As he embarks on his televised Grand Tour, Brian Sewell, Britain's most controversial art critic, can't resist exercising his wits on TV researchers, female artists and the Turner Prize. But then there is his softer side ...
A mountain pass somewhere between France and Italy in deepest midwinter. An old primrose Mercedes stops on a snowy bend and from its leathery recesses emerges a man with white hair and small, beady eyes, a soft blanket pulled tight around his shoulders against the cold. The man begins to speak, his voice improbably delicate; he sounds like a dowager duchess carefully recalling a large turd she was once mistakenly served during tea at Claridge's.After a while, though, you stop noticing the peculiar enunciation; it is the words that fascinate. The man is explaining how, in the 18th century, boys from Leicestershire and Lincolnshire used to pass this way en route to Turin. These young men were not sophisticated; they had broken fingernails and only two suits each to their name, and both of those made of tweed. They had never seen real mountains before and crossing them, which was dangerous and frightening and only achievable at all with the help of strange, lantern-jawed local peasants, changed the way they looked at the world forever. It had been flat; now it was in three dimensions. It had been a dreary English grey; now it was in full colour.This is a scene - the gripping opening scene - from The Grand Tour, Brian Sewell's new series for Five, a travelogue in which he examines 'the dark underbelly' of the supposedly educational journeys that were undertaken in the 18th century by young Englishmen from wealthy families. Sewell emits a winsome sigh. 'The Grand Tour is mostly portrayed as young aristocrats who went off and came back with fine paintings. I wanted to indicate that they caught chicken pox, mumps and venereal disease. No one could distinguish between syphilis and gonorrhoea. There was no treatment.'A pregnant pause.'So, I was allowed to get away with some of it. But when, in Turin, I talked about Boswell having had a spontaneous ejaculation in his trousers after playing kneesy with a young woman at the opera ... well, I've never seen such distress. "Can't you find another word for spontaneous ejaculation?" they said.'Doing a piece to camera in Turin's royal chapel, he wanted to explain that while some paintings of the martyrdom of John feature the saint with an erection - the first lick of the flames was said to be sexually exciting - here, decorum dictated otherwise. '"It can't go in," they said. So prudish! And yet you have only to say the word "wank" on TV and an audience of 300 will roll about in laughter.'It is probably fair to say that Sewell's experience with Five was not an entirely happy one, and he believes that this series, his second (The Naked Pilgrim, in which he rode to Santiago de Compostela, being the first), will also be his last. 'My reputation would not allow a third,' he says. On the last day of filming, one of the crew looked him straight in the eye and said: 'We all think it's been absolute hell working with you', a compliment that Sewell simply batted back. He is, rather disingenuously, I would say, highly indignant at what he has learned of television. 'I was promised that it would be my programme. That it would be all my research. I set down my criteria. "Yes, yes, yes," they said. "You can have all that." But my researches were buggered up by some 22-year-old with a degree from Nottingham. The nitwit had no idea. He didn't know if we were in the 18th or the 19th century and had me, as it were, chasing after Browning and the phenomenon of Chiantishire. I think simply this: they [TV people] are fundamentally unserious. They know nothing. They see things only in their own petty, boxed-in terms, and they cannot understand it when they have a presenter who has no vanity.'In particular, he hated the way he was expected to come up with pictures. If he mentioned a duel, swordsmen would be booked; if he mentioned dancing, music would be arranged. He found all this ridiculous, as you can see in one scene when a young 'nobleman' and his lady can be seen prancing around to, bizarrely, the sound of a hurdy-gurdy. For a while, Sewell watches, poker-faced. Then, unable to contain himself any longer, he explodes with laughter. It is to their credit that the people at Five have kept the laughter in.'It's moronic,' he says. 'Moronic. The day-by-day tedium of it. Nine weeks. What hell. The extraordinary thing is that you reach a pitch where you don't want to have another meal with these people. Any excuse to slip off.' He launches into a funny impression of the crew at the table. As a skit, it is not only well observed, but it is the work of a man who is more than usually used to pleasing himself. Most of us are too tired of fussy eaters to try bullying them. But Sewell, who shares his life mostly with his dogs, is not. He despises those who blench at the idea of veal with mushrooms. It is an intolerance that is all of a piece with his character. It is an intolerance that, up close, is really rather delicious.Sewell, Britain's most famous and controversial art critic, lives in a vast Edwardian house in Wimbledon, south London, having moved there from his home in Kensington several years ago. He made the switch for two reasons. First, he has a heart condition, and the new house is so big, he can more or less live on the ground floor, thus avoiding the exertion of the stairs. Second, it has a garden big enough that his dogs can get enough exercise without his having to walk them. It is a beautiful house; he calls it a 'monstrosity', but it has a certain William Morris charm and is crammed full of the most fantastic paintings. You go in through electric gates, past a waterlily-strewn pond, and there he is, an elegant wisp of a man, a look of mischief hovering faintly in the corners of his face.He takes me into the kitchen and leaves me there to make us some coffee (he is having his photograph taken). Naturally, I have a quick snoop around. What do I find? More lovely paintings; a selection box of Fox's biscuits; a bottle of canine ear drops; and about a dozen jars of Cooper's thick-cut marmalade. I know he doesn't get out as much as he used to, but, really, this is ridiculous.In his drawing room, we perch beside one of those weird fake fires that looks like a flickering bowl of barley sugar. I associate these with a certain kind of miniature, suburban house, and it seems out of place here, in this room where everything else is in such exquisite taste. But when I tell him this, he acts amazed. He brought it with him from the old place. 