The sexual life of very posh Art critic Brian Sewell

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The sexual life of very posh Art critic Brian Sewell

Post  eddie on Sun Nov 27, 2011 11:32 pm

Brian Sewell: 'You know you're queer at a very early age'

The art critic talks about his autobiography, modern artists and an incident in Salvador Dalí's garden

Elizabeth Day
The Observer, Sunday 27 November 2011

English art critic, Brian Sewell photographed at his house in London. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

You have just written your memoir, Outsider, at the age of 80. What took you so long?

Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite
by Brian Sewell

I thought at 60 it would have been impertinent. When 80 got into view, I thought: now is the time for it. It came fairly quickly. There's an awful lot there, although really it's only half an autobiography – it goes up to 1967 when I was 36.

Do you feel like an outsider?

Yes I do. The subtitle – Always Almost: Never Quite – really sums it up, but it's too long to go on the spine of a book. And every bit of my life, whether it's in the first half or the second, is precisely that: there is promise of something that I never quite achieve.

You were taught by the double agent Anthony Blunt at the Courtauld and later became his close friend but he isn't mentioned.

It's my biography. If I want to write a book about Anthony, I will write a book about Anthony but, you know, this is about me.

As art critic for the London Evening Standard, you're famed for your acerbic views. What is the worst piece of art you've ever seen?

Well, there's so much of it. It's when the definition of art runs out and there is still stuff being produced. When Tracey Emin makes a neon sign, that's not the "worst art", it just isn't art. When Anish Kapoor puts some wonky Meccano structure up at the expense of £16m for the Olympics, that's a joke, that isn't art.

When you write a scathing review, are you aware you might be hurting someone's feelings and do you mind?

I am and I don't. Hurting their feelings may be the only way in which they can be made to realise how preposterous they are and so I think that Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry and Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor and whoever else, um, really deserve every cruelty because it's the only way. They are so accustomed to being told how wonderful they are and somehow it's impossible to get through the complacency that is engendered by that.

Can people hurt your feelings?



Oh, by mistaking what I do for some sort of pretence, some sort of show… I'm often accused by people who should know better of trying to be academically clever. To that the answer is that I think I am academically clever and I'm not trying. But if I see something which is intellectually uncomfortable of course I pick on it.

You are famed for your exquisite diction. Are you fed up with people saying you're posher than the Queen?

Yes, I think it's rather silly. It's the way I speak, it's the way I've always spoken, it's the way my mother spoke. It would have been totally unremarkable in the 1930s. It was until quite recently and then suddenly speaking as I do became unfashionable and the subject of mockery. What do they expect me to do – change?

Do you get recognised on public transport?

Yes. I got on a bus to get from Green Park to the Royal Academy, which is only one stop. Someone turned round and said: "What are you doing on a bus?" and it was so accusatory I felt quite guilty. Fortunately, I had to get off at once, so – fine.

Your book deals with your time in national service. Did you enjoy it?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were beastly episodes, but it was a very useful experience in terms of dealing with other people.

There's an awful lot of sex in your memoir…

It's disastrously frank. I'm toying with the idea of leaving the country. I have a clique of old ladies [laughs] and I hope to God that they don't read the book because I'm sure that they will all run away, horrified. But it did seem to me that if I was going to write the damn book, I should be absolutely, scrupulously honest. There are still hundreds and hundreds of young homosexuals saying: "I can't tell my mother." And I thought that talking about my own homosexuality, how it began and how it developed, might be useful to somebody.

When did you know you were gay?

It's been there all the time; you know you're queer at a very early age. I think I knew it when I was six. There was just a sort of awareness growing quite swiftly into a conviction.

Is it true Salvador Dalí once asked you to masturbate for him while he took photographs?

Yes it's absolutely true [laughs]. Well, you do things because you can. He took me into the garden at the house at Cadaqués. He said: "I want to show you my Christ [sculpture]." And his Christ is an extraordinary thing: 60 or 70ft long and it's made of bricks and broken rubble and motorcar tyres. It's really quite clever. Um, and you step over it and walk about in it and then he just said: "I want to take a photograph. Lie down." Which I did in all my clothes and he said: "It might be better if you took your clothes off." And from there… And you know, I'm convinced I wasn't the first. I certainly wasn't the last and there was no film in the camera but it seemed grudging to refuse.

That's quite an anecdote.

Yes but there are probably men of my age now all over Germany, Switzerland, Spain, America, Canada and God knows where all telling the same story. Wankers for Dalí.

In the past, you've stated that there are no great female artists. Do you honestly believe that?

Well, how many can you think of? None of them is the originator of anything. My argument about Frida Kahlo is that, had she been Fred Kahlo, she'd have been forgotten.

