Brian Sewell

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Brian Sewell
Born (1931-06-15) 15 June 1931 (age 84)
Market Bosworth, Leicestershire
Nationality British
Alma mater Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London
Occupation art critic, journalist, art dealer
Parent(s) Peter Warlock (father)
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Rank Second lieutenant[1]
Unit Royal Army Service Corps

Brian R Sewell (/ˈsjl, s-/; born 15 June 1931)[2] is an English art critic and media personality. He writes for the London Evening Standard and is noted for his acerbic view of conceptual art and the Turner Prize.[3] He has been described as "Britain's most famous and controversial art critic".[4]

Earlier life[edit]

Sewell was brought up by his mother in Kensington, London, and other places. His father, the composer Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock, committed suicide before he was born.[5]

He was educated at the independent Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Hampstead, northwest London. Offered a place to read history at Oxford,[6] Sewell chose instead to enter the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where his tutors included Anthony Blunt, who became his close friend. 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 has since been a regular commentator on the ITV series Bad Lad's Army, offering insight into 1950s military life.[citation needed]

In 1979, after Blunt's exposure as the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring, Sewell assisted in sheltering him in Chiswick from media attention.[7] He has continued to defend his former tutor.[8]

Art criticism and controversy[edit]

Following the Blunt affair, Sewell was hired as art critic for Tina Brown's revitalised Tatler magazine.[9] In 1984, Sewell 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.[10] In criticisms of the Tate Gallery's art, he coined the term "Serota Tendency" after its director Nicholas Serota.

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 is 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"[11] audiences in London. He has also disparaged Liverpool as a cultural city.[12][13]

In 1994, thirty-five figures from the art world signed a letter to the Evening Standard attacking Sewell for "homophobia", "misogyny", "demagogy", "hypocrisy",[14] "artistic prejudice", "formulaic insults" and "predictable scurrility".[15] Signatories included Karsten Schubert, Maureen Paley,[16] Michael Craig-Martin, Angela and Matthew Flowers, Christopher Frayling, Rene Gimpel, Susan Hiller, John Hoyland, Sarah Kent, Nicholas Logsdail, George Melly, Sandy Nairne, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Michelle Roberts, Richard Shone, Marina Warner, Natalie Wheen and Rachel Whiteread.[14]

Sewell responded with comments on many of the signatories, such as Paley being "the curatrix of innumerable silly little Arts Council exhibitions"[14] and Whiteread as "mortified by my dismissal of her work for the Turner Prize".[14] 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".[17]

Sewell's attitude to female artists has been 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."[18]

Despite being attacked in his 2013 memoirs, Veronica Wadley, the editor of the Standard between 2002 and 2009, has defended Sewell and said she had defended him from management and arts' lobbyists who wanted him sacked.[19]

Sewell is strongly opinionated and has frequently insulted the general public for their views on art.[citation needed] With regard to public praise for the work of Banksy in Bristol, he has been 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."[20]

He went on to assert that Banksy himself "should have been put down at birth."[20] Media personality Clive Anderson has described him as "a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short."[21] In a London Evening Standard review, Sewell summed up his view of "A Bigger Picture", a David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy, thus:

"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."[22]

Sewell is also known for his disdain for Damien Hirst, describing him as "fucking dreadful".[23]


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 has not practised for decades, Sewell considers 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.[24] 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.[25][26] Sewell has appeared twice as panellist on the BBC's news quiz Have I Got News for You and tried to teach cricketer Phil Tufnell about art in ITV's Don't Call Me Stupid.

He acted as Big Brother during 2008's Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack.[27]

Sewell was the voice of Sir Kiftsgate in an episode of the children's cartoon The Big Knights. He also has a programme on Voom HD Network's Art Channel: Gallery HD called Brian Sewell's Grand Tour, in which he tours 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 reflects the 18th century, giving the perspective of what it would have been like as a 'Grand Tourist'. Then he elaborates on what has become of these sights and lost throughout history. In a 2009 BBC documentary about the 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 can all just die quietly.[28][29][30]

Brian Badonde, one of the most well known characters from the comedy show Facejacker, played by Kayvan Novak is said to be a parody of Sewell.[31]

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


Brian Sewell talked about his love of Ludwig II of Bavaria on Great Lives on BBC Radio 4.[32]

Other activities[edit]

Sewell is a museum adviser in South Africa, Germany and the United States. He is also a patron of the British charity NORM-UK which raises awareness of circumcision and other forms of surgical alteration of the genitals. Sewell has also provided voice-overs for a variety of television commercials including the Victoria and Albert Museum and feta cheese.

Brian Sewell is also a noted aficionado of classic automobiles, a fan of stock car racing and over several decades has written extensively about cars, classic and contemporary, in the 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.[33] Sewell has expressed a preference for driving his Mercedes barefoot.[34]

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.[35]

In a television programme broadcast on Channel 4 on 24 July 2007,[36] 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".[37] Sewell has been described as bisexual but has also described himself as gay, saying he knew he was probably at the age of six.[38]

He has 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, however, Sewell states that he lost his virginity at the age of 15 to a fellow pupil at Haberdashers' Aske's School.[39] However, the discrepancy can be explained by the differences in sex; Sewell lost his heterosexual virginity to the French woman, but his homosexual virginity to the pupil earlier.

