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Intellectual stimulation during my student days


Too young for The Courtauld
Brian Sewell Writer
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So off I went to The Courtauld in October, and it was, I think, a disastrous step, because my education had so far been that of a schoolboy being taught by masters. And at The Courtauld, you were a student, you weren’t a schoolboy. And the most distinguished people in the discipline were there to give you lectures and seminars and so on. But you had somehow to do the rest yourself. And although I was not entirely ignorant of Art History, the level at which I knew was so far below the level that was expected of any Courtauld student, that I drifted. And there were other things to deal with. I was still thinking of… that I might want to be a musician, I might want to play a violin to earn my living. And you can’t do that unless you practice, so four hours a day of practicing on the fiddle didn’t actually help my studies.

And I stuck it for two years, and then there came the opportunity to really face what I knew to be true, which was that I had no business to be there. If I got a degree, it would be a pretty poor one, and I ought to go away and do a lot of private study to build up my knowledge and my experience. And we then had national service, and so the logical thing to do was break. So I told Charles Claire [sic] what I was going to do, that I was going to stop, that I would like to come back in two or three years’ time and start again, or from scratch, and I'd go and get my national service out of the way and hope to be a bit more grown up when I came back the second time. Which is exactly what I did.

So I’d wasted two years, well at least I thought I had, but in the event, there was some kind of residue, a really useful residue, which served me quite well in my second attempt to be a Courtauld student. The point about The Courtauld was that it was then such an adult place, and most of the other students had done their national service, or had even been in the army, or had come from Oxford and Cambridge and were simply taking a second degree.

And so at the age of 18 to 19, I was mixing with young men who were 24, 25, 26, and more. And you are much better educated when you are older, if you see what I mean. Your ability to understand what you’re being taught is much better when you’re well into your 20s than when you are a boy. A good education is wasted on a boy, as indeed most things are.

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: The Courtauld Institute of Art, National Service

Duration: 3 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013