If a famous person lives a long time, they usually die when
they aren’t so famous any more. That’s most obvious for sportspeople, but it
applies to actors, writers and politicians too. In 2015 we heard about a lot of
famous people passing away at a respectable age, like Jimmy Hill, the football
expert, or Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon’s first wife, or the actor Stephen
Lewis, who played Inspector “Blakey” in the 1970s sitcom On the Buses.
But usually when we heard of their passing it was the first
time we’d thought about them for years. It’s rare that an old person dies at or
near the height of their height. The art critic Brian Sewell, who died in 2015,
may have been one of those rare people. He was born illegitimate in 1931, which
made life difficult for him and his single mother, and he didn’t have an easy
route to success. He didn’t go to university, but after National Service he
studied art history, then worked for the art-dealer Christie’s. After setting up on his own, he slowly found his
way to a job writing about art for the London Evening Standard.
He spoke with a very posh voice, but he wasn’t part of the
art establishment or well-connected with rich collectors. On the contrary, he
constantly criticized and mocked the modern art world, giving his allegiance to
the grand masters of the past, not the fashionable artists of the present day.
He was prickly, waspish and never afraid to express his contrarian opinions on
everything from Salvador Dalí (a narcissistic, self-publicizing genius) to
female artists (he didn’t think much of them). That’s why he never received a
knighthood and never became very rich.
But he did, late in life, become famous. If he’d toed the
line and been sycophantic to the right people, he might have become a TV star
much earlier, in the 1970s or 1980s. As it was, it wasn’t until near the end of
his life that he truly began to make his name on the little screen. Television
likes eccentrics and Sewell was an eccentric par excellence. He was also
passionate and knowledgeable about art and history. He made television series
like The Naked Pilgrim (2003), about the old pilgrimage route to
Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour (2006),
named after the “grand tours” that the sons of the British aristocracy used to
make in Europe to complete their education.
But Sewell didn’t simply discuss or write about painting,
sculpture and architecture: another of his great passions was the motor car. He
said he preferred to drive his vintage Mercedes coupé in bare feet and
in 2004 he presented a series celebrating a century of Rolls-Royce. He already
had many fans and admirers from his work as a journalist and critic, but his
appearances on television brought him the greatest fame of his life. He became
a widely recognized, and sometimes satirized, figure, and published two volumes
of autobiography, which were characteristically entitled Outsider I and Outsider
That is how Sewell always regarded himself: as an outsider
in all manner of ways. Despite his accent, he was not an aristocrat and had no
private wealth. He was homosexual, but never regarded himself as part of a
community or used his sexuality as a way of advancing his career. Most of all,
he never bowed to fashion or conformed to social pressure. He had strong
opinions about art, positive and negative, and expressed them without fear of
the consequences. That brought him a great deal of abuse, not all of it purely
verbal, because he was physically assaulted on several occasions by artists
enraged by his opinions.
He accepted the blows and brickbats as part of the price of
living with integrity. As he entered his final years, he was as honest about
the inconveniences of old age as he was about his artistic opinions. In the
course of his life, he lost many friends and many pets too, because he was a
great dog-lover and kept several dogs at a tie. Brian Sewell was only one of
many famous people to die in 2015, but he was also one of the most unusual and
memorable. Art critics do not usually achieve fame and do not usually die
without a knighthood. Sewell did both and for the same reason: because he lived
by his own rules.