“Addicted to art, Brian Sewell has been the art critic of the London Evening Standard since 1984 – the sad end of a once promising career, the Orwell, Hawthornden and other prizes scant consolation to a man who once enjoyed life as a scholar gypsy.”
Brian Sewell’s speaker biography in the publicity for York Festival of Ideas.
It is extraordinary good fortune that we still have Brian Sewell among us, able to give us the benefit of his outspoken and extremely well informed views after a long lifetime as a connoisseur of Art. When it comes to understanding pictures and sculpture there is no substitute for long experience, which brings an ability to make connections and see resonances drawn from many hours of looking and thinking.
Listening to him in conversation with James Boaden from York University’s History of Art department (part of York Festival of Ideas) was a fascinating opportunity to hear someone who can give us a direct link back to a time when the Art world was a very different place. We began with a look back at his life, which he has described with great candour and elan in two volumes of autobiography. Brian Sewell studied at the Courtauld Institute with access to some of the great art experts of the time. It was a small class- only six students for the majority of the course- and it was detailed and intense. It was an unashamedly elitist training for the few who were destined to become the elite themselves. He regrets that this depth of study and breadth of understanding is much harder to find today now that the individual student’s study of Art history has become more and more focussed on narrow areas, as nothing should be closed off so that the development of ideas and influences can be properly understood. He is well known for his fearless criticism of contemporary Art and he had some scorching things to say about that for the audience at the Ron Clarke Hub.
“The distinction comes in the 20th century when people started painting nothing.”
“David Hockney doesn’t know how to paint.”
“The trouble with young people is that they have nothing to express.”
It was all very lively and entertaining and it does not spring from the kind of closed off mindset that reading those quotes in cold print might suggest. The audience questions after the conversation were animated and thoughtful. I managed to screw up my courage and ask one myself- a brave action from someone who may have looked at a great many exhibitions with a lot of pleasure and read a lot about Art but is a long way from being a connoisseur. However not even Brian Sewell is allowed to dismiss David Hockney’s recent East Yorkshire paintings in my presence ( “grotesque” “vulgar” “crude”) so I explained how much they meant to me as a connoisseur of the East Yorkshire landscape rather than paintings (my full response to the exhibition A Bigger Picture can be seen here) and asked how much my powerful emotional reaction to them made up for the fact that Hockney didn’t know how to paint. A lesser man would have patronised me but I received an answer that allowed him to stick to his guns while remaining kind. He explained that he has paintings at home which mean a lot to him while not being of great worth as works of Art, but that Hockney is no John Constable. Which of course he isn’t. Clearly Brian Sewell, one of the great Art connoisseurs of his day, is absolutely right, but the great thing about Art appreciation is that I am right too. So long as we look with honesty, openness and a certain degree of knowledge we are all right.
A nice man. A real gentleman.