Sunday, June 05, 2016

Brian Sewell – ‘Outsider: Almost Always: Never Quite’

One somehow feels one ought to apologise for, or at least explain, a fondness for public figures with obviously upper class accents, and few accents – few demeanours – were quite as ostentatiously elevated as Brian Sewell’s. I was fond of him (or his on-screen persona), and sad to hear news of his death last year, aged 84; yet I never read him, and though I knew he was an opinionated and divisive figure, I never really knew what the opinions were. Except for one. In the mid-nineties, he appeared on a panel show on BBC 2 to discuss Picasso, around about the time of a Tate exhibition called Sculptor / Painter, which I’d decided to base an essay around for school. Another panellist made the mistake of pretending to apologise for putting words in Brian’s mouth, and he protested that he wouldn’t allow him to put anything in his mouth. Speaking for himself, he acknowledged that the first Cubist still life was an achievement of sorts, but was as nothing to the first still life. ‘Good point,’ I thought, and also: ‘Ha ha!’ How could any self-loathing / respecting sixteen-year-old resist such a combination of scurrilousness and (secular) righteousness?

Outsider is a linear biography which takes the reader through its subject’s childhood, school days, higher education, national service, higher education again and then career, in the order in which they happened. In doing this, and in leaving the Anthony Blunt exposé of 1979 to volume two, it does lose momentum a little from 1958 when Sewell joined Christie’s auction house to work on sales of drawings and paintings (researching, cataloguing, and sometimes searching for works to be sold – much of it drudgery compared to his academic career). He makes the point that he was defined by the institutions he attended: Haberdashers’ school, the army, the Courtauld Institute, and then Christie’s. Parallel narratives are sex and religion: there is lots of the former at school, and then a long period of celibacy tied in with an intention to join the Church, renounced with glee in the late chapter ‘Abandoning God’, in which his long-delayed (homo)sexual education is the point, rather than any theological niceties. He is raped in the army, and makes very little of it: ‘what had I lost? – not my virginity’. Of his army experience as a whole, he is enthusiastic:
for decades I believed that my two years of National Service had done me far more good than my three as an undergraduate, my eight at school and twenty on my knees in church. National Service revealed depths and darknesses in my soul that I was grudgingly glad to know were there; if I am now capable or making worthwhile moral judgements it is because I was for two brief years a soldier of sorts, not because I am an art historian, a lapsed Conservative, an agnostic Christian.
If this seems self-abnegating, there is another side to Brian which is proudly queer:
When, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our leaving school an old boy invited me to dine with a dozen or so of my contemporaries, they were all contented married fathers, whose prinked, perfumed and appalling wives spoke of nothing but their university ambitions for their brats, most of them at Haberdashers’. When conversation turned, by chance, to homosexuality, the condemnations of the husbands were as shrill and vituperative as those of their wives, and, the hypocrisy intolerable, in one of those hushed moments when mutual outrage has exhausted company, I heard myself say, my voice perhaps rather too intentionally audible, ‘There is not a man at this table with whom I did not have sex when we were boys,’ and left the house. It has always puzzled me that heterosexual men have the ability to haul down the shutters on their adolescent sexual experiences and utterly deny them; to me they were unforgettable adventures in revelation, instruction and self-knowledge, too important ever to be denied.
There is a lovely BBC interview on the subject of Outsider II, in which, when asked about his role in protecting Anthony Blunt in 1979 and the ensuing unpopularity, he says: ‘I’m not popular as a critic: it’s why the book is called Outsider’ (his voice approaching Joan Greenwood’s in its amused drawl). This volume ends before he becomes a critic, but the same downtrodden feeling pervades the Christie’s years (to 1966), in which he never quite gets to do the academically rigorous work which he feels would bolster the company’s reputation. There are many anecdotes about how bad Christie’s was as an auction house: the power struggles, the ignorant bosses, the poor handling of items for sale, the forgeries which should have been spotted. You could get a good work-based-drama out of this material. For example, Burne-Jones’ painting The Sleep of Arthur at Avalon, unframed, six metres by three, is hung like a tapestry for viewing (Brian’s idea) and collapses on top of Peter Chance, the Christie’s director, who then, ‘instead of standing still, he panicked, fought his way out of the belly of this whale’, leaving heaps of paint flaked on the floor. Brian and restorer Joan Seddon had only a few days to get it in shape for the sale, and were obliged to paint in sections which were unrestorable. 45 years later it came to the Tate for a year and Brian was ‘appalled by the crude quality of the irises, bluebells and forget-me-nots in which I had a hand’. Anyone else would probably have left that out of their autobiography, but for Sewell this is half the fun: he was a mischievous soul.

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