Brian Sewell, who has passed away, was the only British art critic ever to feature on topical satire shows such as Radio 4’s Dead Ringers – not as a contributor, but a subject, an instantly recognisable figure of his times. That etiolated granddame purr with its undertow of bristling indignation made him an irresistible target for impersonators. And the millions who knew the voice without being the slightest bit interested in art were all aware of one thing about him: that he didn’t like what he was seeing.
Sewell, I’m sure, wrote many favourable reviews. I can’t, however, remember any of them. He was undoubtedly generous towards things and people he believed in. But his talent was for vituperative disapproval expressed in a tone of Olympian disdain. Sewell was the scourge of the lazy, the pretentious, the ill-informed and the ill-executed.
His scholarship, as a Courtauld-trained authority on 17th-century French art, gave him a privileged overview of western art history that few other critics could even approach. Yet his terms of reference were so fixed he failed to see the value in much that was important in 20th and 21st century art.
His sweeping dismissals of much modernism led to the widespread view of Sewell as a bigot who “didn’t like anything”. Neither was true, but this perception combined with the preposterous voice made Sewell not only a laughing stock, but a hate figure in the art world. The artist Francine Germaine Wilson even produced a work entitled Brian Sewell has a Tiny Cock. A video of Sewell naked on a beach (procured goodness knows how), widely distributed on the internet proved this assertion to be far from true.
A letter of complaint to the Evening Standard, where Sewell was critic from 1984, signed by 35 leading art world figures, complaining at the “misogyny”, “artistic prejudice”, “predictable scurrility” and many other supposed qualities of Sewell’s writing, only succeeded in making the signatories look ridiculous.
In later years, Sewell became something of a national treasure, widely respected for his knowledge, integrity, the painful honesty of his published memoirs and his deep commitment to his personal conception of art – that that conception didn’t have space for the “louts”, as he called them, of the YBA school merely confirmed his status as a life-enhancingly colourful character.
For years I avoided meeting Sewell for fear of being instantly unmasked as an ignoramus and a pseud, though when our paths did finally cross he was warmth and charm itself, while being deliciously waspish about some of our fellow hacks. Indeed, Sewell kept a sting in his tail. His vehement criticism of Penelope Curtis’s exhibitions programme while director of Tate Britain was very likely a factor in her departure from the position.
Sewell had little influence on other critics, simply because the market can only cope with one maverick, reactionary contrarian at a time. When I first started out as a critic I would have regarded the idea of being seen as “the Brian Sewell of his generation” with horror. Now – though I disagree with probably 80 per cent of what he wrote – I would regard it as a significant accolade. But I am unlikely to ever reach that summit, because, in death as in life, there is only room for one Brian Sewell.