There’s just time to see the collection of the late Brian Sewell, coming up for auction at Christie’s saleroom in London on 27th September. It will be on view from 24h September.
Christie’s, once Sewell’s employers, are making quite a big deal out of the event, with Noel Annesley, Christie’s current chairman, gushing that Sewell’s “passion for art is reflected in his wide-ranging and erudite collection.” Well, he would have to say that, wouldn’t he?
Other commentators have been less kind. John Jones, resident art critic at The Guardian, friend of the trendier sorts of Conceptual Art, had this to say about what is a rather motley gathering of paintings and drawings ranging in date from the mid 16th century until (almost but not quite) the present:
“Sewell’s liking for mediocre early 20th-century British artists troubles me [Jones remarks]. Grant and Fry and Minton are minor figures when you compare them, as one must, with their continental contemporaries, from Picasso and Matisse to Max Ernst and Man Ray. Of course, the great European modernists are absurdly expensive now – and I am not saying he should have collected them. On the contrary. It would have been so much more tasteful for Sewell to stick with the Renaissance and baroque art he rightly adored. Instead, it turns out he liked the trendy British artists of his youth while pouring vitriol on the trendy British artists of mine.”
There are in fact a small number of pretty good Old Master paintings, notably three canvases by the leading Dutch Caravaggist Mathias Stomer. The grandest of these, an allegorical genre scene entitled Blowing Hot, Blowing Cold, now estimated to bring between £400,000 and £600,000, was purchased by Sewell in 1962 for £600. Ah, good things were much cheaper then! At about the same time I bought a complete Ancient Greek grave stela dating from the 4th century b.c. for just about the same sum. I got rid of it a few years later because I’d come to think it was provincial and boring. It turned up at auction in New York about three years ago, having spent a long part of the interim period on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, and made very nearly $1 million.
The Sewell collection alas contains, as John Jones gets close to saying, a great deal of rubbish, both old and new, with an emphasis on the limpest sort of Bloomsbury British. It’s telling, for example, that while Sewell did own a small painting by David Hockney, a Suffolk landscape painted when the artist was 20, before he began his studies at the Royal College of Art, that this work would be utterly unrecognisable as Hockney’s if it didn’t have both a signature and an unbeatable provenance. It looks like the drearier sort of fairly competent, totally conservative semi-amateur painting that might just about scrape into an R.A. Summer exhibition today.
If one looks at collections made by other leading critics and panjandrums, one does understand the objections that might be raised concerning them. Clement Greenberg’s collection, now at the Portland Art Museum, is full of big American names – Diebenkorn, Frankenthaler, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Olitski, Pollock. Greenberg certainly didn’t buy their work. They were gifts-made-in-gratitude, and there’s some question about whether he should have accepted them or not.
David Sylvester, whose collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s in February 2002, had a large and rich accumulation of objects, many of them Ancient Egyptian and Classical sculptures. There was also a series of drawings by Willem de Kooning, and work by Bonnard, Picasso, Auerbach and Joan Miro. Interestingly, nothing by Francis Bacon, with whom Sylvester’s posthumous reputation is now so closely intertwined.
Sewell’s collection raises a totally different set of objections. It demonstrates just how out of touch he was with the art of his time. In his rather belated career as a critic, after his time working at Christie’s – who didn’t behave that well to him during his time there, however, smarmy they are being now – he certainly made a great deal of noise, and there were plenty of admiring cries from middle-aged, middle-class readers of the Evening Standard who didn’t like the way things were going in art: “Ooh, that Brian Sewell! Tells it like it is! Isn’t he an ONE!” But now the dust has settled (and it has indeed settled rather rapidly), one can see that he had no appreciable influence on the course of events. A critic’s collection is inevitably a form of emblematic confession. For better or worse, one carries away a very different impression from the accumulations made by Clement Greenberg and David Sylvester, morally questionable as these may perhaps have been. One can see why these men did indeed have the impact on the art of their time.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo: Courtesy Christies