Working as a lowly press officer at Sotheby’s Bond Street salerooms during the early 1990s brought me into contact with any number of interesting people, some more ‘interesting’ than others – but perhaps, the most truly interesting of all was the legendary art critic Brian Sewell.
Anyone remotely connected with the global art scene of the time knew him for the often acerbic, usually outspoken, unfailingly controversial but always eminent columns he wrote for the London Evening Standard after taking over the gig in 1984.
Famed for the almost comically exaggerated ‘received pronunciation’ with which he spoke, Sewell was perceived as an arrogant snob by many – but I saw only a man of uncommon intelligence and knowledge who combined a wicked sense of humour with a resolute belief in speaking his mind.
As a result, everyone in the art world knew that there was no point whatsoever in inviting him to a ‘view’ at which other people would be in attendance. For him, only a ‘private view’ was acceptable – i.e. ‘private’ in the sense that no one else would be there.
And it was just such an occasion that first brought me into contact with him. Stepping through a door behind the ‘works of art counter’ (as Sotheby’s St George Street reception desk was called) my eyes alighted on a shortish, strangely powerful-looking man with white hair and kindly, mischievous eyes. He was wearing a loosely-tied cravat and light, summer clothes.
“I’ve come to see some Old Master Drawings. Is it you?” he asked without introduction.
“No, I’m from the press office,”
“That’s a shame…” replied my unashamedly flirtatious interlocutor, who later said of being gay “I never came out – but I have slowly emerged.”
Now is probably the time to mention that I am not gay, never have been and probably never will be. But that didn’t prevent Sewell and I striking up a sort of friendship based around a mutual interest which, some might be surprised to learn, was old motor cars. He adored them and probably knew as much about the history of the major marques as he knew about the history of art (which was rather a great deal).
At the time, Sotheby’s had an in-house department specialising in classic motors, and Sewell would often telephone me to ask about one lot or another that he had spotted in the latest catalogue and was either contemplating buying or writing about for the occasional – and of course unconventional – motoring page he wrote for the Standard’s large format ‘ES’ magazine.
I can almost hear him now, correcting me in his OTT ‘RP’ for stating that the engine of
a pre-war Riley Lynx that he rather fancied had twin camshafts.
“I think you mean twin high camshafts – that’s a rather different matter,” he said. “Percy Riley developed the system in 1926. Twin, gear-driven camshafts mounted high in the block, operating the valves via short pushrods. It gave the advantage of a twin cam engine without the same complexity.”
People who thought he was simply an out-spoken old queen who liked to upset the art world establishment might have found such in-depth mechanical knowledge surprising. But Sewell was always full of surprises.
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