Brian Sewell’s death last year at the age of 84, although not unexpected, due to terminal cancer during the last six months of his life was nevertheless a sad event for most of his admirers and particularly to his few friends who knew him well and had the privilege of seeing his sentimental side at close quarters.
Having interviewed him in 2000 for my book Dialogues I grew very fond of Brian and of course was a regular reader of his weekly art critique in the Evening Standard, which I found totally absorbing despite those acerbic assessments which made him a great deal of enemies, particularly in the art world.
He garnered his tremendous knowledge from studying at the Courtauld but was apparently frustrated in his ambitions to become a painter. In the ’50s and ’60s he worked at Christies where his own art collection, valued at 2 million pounds, will be sold. His former colleague Noel Annesley, now the auction house’s honorary chairman, said the range of works would surprise people who assumed Sewell, famous for his scathing opinions of modern art, had rather narrow tastes.
‘Brian could be quite brutal in his assessment but he also had a kindly and appreciative side that would be expressed in his collecting patterns as well,’ said Mr Annesley. ‘I was certainly surprised by the sheer volume of the collection. Perhaps the emphasis on modern British or twentieth century British art is heavier than expected, but on the other hand Brian himself tried quite hard to be a painter and never quite gave up on it and you can see he would be fascinated by what his contemporaries and immediate predecessors were up to.’
Mr Annesley worked with Sewell during his stint at Christies between 1958 to 1967. He said he could recognise his colleague’s personality in the collection which offers ‘a demonstration of his special gifts as a collector as well as a critic.’ He continued: ‘What you get from this is a man of utmost insatiable curiosity, that’s what I would say. He really was incredibly interested in art and in the process of it, he understood what lay behind drawings and paintings. The dates go from 1520 up to more or less the year 2000, so it is 500 years of art.’
The sale, called Brian Sewell: Critic and Collector, is being held next month and includes three works by 17th century Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, valued at about £1 million all together. Sewell’s twentieth century collection includes a nude by the Bloomsbury Group’s Duncan Grant, valued between 20 and 30 thousand pounds, and a 1946 portrait of Lucian Freud by his friend John Craxton worth £30,000.
Experts preparing the sale have managed to identify some of the artists behind the works for the first time, confirming the eye for art that made Sewell such an authority. One work, previously identified as being a follower of Michelangelo, has been attributed to the 16th century Italian painter Daniele da Volterra, valued at £150,000. Mr Annesley said: ‘People will be fascinated by the chance of owning something Brian liked, because people read what he said.’
For the last five years of his life Quartet became the proud publisher of his books which I list below:
Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite
The White Umbrella
Sleeping with Dogs: A Peripheral Autobiography
Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art
The Man who Built the Best Car in the World
For those who missed buying any of the titles, it is perhaps time to acquaint themselves with the great man whose talent was equally prodigious as a writer of great elegance. Everything Brian wrote is worth preserving for posterity.