regards his sexuality as a monstrous burden . He remains passionate about the Catholic Church, but is resigned to being conflicted when it comes to religion. I am emotionally disturbed by it, he says, because now it would be very comfortable to toddle off to church, take Communion and feel good. But I just don t have it. I don t deserve it.

is less a scandalous tell-all, more a sad and disturbing account of an unhappy young man who grows up not knowing who his father is. The father, it turns out, was Peter Warlock, a.k.a. Philip Heseltine, the composer and music critic. Warlock was a sadistic bisexual who offered Sewell s mother five pounds to abort him. After she refused, and insisted that he should commit to her, he killed himself. (Some suspect murder; suicide seems more likely.)

The Life Of Brian Sewell, 1931-2015

Young Brian s quest to discover his paternity was painful. His mother never told him partly, he says, because Warlock s family gave her a stipend to keep the secret. She offered only strange clues in unguarded moments . When, for instance, Brian outed himself as a homosexual to her, she said, You are just like your father. She finally did divulge the truth, through the intermediary of a friend. The recalcitrance of my mother destroyed our relationship, he says, and there were a multitude of other reasons. She became a very bitter and difficult old biddy.

Sewell s horrid emotional deprivations mean that today he feels strongly that children conceived by donor insemination should be told who their wanking father was . I don t think the wanking father should have any obligation as a consequence. But I think if the child wishes to know who the father is why have I got blond hair? Why am I red-haired? Why am I queer? you need to know. His motivation for publishing his memoirs was, in part, to show others like him that it s not the end of the world to be born a bastard queer . Yet it is obvious that, to overcome the disadvantages that life dealt him, Brian needed to be tough and he was. He even had something of a hearty streak. He liked rugger, which he played till he was 40, and was a keen runner. Running, he says, appeals to him because it is a test of individual character: it s you versus it. He also did National Service, which, though ghastly, he feels helped him get on in life. I had my odd corners knocked off, he says, and I stopped being a boy.

He s 80 now, and he says his health is fading. His heart is falling apart and he uses crutches to walk. But his spirits seem fine, notwithstanding the melancholy utterances about dogs and frogs. He s affable, funny and exquisitely well-mannered superior in a way that puts one at ease. His speech, often ridiculed for its grandeur and correctitude there s a joke website called The Sewell Sampler: Our Master s Voice is charming when you hear it in person. He is often sending himself up. Sewell thinks he should perhaps have been a teacher, but it s hard to see him as anything other than a waspish critic. He s full of outrageous observations If ever an artist led a pointless life, it was Leonardo ; Lucian [Freud] was an absolutely lousy draftsman and supremely eloquent on what s wrong with modern art. What artists do is throw things together and hope that some curatorial genius will apply meaning, he says. If you wiped out away all the curators, the art world would be in total disarray because no one would know what to say or think. Here, he starts to fantasise about being in charge of the arts. I think you d have to scrap the Arts Council and start over. If they bothered to find out what the general public thinks of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, they would realise that this is not what the general public is interested in. The general public tends to look at these people as freaks and they enjoy it. But they get no aesthetic enjoyment at all. Look at the money that is poured into Anish Kapoor and Gormley and the others. They are rich enough. They don t need a public subsidy. And the Tate has its favourites too: Martin Creed seems to me to be entirely without merit.

But the Arts Council will not be scrapped, and Brian Sewell will always be an outsider. Not that he minds. I ve never been on any kind of committee, he says, proudly. It was suggested that I sit on the arts council and Grey Gowrie flung up his hands in horror and said I was unchairable . Unchairable! Somebody else called me uncosy. He laughs again, lifts his head and assumes a dramatic pose: I am The Great Uncosy!

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