Sewell has said that he is more comfortable with the term queer than gay to describe himself, and he expressed opposition to same-sex marriage.[40]


Travel writing
  • South from Ephesus: Travels Through Aegean Turkey (1989)
Art criticism
  • The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus: And Other Pieces (1994)
  • An Alphabet of Villains (1995) Revised edition of The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus.
  • Nothing Wasted: The Paintings of Richard Harrison with Richard Harrison (2010)
  • Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art (2012)
  • Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite (2011)
  • Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite (2012)
  • Sleeping with Dogs: A Peripheral Autobiography (2013)
  • The White Umbrella (2015)


  1. ^ The London Gazette: no. 40046. p. 6930. 18 December 1953.
  2. ^ A Life in Full: Nothing if not critical, by Andrew Barrow, The Independent on Sunday, 28 September 2003
  3. ^ "Tate's collections 'wretched', says Brian Sewell" (Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2009)
  4. ^ Cooke, Rachel. "We pee on things and call it art". Guardian, 13 November 2005; retrieved 30 November 2008
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ross Lydall "Brian Sewell: Soviet double agent Anthony Blunt did no harm to Britain", London Evening Standard, 22 October 2012.
  8. ^ Charles Moore "When will the BBC ever tell the truth about Anthony Blunt?",, 22 August 2011.
  9. ^ "Five Minutes with: Brian Sewell". BBC News. 6 January 2012. 
  10. ^ "Brian Sewell Columnist, Evening Standard" (Orwell Prize citation).
  11. ^ "Art 'too good' for Northerners" (BBC News 14 January 2003).
  12. ^ "Laughter fades on the road to Liverpool" (Daily Telegraph 26 October 2004).
  13. ^ "Brian Sewell slams Liverpool" (Click Liverpool 25 August 2009).
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Tresidder, Megan. "The Megan Tresidder Interview", The Guardian, 19 November 1994; retrieved from News UK (pay site), 11 August 2010.
  16. ^ Norman, Geraldine, "Art market", The Independent, 6 March 1994. Retrieved 11 August 2010.
  17. ^ Lynton, Norbert. "Playing up to the gallery Abuse is easy, even enjoyable", The Guardian, 29 January 1994; retrieved from News UK, 11 August 2010.
  18. ^ "There's never been a great woman artist", The Independent, 6 July 2008
  19. ^ Lisa O'Carroll "Ex-Evening Standard editor praises Brian Sewell despite his 'shrewish' jibe", The Guardian, 23 September 2013
  20. ^ a b The Guardian, 31 August 2009
  21. ^ The Funny Side of TV Experts, BBC Two, 3 September 2009.
  22. ^ Brian Sewell "David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy – review", London Evening Standard, 19 January 2012
  23. ^ "Stop it, Damien Hirst, you're embarrassing yourself", London Evening Standard, 15 October 2009
  24. ^ Five's Naked Pilgrim wins Award[dead link]. Channel 5 Broadcasting, 10 May 2004. Retrieved on 29 November 2008.
  25. ^ Whitelaw, Paul (4 June 2007). "Dali's surreal world of orgies and onanism". The Scotsman. UK. Retrieved 19 July 2007. 
  26. ^ Sewell, Brian (4 June 2007). "The Dali I knew". Evening Standard. London. Retrieved 19 July 2007. 
  27. ^ Kilkelly, Daniel "Big Brother's Celebrity Hijackers revealed",, 22 December 2007; retrieved 24 December 2007
  28. ^ 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). 
  29. ^ "TV Review: Prescott: The North South Divide". The Scotsman. UK. 15 October 2009. 
  30. ^ "IT'S GRIM UP NORTH". Daily Mirror. UK. 14 October 2009. 
  31. ^
  32. ^ "Great Lives, Series 26, Ludwig II of Bavaria". BBC Radio 4. BBC. 27 December 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  33. ^ "Press Office: BBC RADIO 4 Saturday 4 September 2010" at
  34. ^ Mount, Harry (2 November 2002). "Portrait of a driver: Brian Sewell". The Telegraph. 
  35. ^ "The roles of religion and politics in art". Web of Stories. recorded 2008, 28 June 2012. Retrieved 19 May 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  36. ^ "40 Years On". Channel 4. 24 July 2007. Retrieved 26 January 2008. 
  37. ^ Graham, Alison. "How Gay Sex Changed the World". Radio Times. Retrieved 19 July 2007. [dead link]
  38. ^ Brian Sewell: "You know you're queer at a very early age", Guardian
  39. ^ "Brian Sewell: my father was sexually sadistic composer" at The Week
  40. ^ Sewell, Brian (28 March 2014). "Brian Sewell: Why I will never be converted to gay marriage". London: Telegraph Online. Retrieved 30 March 2014.