Brian Sewell

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Brian Sewell
Born (1931-06-15)15 June 1931
London, England
Died 19 September 2015(2015-09-19) (aged 84)
London, England
Nationality British
Alma mater Courtauld Institute of Art,
University of London
Occupation Art critic, journalist, art dealer
Parent(s) Peter Warlock (father)
Military career
Rank Second lieutenant[1]
Unit Royal Army Service Corps

Brian Sewell (/ˈsjl, s-/; 15 June 1931 – 19 September 2015) was an English art critic and media personality. He wrote for the London Evening Standard and was noted for his acerbic view of conceptual art and the Turner Prize.[2] The Guardian described him as "Britain's most famous and controversial art critic",[3] while the Standard called him the "nation’s best art critic",[4] and Artnet News called him the United Kingdom's "most famous and controversial art critic".[5]

Early life[edit]

Sewell was born on 15 June 1931.[6] He was brought up by his mother in Kensington and other places. His father, composer Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock, committed suicide before he was born.[7]

He was educated at the independent Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Hampstead, northwest London. Offered a place to read history at Oxford,[8] Sewell instead chose to enter the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where his tutors included Anthony Blunt, who became his close friend.[9]

Sewell graduated in 1957 and worked at Christie's auction house, specialising in Old Master paintings and drawings. After leaving Christie's he became an art dealer. He completed his National Service as a commissioned officer in the Royal Army Service Corps. He took LSD as a young man, describing it in 2007 as a drug "for people of my age. It's wonderful. The one thing you could not do, however, was drip it into your eyeballs. It sent you absolutely bonkers."[10]

In 1979, after Blunt's exposure as the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring, gaining much media attention, Sewell assisted in sheltering him in Chiswick.[11]

Art criticism and controversy[edit]

Following the Blunt affair, Sewell was hired as art critic for Tina Brown's revitalised Tatler magazine.[12] In 1984, he replaced the avant-garde critic Richard Cork as art critic for the Evening Standard. He won press awards including Critic of the Year (1988), Arts Journalist of the Year (1994), the Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism (1995) and the Foreign Press Award (Arts) in 2000. In April 2003, he was awarded the George Orwell Prize for his Evening Standard column.[13] In criticisms of the Tate Gallery's art, he coined the term "Serota Tendency" after its director Nicholas Serota.[citation needed]

Although Sewell appeared on BBC Radio 4 in the early 1990s, it was not until the late 1990s that he became a household figure through his appearances on television. He was known for his formal, old-fashioned RP diction and for his anti-populist sentiments. He offended people in Gateshead by claiming an exhibition was too important to be held at the town's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and should instead be shown to "more sophisticated"[14] audiences in London. He also disparaged Liverpool as a cultural city.[15][16]

In 1994, thirty-five figures from the art world signed a letter to the Evening Standard attacking Sewell for "homophobia", "misogyny", "demagogy", "hypocrisy",[17] "artistic prejudice", "formulaic insults" and "predictable scurrility".[18] Signatories included Karsten Schubert, Maureen Paley,[19] Michael Craig-Martin, Christopher Frayling, John Hoyland, Sarah Kent, Nicholas Logsdail, George Melly, Sandy Nairne, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Richard Shone, Marina Warner, Natalie Wheen and Rachel Whiteread.[17]

Sewell responded with comments on many of the signatories, such as Paley being "the curatrix of innumerable silly little Arts Council exhibitions"[17] and Whiteread as "mortified by my dismissal of her work for the Turner Prize".[17] A letter supporting Sewell from twenty other art-world signatories accused the writers of attempted censorship to promote "a relentless programme of neo-conceptual art in all the main London venues".[20][21]

Sewell suggested that art world insiders had felt embarrassed by a recent TV stunt in which he, a dealer and another critic had been shown a painting without being told that it had been painted by an elephant. Sewell described the painting as having no merit, while the other participants praised it.[22]

Sewell's attitude to female artists was controversial. In July 2008, he was quoted in The Independent as saying:

The art market is not sexist. The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children.[23]

Despite being attacked in his 2013 memoirs, Veronica Wadley, the editor of the Standard between 2002 and 2009, defended Sewell and said she had defended him from management and arts' lobbyists who wanted him sacked.[24]

