The Great Brian 1931-2015

September 19 2015

Image of The Great Brian 1931-2015

Picture: The Times

The art critic Brian Sewell, known in these parts as The Great Brian, has died. I'll post links to obituaries and the like later, but in the meantime please do send me any thoughts you might like to share. 

I thought Sewell wasn't just a great writer on art, but a great writer on anything. He was frequently wrong, but so eloquently wrong that one felt obliged to forgive him for it, even if on the recieving end. His autobiography, Outsider, is a treat to read from start to finish, even if he's merely describing some tedious army exercise of his National Service days. The last pages of Outsider deal beautifully with death, and with apologies to him and his publishers, I thought I would type out a few passages here.

As for dying, I do not for one moment believe that death is 'the most beautiful adventure' or 'an awfully big adventure', or, indeed, an adventure of any kind; nor can I see it as an art. These are the romantic sentiments of poets and the brave. [...]

'Men must endure their going hence,' sad mad Lear in a sane moment. Endure; what a terrible prospect. Endure the crumbling memory. Endure the trembling hand of the octogenarian unsteady with the fork, unsteadier still with the lavatory paper. Endure the rheumy eyes that see hues differently, endure the creeping deafness that first denies conversation and then the music that might have made the loss of conversation tolerable. Endure the slackening sphincters and the stinks. What torment for the fastidious, lasting for years perhaps before the brain is addled, and one is numbed to it. Imagine the slow erosion of pleasures, not of the flesh, though deprivation there induces madness in some men, but of the mind - no opera, no Schubert songs, no violin concertos, no theatre, no galleries, no books. Imagine not managing an oyster, the salt sea of it dripping from one's chin, the exquisite flesh of it running down one's shirt. [...]

Death is not the great leveller - dying is. Dying reduces a man to leaking, dribbling and snivelling, to the helplessness of a baby, to impotent distress, to the long slow misery of being alive when he would rather be dead. That is levelling indeed.

I ask who of my friends will see to my physical departure? I think I know what natural death is like, having crept back from it; it too is a creeping thing, a slipping in and out of consciousness, the senses dwindling, waning, flagging and the will to resist falling away - and that is how I want to go, but swiftly.

Update - The Art Newspaper reprints Brian's summary of how, as a critic, he lost friends and made enemies. Sobering to read, after I just last week filed my first exhibition review.

A reader writes:

I think the key to Brian's success as a writer is mentioned in the Telegraph obituary where it quotes him saying he always tried to write in a way which would engage the tired commuter. He used his knowledge and wit to draw people in rather than show off or exclude like that modern art guff. 

A favourite clip of Brian is where he gets emotional talking about Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. Brian Sewell's Grand Tour of Italy: Ep3 Part 2 of 2 - Florence

Also his Desert Island Discs, as ever, is worth a listen.

Update II - The Grumpy Art Historian grieve's Brian's passing. He says that above all Brian's authority stemmed from having 'a solid grounding in art history and a great eye'. The former is certainly true, but the latter I'm not so sure. For Brian, alas in my opinion, did not have a great eye - that is, his connoisseurship was sometimes a little awry ('isn't everyone's?', you say). He thought, for example, that the Van Dyck self-portrait recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery was by two hands, the head by Van Dyck, and the rest by someone else. his campaign against the National Gallery acquiring Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks because it was, he said, a copy, is well known. And so on. It seems to me that in terms of making or accepting attributions, Brian was something of a 'Nein-sager'. For the perhaps unfortunate truth is that Brian only became an art critic after failing to make it as a dealer. Arguably, someone with his knowledge, operating as a dealer in the heady days of the 70s and 80s when miscatalogued pictures and drawings were being sold by the cartload, should have made their fortune several times over.

Update III - another reader writes:

I know that The Great Brian was source of inspiration and encouragement to you for his candor and enviable writing style. His two volume biography was engaging because of his style and the depiction of his life during a dark period in modern British society.  Class barriers, traditional prejudices, and economic stagnation along with the post war austerity, real austerity unlike the current reduced deficit spending, led him into the beauty of painting as a sort of refuge from his difficult life.  And eventually, nearly simultaneously, the sun rose again on Britain and his life improved greatly during its last third. One is reminded of Neal Cassady’s (a professional “Outsider” but more insider than outsider to many) autobiography, optimistically entitled The First Third - Cassady was gone during what he thought would be his second third. Fortunately The Great Brian made twice Cassady’s years during which his writing enriched and enraged the art world and the general population in tandem.