Are there great women in other fields?

Where is the female Mozart? Where's Mrs Shakespeare?

Perhaps she's raising William Shakespeare to be brilliant…

That may be the answer. But when you look at ministers – that poor, floundering home secretary! She is the necessary woman in the cabinet to keep the feminists quiet. She isn't any good.

I'm guessing you don't like Jane Austen then?

I don't. I think she's a terrible bore, writing about people I'm not remotely interested in. No, PD James I'll give you.

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Re: The sexual life of very posh Art critic Brian Sewell

Post  eddie on Sun Nov 27, 2011 11:43 pm

The sex life of Brian Sewell: Story of my 1000 lovers

Brian Sewell

London Evening Standard, 17 Nov 2011

Sex began for Brian Sewell in 1959. In this exclusive extract from his autobiography, the Evening Standard's art critic reveals how he abandoned religion and discovered the pleasures of the flesh on London's streets at the age of 28....

There was in 1959 a change in my life - a change essential for my sanity. Deliberate observation of my religious duties had continued since my graduation but it was as a dry discipline, scarcely spiritual and much troubled by my sexuality. One Sunday morning in the spring, however, on my way to Mass at the Carmelites in Church Street, a little early, I walked on and into Kensington Gardens by the passage through York Place, and there I challenged God. A sudden inspiration, there is no other word for it - I challenged him to give me a sign of some sort. In a one-sided conversation I told him that he had had my physical chastity (insofar as anyone else was involved) since I joined the army more than seven years before, that I had willingly given it in the expectation of becoming a priest, though I had found chastity of the imagination impossible to achieve, and that this, now more turbulent than ever, was separating me from the Church.

I sat on a bench on the Broad Walk and let pass the hour of Mass. I wandered through the arched espaliered trees of the sunken garden, familiar from my earliest childhood, recalling lines from Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven, a favourite poem as a boy, and compared his conviction that he could not escape the hound with mine that the Dog of God had lost my scent. I returned to Phillimore Place with no further thought of Mass and have not since been a communicant.

Oddly disappointed not to have had a Pauline revelation, not even the staying hand of an angel vouchsafed Abraham, there was no obvious step to take. Homosexual activity of any kind was illegal and "importuning male persons", a common offence much reported in newspapers, meant immediate social disgrace and, quite probably, loss of employment. I knew that there were pubs and drinking clubs with queer reputations, but not their names and whereabouts; and I also knew that there were the streets. That night I walked the length of Church Street idly inspecting the windows of antique shops. Exactly as I thought I might, with an exchange of glances I caught a man and took him home. Older by some years he was quickly efficient, but I doubt if it was much fun for him; for me the business was less erotic than mechanical and left me profoundly disappointed, asking myself if this could really be the alternative to chastity.

By chance, a few days later, on the New Books shelf of the local library I found a novel by James Courage, A Way of Love. I can recall nothing of the plot, only that it was for its time a liberating tale suggesting that homosexuality could indeed be more than just the sexual acts. I wrote to him. He asked me to tea on Saturday, and to this mild man, elderly, precise, I said enough to make him think I wanted him to pimp for me - to which his response was "Well, your golden years have passed you by."

He did, however, introduce me to a pretty youth whose golden years had not, but undressed, from his belly-button almost to his knees, he was coal black, for the climax of his recent induction ceremony as an apprentice printer had been the dunking of his buttocks in a vat of ink. After all my years of abstinence, to have a willing boy in my hands should have been an explosive release, but I found the aesthetic disruption sexually unmanageable. Years later much the same thing happened when undressing a butch little toughie, only to find him clad in a woman's scarlet underclothes.

Courage then introduced me to an Australian boy of my own age with whom I had some shared intellectual interests, but for whom my pent-up affection was far too demanding - unlike me, he was not wholly queer and eventually married and had children; we perfectly illustrated lines (slightly paraphrased) from Cavafy (Rae Dalven's translation was reissued yet again in 1959) - "the consummation was lacking that must be intensely desired by both - we were not both equally given to deviant sensual pleasure. I alone it had utterly mastered". I owe him something for his tolerance and much more for what he did for me beyond his bed, for he lived in Hampstead and his introducing me to his friends there led directly to lifelong friendship with the photographer John Vere Brown and, through the intersection of queer circles, to something approaching friendship with Keith Vaughan, the painter.

