‘The special gifts’ of critic and collector Brian Sewell
Christie’s chairman Noël Annesley recalls the life of Brian Sewell, whose deeply informed passion for art is reflected in his wide-ranging and erudite collection, offered for sale at Christie’s on 27 September
When I first met Brian Sewell in 1964, to be considered as a possible assistant to him in the Picture Department at Christie’s, the interview took place over dinner in his flat off Kensington High Street. It was festooned with pictures and drawings of all schools, and I felt anxious lest I be quizzed about them, and my woeful ignorance exposed.
I saw his ‘office’ at Christie’s a few weeks later, his desk jostling for room with those of junior members of the department, the youthful Charlie Allsopp and Christopher Wood, and John White the administrator (probably not so described then) and Brian’s very own secretary. It occupied the space to the left of the top of the main staircase at 8 King Street, which today serves as a small viewing room for special pictures or works of art. Again I was struck by the number of pictures hanging there, many belonging to him, seemingly an overflow from home, whether Neapolitan ceiling bozzetti, or nudes by Etty, still lifes of different periods and everything in between.
Disappointingly in the current context, Brian’s autobiographical writings devote little space to recounting his aims and activities as a collector. His development as an art enthusiast and budding art historian are, however, well documented.
He was encouraged by his mother, from when he was a little boy, to accompany her every week to the National Gallery, and after various diversions, with an interruption for National Service, his precocious interest in art was wonderfully served at the Courtauld Institute where he was inspired in particular by the teaching of Anthony Blunt, the then Director, Johannes Wilde and Michael Kitson. The syllabus Brian studied covered the Renaissance from Giotto to Michelangelo and their northern contemporaries, English art from 1550 to modern times, as well as the great French artists from Poussin and Claude through to Impressionism, plus Breughel, Rubens and Rembrandt, and the Italian baroque.
Nor was architecture neglected. After several false starts, including an attempt to become a painter — which he never quite abandoned — and a serious intention to become a Roman Catholic priest, Brian helped organise and catalogue two significant international loan exhibitions before being recruited in 1958 by his friend Bill Martin, a partner at Christie’s, who hoped that he would bring a more scholarly approach to the firm’s somewhat perfunctory picture cataloguing. He swiftly made his mark, and even though his career at Christie’s lasted only nine years, his influence lasted far longer.
Readers of Brian’s trenchant reviews of the British art scene may be surprised by the empathy he showed for more traditional artists working in the last century
Brian was no stranger to auctions. Even as a teenager he had spent many spare hours sifting through great parcels of prints and drawings and miscellaneous pictures, loosely described, at all the London salerooms, large and small. This experience, his keen eye, and what he had learnt at the Courtauld and through assiduous visits to the museums in the United Kingdom and on the continent, gave him an exceptionally broad base of knowledge and often led him to make discoveries. Some of these he kept for his own enjoyment, others he sold on to supplement his meagre income. In this way his instincts as a collector were born.
The contents of this sale will serve to demonstrate the breadth of his interests, extending from 16th-century Renaissance Italy to our own day. He may have become famous for his denunciation of many contemporary artists and fawning fellow critics, but he also found much to admire in the art of the 20th century.
Brian’s ability to buy the things he coveted was of course restricted by his means, and from time to time he had to relinquish long-held treasures such as a Sargent watercolour of a rocky stream, or exquisite drawings by Parmigianino and Pontormo. Yet the collection as we now present it includes many works of which he felt quietly proud — for instance, among the Old Masters there are no fewer than three pictures by Stomer.
The Stomers were a key element in Brian’s collection. Through the Courtauld he encountered the enthusiasm of Benedict Nicolson, long-serving editor of The Burlington Magazine, for Caravaggio and his followers, including northerners such as Terbruggen, Honthorst, and indeed the Flemish Stomer, who migrated south to Sicily and painted glowing candlelit compositions of religious subjects.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a renewed appreciation of 17th-century baroque painting, in part through the efforts of Ellis Waterhouse, a much admired mentor of Brian’s, Denis Mahon, and of course Anthony Blunt, with his lifetime’s dedication to Poussin. For the most part, however, pictures of this kind remained comparatively cheap, and Brian’s much-admired Sacchi is a case in point.
