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How to be an art critic: 'It's a repeat experience'


Postponing my studies to do National Service
Brian Sewell Writer
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And it… I also wanted to go on painting, and I didn’t want to stop playing the violin. I had a violin tutor who I think was wickedly dishonest. He... a great violinist, but I think that he thought that I was an easy pupil to deal with, which was certainly true. But what he should have told me was, you’re perfectly adequate. If you go on, you might, with luck, be a first violinist, more probably a second. And you will spend your life in an orchestra. Is that what you want to do? Looking back on my abilities then, I think even that was probably pushing it. I was very good, but I wasn’t good enough. He should have told me.

So there was I, a Courtauld student, trying to paint, trying to put in at least four hours a day on my fiddle, not spending enough time dealing with the real matter in hand, and at the end of two years… I wasted those two years. At the end of two years, I was in such confusion that I decided I’d just go and do my national service. I don’t know whether I want to paint, look at paintings, or play this bloody violin. If I drop out for two years… the term didn’t then exist, one didn’t drop out. But there was this heaven-sent opportunity to go away for two years, and somehow or other, things would resolve themselves. As indeed they did. There was, over that period of two years, a growing determination to go back to The Courtauld and do it properly. Being a painter no longer had any overwhelming appeal. Being a violinist didn’t either, and looking at pictures did.

And so I wrote again to Charles Claire [sic], while I was still in the army, and said, is this going to be possible? And I was taken back. And, you know, the second time around, I was a totally different student. I’d had two years in the army, which had, again, knocked a lot of corners off, rather different corners. And it had given me an immense amount of reading time. And every time I’d had a chance to come up to London on 24 hours or 36 hours leave, it was straight to the National Gallery or an exhibition or whatever. And when I went back to The Courtauld in 1954, it was with a great deal more knowledge and a great deal more determination. And I think I was, that time, I was a good student. It was worth teaching me.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Courtauld Institute of Art, National Gallery

Duration: 3 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: 2008

Date story went live: 28 June 2012