Brian Sewell, one of Britain’s most famous art critics, has died at the age of 84 after being diagnosed with cancer last year. Sewell turned down a place at Oxford to study art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1950s, where he was taught by Anthony Blunt. He subsequently worked at Christie’s, and as an art dealer, before ultimately turning to criticism. He joined the Evening Standard in 1984, and stayed for over 30 years, establishing himself as an uncompromising and outspoken art-world commentator, and a fierce critic of much contemporary art, from the Bridget Riley to Bansky. More recently, he also emerged as a media personality, presenting television programmes for Channel 4, Channel 5, and the BBC.
As a critic, Sewell was consistently contrarian, loudly disparaging some of the most famous figures in contemporary art, along with institutions, such as the Turner Prize, that supported them. His more controversial pronouncements against women artists, regional museums and public taste ensured that he was no stranger to criticism himself: in one incident in 1994, a group of leading artists, gallerists and scholars wrote a letter of complaint to the Evening Standard accusing him of misogynistic, homophobic and hypocritical writing, which was followed by a counter-letter in his support. But his willingness to call out what he saw as complacency within the contemporary art elite, his exacting knowledge of art history, and his witty approach to writing and speaking about art, marked him out, winning him a wide audience in an age obsessed with cultural criticism’s supposed decline. Despite – or indeed because of – his divisive position within the art world, Sewell won several awards throughout his career, including Critic of the Year (1988), Arts Journalist of the Year (1994), the Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism (1995) and the Foreign Press Award (2000).
Sewell found most of his fellow critics ‘a feeble, compliant, ignorant lot’ – but plenty of them have taken to social media today to pay tribute to a writer whose ability and willingness to spark public debate about art was largely unmatched.
“To own a Damien Hirst is to tell the world your Rolls Royce is pink”: snobby, duchessy and a total delight – Brian Sewell was the business
— Hadley Freeman (@HadleyFreeman) September 19, 2015
“Nothing matters more than intellectual probityand on that altar the critic must sacrifice even his closest friends.” http://t.co/MW6tHVxKHG
— Tim Stanley (@timothy_stanley) September 19, 2015
Brian Sewell was a wonderfully complicated, frustrating, talented thinker. Our Horrible Histories spoof was born from pure admiration — Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) September 19, 2015
Sad news about Brian Sewell. Great critic, proper character, nicer chap than he sometimes liked to pretend. And what a voice #RIP
— Michael Hogan (@michaelhogan) September 19, 2015