Sunday, 4 March 2012


The self-penned back-flap blurb About the Author begins by describing Sewell’s long stint as Evening Standard art critic [where he has transformed from appalling old fogey to brilliant national treasure] as ‘the sad end of a once promising career, the Orwell, Hawthornden and other prizes scant consolation to a man who once enjoyed life as a scholar gypsy’ and  ends ‘He is as old as Methuselah and frail as the stricken Job’. 
It is the tone and vocabulary that give Sewell’s writing its characteristic astringency – as exigent towards himself as others, with pitiless judgement tempered by wit, boasting and confessed folly.  His biography has its historically interesting elements, as the son of a musical and arty free spirit in the 1920s and an unknown father, growing up gay through grammar school and post-war national service, student days at the Courtauld in its legendary Anthony Blunt days, etc. The putative father was later revealed as composer Philip Heseltine aka Peter Warlock, but the evidence is very slight and the photographs most unconvincing, so one wonders if Sewell’s mother actually knew.  
Many of the anecdotes are very funny, but really it’s the way he tells them.  Although the insouciant, bitchy, self-deprecating style continues, I rather lost interest during Sewell’s years at Christies, where colleagues were either ignorant or venal or negligent or corrupt, and often all together.  But the first 200 pages are seriously entertaining. And the book's sub-title discloses the otherwise camouflaged regret of his life: for all his wide and penetrating knowledge of western art, Sewell began and abandoned the catalogue of a drawings collection in Windsor Castle, which would have led towards an academic career (his failure also to mention his degree makes one suspect he did not qualify for postgraduate study, though in those days standards were lax) and thus has remained an acute critic, but never the art historian he might have been.

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