Sewell was strongly opinionated and was known to insult the general public for their views on art. With regard to public praise for the work of Banksy in Bristol, he was quoted as saying:

The public doesn't know good from bad. For this city to be guided by the opinion of people who don't know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn't matter if they [the public] like it.[25]

He went on to assert that Banksy himself "should have been put down at birth."[25] Media personality Clive Anderson described him as "a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short."[26] In a London Evening Standard review, Sewell summed up his view of "A Bigger Picture", a David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy, as concluding that Hockney had made a mistake focusing on painting in his later career:

There was a time in the 1970s when I thought him one of the best draughtsmen of the 20th century, wonderfully skilful, observant, subtle, sympathetic, spare, every touch of pencil, pen or crayon essential to the evocation of the subject, whether it be a portrait or light flooding a sparse room; nothing has made me change that view, but Hockney has tried very hard...Hockney is not another Turner expressing, in high seriousness, his debt to the old master; Hockney is not another Picasso teasing Velázquez and Delacroix with not quite enough wit; here Hockney is a vulgar prankster, trivialising not only a painting that he is incapable of understanding and could never execute, but in involving him in the various parodies, demeaning Picasso too.[27]

Sewell was also known for his disdain for Damien Hirst, describing him as "fucking dreadful".[28] In his review of Hirst's 2012 show at Tate Modern, Sewell said "To own a Hirst is to tell the world that your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls-Royce is pink" adding, "Put bluntly, this man’s imagination is quite as dead as all the dead creatures here suspended in formaldehyde."[29]


In 2003, Sewell made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in a documentary called The Naked Pilgrim, produced by Wag TV for Channel 5. Although he had not practised for decades, Sewell considered himself a Roman Catholic, prompting an emotional response to the faith of pilgrims at Lourdes. The series attracted large audiences and won the Sandford St. Martin Trust award for Best Religious Programme. Following The Naked Pilgrim Sewell presented on two more series for Channel 5: Brian Sewell's Phantoms & Shadows: 100 Years of Rolls-Royce in 2004 and Brian Sewell's Grand Tour in 2006. Sewell also appeared as a guest film reviewer on Channel 5's Movie Lounge, where he frequently savaged films.[citation needed]

In Dirty Dalí: A Private View on Channel 4 on 3 June 2007, Sewell described his acquaintance with Salvador Dalí in the late 1960s, which included lying in the foetal position without trousers in the armpit of a figure of Christ and masturbating for Dalí, who pretended to take photos while fumbling in his trousers.[30][31] Sewell appeared twice as panellist on the BBC's quiz Have I Got News for You and tried to teach cricketer Phil Tufnell about art (and learn about cricket) in ITV's Don't Call Me Stupid.[10]

Sewell was the voice of Sir Kiftsgate in an episode of the children's cartoon The Big Knights. He also had programme on Voom HD Network's Art Channel: Gallery HD called Brian Sewell's Grand Tour, in which he toured beautiful cities (primarily in Italy) visiting museums, towns, churches, historic sights, public squares, monuments, profound architectural spots and meeting a local to discuss culture and art. Sewell reflected upon the 18th century, giving the perspective of what it would have been like as a 'Grand Tourist'. Then he elaborated on what has become of these sights and lost throughout history. In a 2009 BBC documentary about the UK's so-called North-South divide, presented by ex-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Sewell caused controversy by declaring that the solution to the divide was to send a pox or a plague upon the North so that the people there could all just die quietly.[32][33][34]

Brian Badonde, one of the best known characters from the comedy show Facejacker, played by Kayvan Novak, is said to be a parody of Sewell.[35] Sewell's distinctive accent was regularly parodied by the impressions show Dead Ringers, which featured him participating in mundane activities or presenting CBBC4, an arts channel targeted at children (the name being a combination of CBBC and BBC Four).

Television credits[edit]

Year Programme Role Broadcaster
1996 The Works: Minette Walters and the Missing Masterpiece Art historian BBC
2003 The Naked Pilgrim (6 episodes) Presenter Channel 5
2004 Brian Sewell's Phantoms & Shadows: 100 Years of Rolls-Royce Presenter Channel 5
2006 Brian Sewell's Grand Tour (10 episodes) Presenter Channel 5
2006 Movie Lounge Film critic Channel 5
2006 Timeshift: The Da Vinci Code: The Greatest Story Ever Sold Art critic BBC
2007 Dirty Dalì: A Private View Art critic Channel 4

Other activities[edit]

Sewell was a museum adviser in South Africa, Germany and the United States.