Brian Sewell with the painting in 1966 © Adam Woolfitt for The Weekend Telegraph, 10 June 1966
Readers of Brian’s trenchant reviews of the British art scene of the recent past may be surprised by the empathy he showed for more traditional artists working in the last century, such as John Craxton, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner, Duncan Grant, Augustus John (whose two studio sales he catalogued at Christie’s), John Minton, Walter Sickert or David Jones. He also assembled a beautiful group, predominantly exquisite still lifes in tempera, by his friend and loyal supporter Eliot Hodgkin.
As an artist manqué himself, Brian was fascinated by the technique and skill of his fellow practitioners, and the variegated and often succulent textures of paint — a word which he pronounced with a unique tenorial relish.
Earlier British art attracted him too, but here the emphasis was on drawings. Excellent, long underrated figure studies by Burne-Jones supplement outstanding nude studies by Fuseli and James Barry — the respective Swiss and Irish origins of these a reminder of the international character of art in 18th-century London — and a lovely grey wash drawing by Romney.
Brian worked hard to screen his friend Anthony Blunt from media persecution, was quite frequently interviewed and in the process became a public figure himself
The international flavour of his collection is also expressed by John Ruskin’s sensitive copy of a young girl in a Van Dyck portrait. From the time I knew him, however, Old Master Drawings were Brian’s chief delight as a collector, and it was in this area that I gained most from him as an apprentice cataloguer. I have talked elsewhere of his generosity (and considerable patience) as an instructor.
A notable discovery of Brian’s, and a demonstration of his flair for spotting rarities, is a meticulously drawn view from 1794 of the Schmadribaca waterfall near Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, a favourite subject of Joseph-Anton Koch. I do not know how it was previously described, but Brian recognised its authorship because of his interest in German Romantic art. This had been quickened many years before at the Courtauld, and then through visiting an extensive Arts Council exhibition in 1963 devoted to Koch and other members of the so-called Nazarene School which had previously been neglected in Britain.
The earliest drawing in his collection, of around 1528, is the Peruzzi (above), his pride and joy. As significant a rarity, however, is the splendid Dido by Daniele da Volterra (below), which was identified only quite recently after it had arrived at Christie’s. Brian had acquired it in the early 1960s as a work by a good follower of Michelangelo, and it’s a shame that he was not able to enjoy its recent identification as one of Daniele’s most beautiful drawings.
Domenico Tintoretto is another highlight and has just been associated with a series of pictures in the Frari, one of Venice’s greatest churches. There is a powerful drawing of the nude Hercules by Guercino. And a long-standing puzzle — a beautiful study on blue paper of a soldier carrying a ladder towards a besieged town — has been brilliantly solved by a young museum curator in the United States. The Florentine Agostino Ciampelli may not be a household name, but how pleased Brian would have been to know that this carefully squared drawing has at last been securely connected, after a wide range of attributions from the Carracci to (bafflingly) Lanfranco. Other puzzles remain.
After Brian left Christie’s in 1967 there followed some comparatively unproductive years as an art dealer and art adviser to museums and collectors, until his life was transformed in 1979.
His sometime art history teacher and friend, Anthony Blunt, was unmasked as ‘the fourth man’ in the Cambridge Spy Ring, to a blaze of publicity. Brian worked hard to screen him from media persecution, was quite frequently interviewed and in the process became a public figure himself. In part as a result of these performances he was hired as art critic by Tina Brown, who was revitalizing Tatler.
His career as art critic began in earnest, however, when he replaced Richard Cork in the role at the Evening Standard in 1984. He rapidly achieved celebrity status and appeared frequently on television and radio, commenting not only on artistic matters, but also on his other well-known interests including dogs, cars and travel, as well as just about any current topic.
Brian could be relied upon to deliver acerbic, witty and outrageous opinions in his rather high-pitched voice that was utterly distinctive. In addition to many articles on a wide variety of subjects he published several books, presented award-winning television programmes, and quite frequently gave lectures. The variety of material in this sale, at most price levels, will surely attract and delight Brian’s many friends and admirers as well as dedicated collectors, and serve as a demonstration of his special gifts as a collector as well as a critic.