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Art critic Brian Sewell has died aged 84

19 September 2015

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.

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One comment

  1. Michael Daley Sep 28 2015 at 11:58 am

    A very nice piece on Sewell. But one detail:

    ‘which was followed by a counter-letter in his support’

    was wrong – a whole slew of letters were sent in support (I know because I wrote one of the first, I think the very first was by a Tory education minister, perhaps John Patten). Pity it was so long and so pre-computer-age ago. I’m sure they’d have made interesting reading today. The letter against him was one of the most counter-productive ever, in that it showed him not be a barking anachronism but a man with his finger on the pulse.

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