Chloe Julius, Archives and Library Fellow on New Film Released on Brian Sewell Archive

  • 10 November 2022

“We all feel we knew him, but we never felt we knew under the skin of Brian.”

So begins this short film about the Brian Sewell Archive, with an assessment from his former colleague, Doug Wills. This is not, however, a strictly professional assessment. The two-sided nature of Wills’ “feeling” about Sewell was also shared by those who read Sewell’s columns, bought his books and watched his television programmes from the 1980s onward. On page and on screen, Sewell was audaciously and unrepentantly honest; an honesty that caused many to suppose that Sewell the man might have been quite different from Sewell the critic, broadcaster and art historian.

Best known for his art criticism, it is in the contested arena of Sewell’s writings on art that a distinction between his public and private persona has been most frequently asserted. Interestingly, this assertion has been made by fans and critics alike. While defenders of Sewell have claimed that the sting of his art criticism was merely part of a performance, his critics have alleged that his writing was used to disguise prejudices that had little to do with art. Detectable on both sides of this equation is a certain refusal to take Sewell’s writing seriously. Yet – as Wills points out – in Sewell’s case, writing was never part of an act: “He had a sincerity of himself and he wouldn’t deviate from it”.

The temptation posed by the Brian Sewell Archive is that the real Sewell can be uncovered, the one hidden under the pomp and acid of his public persona. The truth, however, is that that Sewell is hidden in plain sight. There is a sole thread that runs throughout Sewell’s wide-ranging intellectual output: the belief in art’s unique role in modern society. Because Sewell believed that role to be at risk, he took on an avowedly conservative position, one that would defend painting from the threat of conceptual art, and arts institutions from the twinned threats of funding cuts and “innovation for innovation’s sake”.[1] Yet while Sewell’s conservatism was always articulated with one eye on the future, this was obscured because it was also articulated with contempt for the present. The mass of Sewell’s correspondence with contemporary artists held within his archive reminds us that he never reneged on that future, but this commitment was always there in the writing.

In the Brian Sewell Archive, all the correspondence, diaries and notes lead us back to his writing: this is where the real Sewell lies. Such unabashed and candid writing poses certain risks, of which Sewell was well aware. In 2012, Sewell lamented the loss of a debate with his critics, writing that “their weapon now is the insidious ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he’ response that relieves them of the responsibility to question what they do and defend their case”.[2] After the 1990s, Sewell’s knowability transformed into predictability. Although he continued to write till his death in 2015, he was primarily read through the prism of a caricature both he and his critics had helped construct. Out of this predicament, the archive emerges. Not as a means by which a new Sewell can be discovered, but to help us reread the Sewell we thought we knew.

Brian Sewell Library and Archive Collections

[1] Brian Sewell, “The Minister for Culture”, Lunchtime Lecture at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 25 November 1997. (Brian Sewell Archive, BS/6/2/4)

[2] Sewell, “Introduction”, in “Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art” from the Evening Standard (Quartet, London: 2012).