The reviewer Sandy Skinner is obviously a great admirer of the late Brian Sewell, whose void from the artistic and literary scene will, I’m sure, be felt for generations to come.
Sandy’s review is a testimonial on how the great man’s multi-faceted talents weaved magic in everything he wrote. Here it is in full for the benefit of those who are less familiar with Brian’s great contributions to the art world and his command of the English language.
This book is a delight. Sadly, it is the last we shall see from Brian Sewell, described as ‘Britain’s most famous and controversial art critic’. He was much more: auto-biographer, Orwell-Award-winning journalist, master of stylish English prose and children’s books and a flamboyant figure in a world short of such personalities. His great enthusiasms were for dogs – one book titled provocatively Sleeping with Dogs – and the more dramatic sort of car, preferably matching his own lifestyle.
Happily, Stefan Marjoram is very much with us as artist, filmmaker, illustrator and vastly entertaining motoring writer, primarily in The Automobile, last heard of enjoying a brisk outing in a 28-litre Fiat. His idiosyncratic style, mainly in colour but also as line drawings, is a perfect complement to Brian’s prose.
Rolls-Royce historians are given generous credit. It would be misleading to suggest that The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World is an important contribution to their work. Rather, it is a masterly story about people – Royce, the craftsmen who worked with him, the importance of C.S. Rolls, and Royce’s insistence on perfection at every stage.
The account starts with a scurrilous encounter with an unfortunate French car leading to determination to do better or, more positively, The Best. The early experimental cars were a good effort leading to Royce’s crucial encounter with Rolls, with a delightful Marjoram illustration of R and R’s conversation represented as engineering drawings. Roll’s insistence on silent perfection led directly to the Ghost, its sporting and sales success: with a total production run just short of 7,000, Manchester, Derby and Springfield had made their point.
The personality of Royce comes across strongly, as does his reliance on Rolls for guidance on preferred markets. This meeting of minds was cut tragically short by Charles Rolls’ untimely death. Perhaps as a distraction Royce discovered the pleasures of the Mediterranean and built a villa, La Mimosa, plus a second villa for engineers and draughtsmen. This successful development led to his buying of an old farmhouse at West Wittering. A feature of both establishments was that staff were both overworked and also denied the pleasures, such as they were, of Sussex and the greater attractions of Cannes. Development led by Royce at both sites and Derby produced the outstanding Eagle aero engine.
Sewell rounds off this book with a highly intelligent assessment of Charles Rolls, and appendices on coachbuilders and their interaction with the sales forces of the manufacturers, which continued to be important until well into the post-WW2 period. He also gives a useful timeline from the early semi-experimental cars to the end of Ghost production in 1925 (Derby) and 1926 (Springfield).
A happy sideline to this book is the breadth of its appeal. It is written with a light touch which brings life to the main subject without demanding in-depth knowledge. Sewell’s successful children’s books suggest it is a fine introduction to Royce, his engineering interests and the circles in which he moved. As a separate issue Stefan Marjoram’s artwork will have met with Sewell’s approval: quality of reproduction is excellent, making it a pleasure in its own right.