He provided voice-overs for a variety of television commercials including for the Victoria and Albert Museum and feta cheese.

Sewell was also a noted aficionado of classic automobiles, a fan of stock car racing and over several decades wrote extensively about cars, classic and contemporary, in the London Evening Standard and elsewhere. In both his TV series, on the pilgrimage to Santiago and the Grand Tour (see above), he drove his Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC coupé.[36] Sewell expressed a preference for driving his Mercedes barefoot.[37]

He was also a patron of the British charity NORM-UK, which concerns genital health and alteration, particularly care of the foreskin, non-invasive treatment of problems with the foreskin, and the avoidance of circumcision.

Personal life[edit]

External video
The roles of religion and politics in art, Brian Sewell interview, 3:40, 2nd of 31 parts, Web of Stories.[38]

In a television programme broadcast on Channel 4 on 24 July 2007,[39] marking the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, Sewell said, "I never came out... but I have slowly emerged". Sewell was described as bisexual but also described himself as gay, saying he knew he probably was homosexual at the age of six.[40]

He had chastised himself for his attraction to men, describing it 'as an "affliction" and a "disability" and told readers, "no homosexual has ever chosen this sexual compulsion"'. In the first episode of The Naked Pilgrim Sewell alluded to the loss of his virginity at the hands of a 60-year-old French woman "who knew what she was doing and was determined"; Sewell was 20 at the time. In his autobiography, Sewell indicates that he lost his virginity at the age of 15 to a fellow pupil at Haberdashers' Aske's School.[41]

Sewell stated that he was more comfortable with the term queer than gay to describe himself, and expressed opposition to same-sex marriage.[42]

In 2011 Sewell exposed the identity of his father, as revealed by his mother on her deathbed. He also revealed that his stepfather Robert Sewell and his mother, Mary Jessica (née Perkins), a publican's daughter from Camden, had admitted that Robert was not his father when he was 11, although he had always known it to be the case (they did not marry until 1936).[43][44]

Sewell died of cancer on 19 September 2015 at the age of 84 in London.[45]


Travel writing

  • South from Ephesus: Travels Through Aegean Turkey (1989)[6]

Art criticism

  • The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus: And Other Pieces (1994)[6]
  • An Alphabet of Villains (1995) Revised edition of The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus[6]
  • Nothing Wasted: The Paintings of Richard Harrison with Richard Harrison (2010)
  • Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art (2012)[6]


  • Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite (2011)[6]
  • Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite (2012)[6]
  • Sleeping with Dogs: A Peripheral Autobiography (2013)[6]


  • The White Umbrella (2015)


