Sewell, Brian Alfred Christopher Bushell (1931-2015), was an art critic, author and broadcaster. He was born in London on 15 July 1931, the son of Mary Jessica Perkins (1900-1996), a private secretary. His father was not named on his birth certificate. Sewell was brought up by his mother and stepfather, following her marriage in 1936 to Robert Sewell, a journalist. It later transpired that Robert Sewell had previously been married but had never divorced, so making this second marriage bigamous. Sewell's illegitimacy mattered hugely to him because of the disapproval it incurred when he was growing up. The facts about his paternity continue to be disputed, but in his 2011 autobiography, Outsider Almost Always: Never Quite, Sewell stated that when he was in his mid-fifties, he discovered that his biological father was the composer Philip Heseltine (1894-1930), who was also known by the pseudonym Philip Warlock. Seven months before Sewell was born, Heseltine had killed himself, allegedly partly due to anxiety when the Catholic Jessica Perkins refused to consider terminating her pregnancy.
Jessica had an interest in the arts and Sewell's early days were filled with trips to theatres and galleries. It was an isolated, rarefied childhood where he was as likely to be taken to dinner with Augustus John as go to a children's playground. At the age of eleven Sewell became a day boy at Haberdashers' Aske's School in Hampstead, where for the first time his signature cut-glass accent was mocked. On leaving school he contemplated becoming an artist and was briefly taught by the Euston Road School painter William Coldstream, a former lover of his mother, but in 1952 he entered national service for two years. To his surprise he found his military experience beneficial, mainly because he learned to work collegially even in adversity.
On completing his national service, Sewell studied at the Courtauld Institute from October 1954 where he was taught by Sir Anthony Blunt. After successfully completing his studies and graduating with a degree in History of Art in 1957, Sewell worked as a prints and drawings expert at Christie's in London from 1958. He resigned in 1967 after being passed over to become a director on the board, something he blamed on homophobia among the top echelon at Christie's. Following a period of uncertainty about his future, he became an independent art dealer, initially working with William Martin, a former colleague at Christie's, and then later on his own. Thoughout his life, Sewell continued buying and selling works of art for himself and for others and, by the time he died in 2015 he had amassed quite a collection. After his death, some of this was bequeathed to the British Museum, and some was sold on 27 September 2016 by Christie's at King Street, London.
Sewell's life was transformed in 1979 when he became an unlikely household name after he acted as both spokesperson and protector for Blunt following the latter's exposure as a Soviet spy. As a result of Sewell's actions during this period and his deep knowledge of art, he was hired by Tina Brown, editor of The Tatler in 1980. He became the magazine's art critic and continued in this role for almost twenty years. In 1984, Sewell also became art critic for the London Evening Standard, where he gained a reputation for coruscating attacks on the most high-profile contemporary artists. He won many awards for his articles and reviews, including Critic of the Year (1988 and 1994), Arts Journalist of the Year (1994), the Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism (1995), and the Foreign Press Award (Arts) (2000). Sewell also wrote on a multitude of subjects for other publications: he combined his great love of travel, particularly for the country of Turkey, with his journalism and he was commissioned to write many articles on this subject for publications including the Sunday Times, Departures, and Cornucopia; and, for over twenty years, he also wrote articles about cars for various publications, including the Evening Standard and The Independent. His preferred method of writing was to use a manual typewriter.
Following Sewell's review of Tate's exhibition 'Writing on the Wall' in the Evening Standard in January 1994, a group of curators, artists, critics, art historians and dealers wrote to the paper demanding that he be sacked and replaced. They felt he had unfairly undermined the modern art world, and even though he was armed with great academic learning, they considered his views philistine. Sewell stood firm and defended his views, claiming to speak for much of middle Britain who were intolerant of the pretensions of modern art. The attempted coup at the Standard against Sewell failed and the fierce backlash in his defence meant he was safe from any further routing. This episode did his reputation no harm, as later in 1994 he won the award for Critic of the Year for the second time. Sewell's impressively prolific output for the Evening Standard, as well as for other publications, continued up until his death, and the archive includes over one and a half thousand files containing his drafts and associated paperwork.
As well as being the author of numerous articles, Sewell also wrote several books, some of which were never published. Three of his great passions were travel, dogs and cars and he wrote about them all:
-Sewell, B. (1988). South from Ephesus: Travels in Aegean Turkey. London: Century
-Sewell, B. (2013). Sleeping with Dogs: A peripheral autobiography. London: Quartet
-Sewell, B. (2015). The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World: London: Quartet
In addition, three volumes of the articles he wrote for the Evening Standard were published:
-Sewell, B. (1994). The Reviews that Caused a Rumpus and other pieces. London: Bloomsbury
-Sewell, B. (1995). An Alphabet of Villains. London: Bloomsbury
-Sewell, B. (2012). Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art from the London Evening Standard. London: Quartet
[Copies of these are available in the Library - see URLs below]
He also wrote two autobiographies (Sewell, B. (2011). Outsider Always Almost: Never Quite. London: Quartet; and Sewell, B. (2012). Outsider II Always Almost: Never Quite. London: Quartet.
[Copies of these are available in the Library - see URLs below]
During the 1990s and 2000s, Sewell appeared on and presented many radio and television programmes, including the award winning documentary series about art and pilgrimages (The Naked Pilgrim - Road to Santiago (2003). Channel 5), which was followed by his grand tour across Europe by car (Brian Sewell's Grand Tour (2006). Channel 5).
In 1998 Sewell moved to a large house in Leopold Road, Wimbledon, which had a small lake and a coach house, as well as a walled garden for his dogs. He had experienced ill health for several years and eventually suffered with heart difficulties and from cancer. It is understood that, prior to his death, he regularly destroyed correspondence and other materials by burning it in his garden. He died at his home on 19 September 2015 and the cause was given as a metastatic neuroendocrine tumour.
Please note - this description is taken from:
-Geordie Greig, 'Sewell, Brian Alfred Christopher Bushell (1931-2015)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, published online: 10 January 2019 [https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.109829 accessed 20 March 2020]
-Sewell, B. (2011). Outsider Always Almost: Never Quite. London: Quartet.
-Sewell, B. (2012). Outsider II Always Almost: Never Quite. London: Quartet