Update IV - with more thoughts and reminiscences on Brian's style, here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian on excellent form.

Update V - a reader who knew the Great Brian says he did have a great eye, and kindly writes:

Brian did have a great eye, but I felt he could be willfully perverse with his opinions on authenticity. We disagreed plenty, starting with Georges de la Tour “Fortune Teller” at the Met. 

The reason he failed as a dealer has to do with the fact that once he made a discovery and found something good, he never wanted to sell it. 

He frankly had an aversion to selling anything he bought. If he bought a mixed lot of under catalogued drawings at Christie’s for one sheet, he held on to all of them, not wanting to “split them up”.

Even during his many illnesses when he complained of doctors bills and financial woes, he would not budge when I suggested “Sell your drawing by X, and you won’t have to worry.”

“I couldn’t do that!” he would respond. “Where would I ever get another one?"

When his collection is dispersed in due course, people will be dumbfounded at its breadth and quality.

Perhaps, then, that was his connoisseurial weakness - an inherently good eye but a psychological tendency to wilfull obstinacy. Of course, the latter is what made his writing so refreshing.

Update VI - a reader points out that he did sell at least some things, including this Pontormo drawing to the Met.

Update VII - Conrad Jones, who, online at least, is a staunch defender of all things Sewell-ian, writes:

Your assertions about Brian Sewell's 'eye' in 'Update II' of your 'Great Brian' article are, to be frank, pathetic. If this is the standard of intellectual reasoning you plan to use in  your reviewing then all I can say is, 'Don't give up the day job.' 

You provide no explanation, rationale or evidence for your disparaging remarks other than, ludicrously, asserting that you must be right because Sewell 'failed' as an art dealer in the 70s and 80s. Have you actually read his autobiography? He wasn't an art dealer in the 80s and his autobiography states that the art market in the 70s, far from being the place of easy pickings you describe, was for much of the time in a slump due to the oil crisis, and didn't pick up until the Mentmore sale in 1977; so for the most part he was dealing in hard times, not those of plenty.  He was a dealer in drawings and prints only, by the way, not pictures.

Another reason why he found dealing hard was that he was temperamentally unsuited to conniving with precisely the kind of corrupt practices of misattribution that you mention - nothing to do with his eye, more to do with his moral standards.  

If you're going to have the temerity to make baseless, throwaway assertions of this kind about your betters in the future, I suggest you should check out your facts a bit more carefully. I think the truth is, as is so often the case in the art world, that whilst you probably admired Sewell in a semi-ironic kind of way as a 'writer' (all that overdone, tongue in cheek praise of  'the Great Brian'), as a 'specialist' art historian your vanity just couldn't help trying to even up the score for the few pricks it had taken in the past. Not very becoming when someone has just died.

Oh dear. Where to begin? I did in fact cite two well-known examples of where Brian's 'eye' was considered wayward (or, 'wilfully perverse' in the opinion of one who knew him) by most people in the art history world; the Madonna of the Pinks, and the Van Dyck self-portrait. There are plenty of other examples. I have read Brian's auto-biography. Blaming the oil crisis and morality for not making it as a dealer is pretty weak, to be honest. (And don't forget the story Brian used to tell about adding a penis to an Old Master drawing, because that's what a client wanted.) Brian may have been a dealer in drawings mainly, but he was never less than confident pronouncing on pictures too. Look at the sales catalogues of the period, and the number of bargains, and sleepers, are eye-popping by today's standards. My admiration for Brian was - is - not ironic or tongue-in-cheek, as any regular reader of AHN will know. I'm not at trying to even up any scores. I agreed with Brian on most things. I agree Brian was my 'better'.

As for the fact that I ventured to discuss any of this after Brian has just died - well, so what? I'm sure Brian wouldn't care less.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.