  1. ^ The London Gazette: no. 40046. p. 6930. 18 December 1953.
  2. ^ "Tate's collections 'wretched', says Brian Sewell",, 30 November 2009.
  3. ^ Cooke, Rachel. "We pee on things and call it art",, 13 November 2005; retrieved 30 November 2008
  4. ^ Gunter, Joel; Thorpe, Vanessa (19 September 2015). "Brian Sewell, 'most controversial' art critic, dies aged 84". The Independent. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  5. ^ Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena (21 September 2015). "The UK Mourns the Loss of its Most Famous and Controversial Art Critic, Brian Sewell". Artnet. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Brian Sewell, art critic – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 19 September 2015. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  7. ^ "Brian Sewell: 'My biggest fear is mansion tax'". The Daily Telegraph. 22 March 2015. Retrieved 21 September 2015. 
  8. ^ Profile,; accessed 21 September 2015.
  9. ^ "Brian Sewell: Soviet double agent Anthony Blunt did no harm to Britain". London Evening Standard. 22 October 2012. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Maume, Chris. "Sport on TV: Brian Sewell's big acid tip – don't drip it into your eyeballs". The Independent. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  11. ^ Ross Lydall "Brian Sewell: Soviet double agent Anthony Blunt did no harm to Britain", London Evening Standard, 22 October 2012.
  12. ^ "Five Minutes with: Brian Sewell". BBC News. 6 January 2012. 
  13. ^ "Brian Sewell Columnist, Evening Standard" (Orwell Prize citation).
  14. ^ "Art 'too good' for Northerners" (BBC News 14 January 2003).
  15. ^ "Laughter fades on the road to Liverpool" (Daily Telegraph 26 October 2004).
  16. ^ "Brian Sewell slams Liverpool",, 25 August 2009.
  17. ^ a b c d Sweeney, John. Final say: "‘Demagogue' reviewer bites back at art scene's gang of 35: It's 'nul points' for the candid critic's critics", The Guardian, 9 January 1994; retrieved from NewsUK (pay site), 11 August 2010.
  18. ^ Tresidder, Megan. "The Megan Tresidder Interview", The Guardian, 19 November 1994; retrieved from News UK, 11 August 2010.(subscription required)
  19. ^ Norman, Geraldine, "Art market", The Independent, 6 March 1994; retrieved 11 August 2010.
  20. ^ Lynton, Norbert. "Playing up to the gallery Abuse is easy, even enjoyable", The Guardian, 29 January 1994; retrieved from News UK, 11 August 2010.
  21. ^ Deligant, Philippe. "Letter: In defence of the acerbic art criticism of Brian Sewell". The Independent. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  22. ^ Bedell, Geraldine. "Arch enemy of the critics stings back: The art world is calling for Brian Sewell's head. He is unfazed". The Independent. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  23. ^ "There's never been a great woman artist", The Independent, 6 July 2008
  24. ^ Lisa O'Carroll "Ex-Evening Standard editor praises Brian Sewell despite his 'shrewish' jibe", The Guardian, 23 September 2013
  25. ^ a b Caroline Davies. "Bristol public given right to decide whether graffiti is art or eyesore". The Guardian. 
  26. ^ The Funny Side of TV Experts, BBC Two, 3 September 2009.
  27. ^ Brian Sewell "David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy – review", London Evening Standard, 19 January 2012
  28. ^ "Stop it, Damien Hirst, you're embarrassing yourself", London Evening Standard, 15 October 2009
  29. ^ Brian Sewell (5 April 2012). "Damien Hirst, Tate Modern - Brian Sewell's review". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 20 September 2015. 
  30. ^ Whitelaw, Paul (4 June 2007). "Dali's surreal world of orgies and onanism". The Scotsman. UK. Retrieved 19 July 2007. 
  31. ^ Sewell, Brian (4 June 2007). "The Dali I knew". London Evening Standard. London. Retrieved 19 July 2007. 
  32. ^ Damien Thompson (14 October 2009). "The North is not as poor as John Prescott's film about the North-South Divide – TV review". The Daily Telegraph (UK). 
  33. ^ "TV Review: Prescott: The North South Divide". The Scotsman. UK. 15 October 2009. 
  34. ^ "IT'S GRIM UP NORTH". Daily Mirror. UK. 14 October 2009. 
  35. ^ "Prankster's paradise: Fonejacker hits the streets". The Guardian. 
  36. ^ "BBC – Press Office – Network Radio Programme Information BBC Week 36 7-Day Version". BBC. 
  37. ^ Mount, Harry (2 November 2002). "Portrait of a driver: Brian Sewell". The Telegraph. 
  38. ^ "The roles of religion and politics in art". Web of Stories. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  39. ^ "40 Years On". Channel 4. 24 July 2007. Retrieved 26 January 2008. 
  40. ^ Brian Sewell: "You know you're queer at a very early age",, 27 November 2011; accessed 20 September 2015.
  41. ^ "Brian Sewell: my father was sexually sadistic composer",; accessed 20 September 2015.
  42. ^ Sewell, Brian (28 March 2014). "Brian Sewell: Why I will never be converted to gay marriage". The Daily Telegraph (London, UK). Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  43. ^ Sewell, Brian (14 November 2011). "Why I will never love my father: When art critic Brian Sewell set out to find the truth about the father he'd never known, he uncovered a sinister story of sex, cruelty and betrayal". The Daily Mail. London, UK. Retrieved 21 September 2015. 
  44. ^ "Robert Sewell - Marriage Registration". Retrieved 24 September 2014. 
  45. ^ "Art critic Brian Sewell dies aged 84". The Guardian. 19 September 2015. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 

External links[edit]