The most important instrument of my metamorphosis from celibate to whore was Eric Bewsey. Eric, a civil servant two or three years my senior, was wholly at ease with his sexuality and neither blazoned nor concealed it. Devoutly sensual, sex was for him as necessary as food and drink and he was as expert in finding casual partners as he was in preparing delicious simple suppers. I was one of his mistakes. After a few minutes on his bed he said "You've got the flattest belly in the business, but you're hopeless." He then undertook my sexual education: he would give me, he said, precisely three months to learn everything he could teach me of sex between men, every trick, every practice (though some of the more arcane, now popular, had not then been devised), disrupting every conventional notion of what is passive and what active, separating pleasure from love, distinguishing the satisfaction of sexual desire from emotion. Whatever I might think of these things I must learn that they are done and might one day be expected of me - that indeed, I too might expect them. This course of instruction was a roller-coaster of nights on which I reached from ecstasy to disgust, that taught me a great deal about my body and, by extension, the bodies of those with whom I might find myself; and I learned that sex ranges from tenderness to violence, from the short and sharp to the night long, from the security of the bedroom to the thrilling risky business of doing it while standing up in a canoe, and that the opportunist must make his opportunities.

Eric was abashed by nothing; his preference was for the long, slow and tender at home with the body beautiful, but if a uniformed policeman in a dark alley was available, then this was a dish most fiercely spiced. Three months to the day the teaching ended and never again did I share a bed with Eric, but our friendship lasted until he fell in love - promiscuity is no bar to that - and he dropped us all to depart with his lover to New Zealand. His London friends were largely literary and, as is the way of these things, I subsequently slept on many a bed of letters before moving on to freedom.

Letters intersected with the arts and parties given by both offered opportunities to intersect with the men of pursuits and interests who were their friends and lovers, current and discarded, cutting across all barriers of class - indeed, the barriers were for some the erotic stimulus for sexual relationships. Three young men living in the rambling basement of Christabel Aberconway's house in North Audley Street held parties almost every Saturday of which she must have known, though perhaps, as a celebrated hostess between the wars and the mistress of Samuel Courtauld, she was amused to see how little had changed in this peripheral department of the demi-monde. Jack Harriman, one of Eric's friends, troubled about his sexuality and desperate to cast aside his doubts, was another regular party-giver in a mews cottage near Portman Square, miserably surrendering to alcohol when all his guests paired with each other and abandoned him. To these gatherings we were expected to take a bottle of wine for immediate consumption and a friend to exchange for the night. Much the same entry fee was charged at not quite so frequent orgies in Emperor's Gate and Little Venice. At these the sexual activity was immediate, common, multiple and public, and beginning at once, might last till morning; at one of them, in Little Venice, there was a posse of London Transport staff and for weeks after I had assignations with a bus driver on the 46 route that meant my waiting at a particular bus stop for him to whisk me off to the terminus in Wembley; at another there was a policeman based in Hyde Park who, infatuated, entertained me throughout the summer with theatre tickets given gratis to his station - never opera, always musicals or Saturday Night at the Palladium - until, with relief, I broke the contact.

In all this there was always considerable risk and yet not once was there a betrayal of which I am aware - though betrayals there must have been, for these circles reached across London and beyond (as any casual visitor to the old Turkish baths of Greenwich and Bermondsey must have known). There were too the contacts made in the open, effected with nothing more than a glance, a turn of the head and a pause in the stride - all so easy once one had the knack. The easiest place for this was the street, any street a happy hunting-ground, but it worked in a bus queue too, scanning the oncoming walkers, and in the Underground or walking the aisle to descend from the top deck of a bus. At weekends museums and galleries were the encountering points, none better, even on a fine Sunday afternoon, than the free-standing glass cases of the V&A. One exhibition there, of Italian Bronze Statuettes in 1961, produced a particularly rich crop of casual lovers, and I realise now that the exhibition catalogues that crowd my bookshelves are as much reminders of such episodes as records useful for the jobbing art historian. With so much sex so easily available, I wonder if Eric Bewsey was the God-given sign for which I asked.

In 1959 I launched into a life of such promiscuity as might suggest that I was making up for the golden years that had passed me by, for the opportunities lost in the arid years of denial, but it was sheer intoxication with the sudden ease of it and the abandonment of guilt. It was not unusual to pick up a companion on my way home - Cléo de Cinq à Sept, so to speak - to have had a fuck one way or the other and be home having a bath by seven, then to go and see my current lover (duration three days to three weeks, perhaps), and on the way home to pick up someone else with whom either to have a quickie before bed or take home for the night - which usually meant another perfunctory fuck first thing in the morning. Throw in a few Jack Rabbit weekends and all this might amount to a thousand fucks a year and easily a thousand sexual partners in a quinquennium.

Outsider. Always Almost: Never Quite by Brian Sewell is published by Quartet Books (£25) on
November 24.

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