Past Events

Whither the Establishment? Brian Sewell and the history of 1990s British art

Research Lunch – Chloë Julius

  • 20 October 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:30 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In 1994, thirty-five artists, art historians and critics wrote to the Evening Standard demanding the immediate removal of Brian Sewell as that newspaper's art critic. The authors of this letter positioned themselves within a self-declared “art world”. Although Sewell was not fired, the letter confirmed his place on the wrong side of this art world, which – in the 1990s – was fast replacing the establishment to which Sewell had previously belonged. A graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, in his professional life Sewell assumed the role of an arbiter of taste, first at Christie’s Auction House as a dealer and later as an art critic. However, despite remaining the most well-read art critic throughout the 1990s (and beyond), Sewell’s repeated and insistent warnings against contemporary tendencies in British art cast him to its fringes. As in politics New Labour rose to power after eighteen years of Conservative government, so in art the work of the insurgent Young British Artists found its way into major collections and biennials; by the end of the decade, the previously peripheral site of Bankside had been established as a new centre for art. The establishment was changing, and Sewell found himself occupying a vexed position amid that change.

This working paper will use Sewell’s unique position at the intersection of these shifting power dynamics to ask where, when and how the new art establishment emerged in 1990s Britain. Specifically taking up the changes that took place within art criticism, art history and museums, this talk will offer Sewell’s antagonism toward those changes as the negative image of the decade’s transformations. Through this negative image, a new, sharper intellectual history of 1990s Britain will be plotted, one that is constitutive of both its critics and its champions.

Image caption: Passport pages showing Sewell's personal information, dated 1963-1973, BS/1/1/7, Brian Sewell Archive, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London

About the speaker

  • Chloë Julius is based at the University of Nottingham where, from September, she will be taking up the role of Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. Chloë’s research principally focuses on the historiography of twentieth-century art history in Britain and the United States, and has been published in Art History, Oxford Art Journal and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Chloë is also co-editor of Cases of Citations: On Literature and Art, a forthcoming book published by Manchester University Press. From 2022–2023 Chloë was the Archives and Library Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre.