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Outsider – Always Almost: Never Quite by Brian Sewell review

Notorious British critic Brian Sewell’s autobiography is probably the hottest art read of the past few years.

Brian Sewell has been art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984 and is, to put it kindly, a waspish, bitchy, conservative prig who has, among other awful things, said, “Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.”

In 1994, 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the newspaper attacking Sewell for “homophobia” (!), “misogyny”, “demagogy”, “hypocrisy”, “artistic prejudice”, “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Television wit Clive Anderson has described him as “a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short”.

Outsider – Always Almost: Never Quite
is Sewell’s autobiography – and it’s probably the hottest art read of the past few years. It reads a lot like Simon Raven’s boys-behaving-badly Bildungsroman cycle Alms for Oblivion. Behold Sewell’s complex “relationship” with his tutor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, or Sewell fending off the attentions of another mole, Guy Burgess, the latter with halitosis and egg on his tie. Then there was the occasion when Sewell posed, masturbating, for Salvador Dalí, while the surrealist painter pretended to take photographs and fumbled in his own trousers.

Sewell was born – illegitimate – in 1931. His mother, Jessica, was an occasional painter from a wealthy family, a beauty, and member of a very bohemian circle that included the artists Walter Sickert, Paul Nash and William Coldstream. She also had a close connection with London’s community of White Russian exiles, including Magda Lupescu, the morganatic mistress of King Carol II of Romania. The monarch forbade his mistresses to bathe, and Sewell claims to be reminded of her every time he has to manually drain the anal glands of one of his beloved dogs.

Sewell was in his fifties before he learnt his real father had been the notorious flagellant, bisexual rakehell, occultist and composer Peter Warlock, a gentleman pervert who gassed himself in a Chelsea basement seven months before Sewell’s birth, and is best known for his setting of WB Yeats’s poems and preference for ménages à trois and up, gender optional. Sewell’s stepfather, enthusiastic Tory and bigamist Robert Sewell, seems nearly decent – despite shooting Brian’s dog with his service revolver.

Our hero matures considerably at the Courtauld. Then comes National Service. Sewell seems to regard this interruption with the army as the most important part of his education – the discipline, learning to shoot and ride a motorcycle – despite being raped by a corporal. After National Service, Sewell goes to work at Christie’s. It is here that for the art historian the story really takes off. Christie’s then was nothing like it is now, consisting of staid amateurs, corruption, tiny profit, and a turkey as the Christmas bonus. One of Sewell’s less savoury roles at Christie’s was similar to the niche filled by a young Bruce Chatwin at Sotheby’s – as the fair-haired bait for clinching the deal with clients of a certain sensibility.

As if that wasn’t enough, it was made clear to him that as he was gay he would never make partner – blowing out of the water his previous claim that he had been deflowered in Paris at age 20 by a determined 60-year-old woman from South Carolina whose spectacles got entangled in his pubes. In fact, Sewell indulged in the same-sex romps of a typical public schoolboy, and, upon failing to receive a sign from God, in 1959 stopped going to Mass and threw his underwear to the wind. It is with Sewell’s resignation from Christie’s aged 35 that the book ends.

In addition to all the sex, Sewell writes of his other passions – his dogs (always bitches) and his Daimlers – and gives readers a plum-pudding feast of information about the teaching and selling of art. There is also a great deal of old score-settling. But these are only incidental; according to the man himself, he wrote Outsider to reassure others that “it is not the end of the world to be a bastard or a queer”. Amen.

OUTSIDER – ALWAYS ALMOST: NEVER QUITE, by Brian Sewell (Quartet, £25, available from www.quartetbooks.co.uk).

Andrew Paul Wood is a Christchurch art writer.