'We've always had it,' he says. 'It makes the room feel cosy.'He sits down rather carefully - his hip is sore with arthritis - and considers me. 'Now, what do you want to know?' he asks. This question is usually a warning; some things will be off-limits. But Sewell is wonderfully indiscreet, an incontinence in which he takes visible delight. Once he has dispatched the world of TV, we move on to the Turner Prize which, in his columns in the Evening Standard, he has this year chosen to ignore. Why? 'Ignoring it is the kindest thing one can do,' he says, lightly. 'It's been rigged for years. It used to be outrageous, but this year it is just dull.' But some critics were enthusiastic. 'Well, the important thing so far as the other critics are concerned is that I've paid my mortgage.' Most critics, in his view, are far too worried about being shut out in the cold to sharpen their knives.His enemies, and God knows he has a few, often complain that Sewell's love of art ends with Poussin. Anything later and he just isn't interested. This is inaccurate. He has a 'quite unreasonable passion' for Joseph Beuys and loves the Chapman brothers. On balance, however, it is fair to say that he thinks that modern art is rubbish. 'We've reached the point where Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen might as well be an artist; all he needs is an empty room and some chalk. We pee on things, we pee into things, we pee over things... and call it art.' He is especially contemptuous of women artists. 'Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won't make a good artist. Look at Barbara Hepworth - a one-trick pony. Look at that pile of rubbish in the Tate by Rachel Whiteread.' I choose not to respond to this. He moves on. 'This will end in disaster. In another generation, it will be inconceivable that anyone will be taught how to paint. The blind are leading the blind. The head of painting at the Royal College couldn't paint a Christmas card.' Does he find this depressing? 'Not enormously. I've looked over the edge at death in the past few years enough times; when you've done that, you no longer find anything much very depressing.'He blames his mother for his feeling for art. She used to take him to the National Gallery and tell him to hunt around until he found, say, a Dutch painting or a Spanish one. He fell in love with Murillo's The Holy Family when he was six, and later asked his mother to buy him a robe from Barkers in the same blue as the one worn by Jesus in the painting. Sewell's father was a composer who gassed himself before his son was born.As a result, he and his mother, a painter, were very close. She was extremely possessive of her son, to the point that she did not allow him to go to school or to mix with other children. Perhaps this is why his voice is so unusual (un-yoo-soo-al, as he would have it). This cosy idyll ended, however, when his mother remarried, an event that made the boy Brian absolutely furious. 'I resented my stepfather for many years, but eventually, I realised what a good and decent man he had been.'Did he feel ashamed of the way he had treated him? 'Yes. I don't think I had any idea what a father should be. How could this man who had been floating around for years in a vaguely avuncular way be converted into my father?' It was his stepfather who insisted that Brian be sent to school.Is he ever curious about his father? 'I'm aware that certain things must come from him, but I have a deep inhibition about all that. I feel betrayed if I feel anything at all.' Did his mother feel betrayed? 'Oh, I think so. She was very, very angry. On the rare occasions when she did talk about him, it was usually under provocation. "You're just like your father," she'd say.' What was his mother like? 'She lived too long. For most of my early life, she was like an older sister. In old age, she became bitter, angry, resentful. Really rather unpleasant.'Anyway, he escaped this complicated home life when he went to the Courtauld Institute to do his degree in art history, a place that still makes him breathless when he talks about it. 'It was like a monastery,' he says, with deep reverence. Later, he worked at Christie's as a dealer, though he found he couldn't bear to sell paintings to those he thought undeserving. Writing about art is his true vocation. 'When I write, I feel another me. If I can't get the other me, I can't write.'This 'other me' can be quite nasty, though he thinks people make too much of his propensity for feuding. He once saw a salacious story about his arch enemy Nicholas Serota on the desk of the then editor of the Evening Standard, whereupon he stole it and rang the director of the Tate to warn him.Will he write his memoirs? 'I think about it.' What's stopping him? 'I don't have George Melly's vanity.' Perhaps it would force him to consider things he prefers not to think about. 'That's possible. It's only worth doing if you are truthful, and there may be things in my life about which I don't wish to be truthful.' I suspect that the first of these things is his sexuality. He once confessed that he had been in love with the same (married) person for 27 years, but wouldn't say if they were male or female (though he lost his virginity at 20, to a 60-year-old woman whose butterfly-wing spectacles got caught in his pubic hair).
The second of these is the 'problem', as he puts it, of Anthony Blunt, his tutor at the Courtauld. It was Sewell who spirited Blunt away from the eyes of the press in 1979 after his exposure as 'the Fourth Man' in the Burgess-Maclean spy scandal. 'I could hardly write my memoirs and leave out Blunt. People would expect my life with Blunt.' He has always denied that he and Blunt were lovers, but when he talks about him, the wasp, the 'other me', duly leaves the room. He does not, as I later convince myself, tell me that he 'adored' Blunt, but I know from where this conviction came. 'No, I do not want to revisit Blunt,' he says again, and his whole being softens and his eyes momentarily fill with tears.
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