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The best way to view works of art


Intellectual stimulation during my student days
Brian Sewell Writer
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Being a Courtauld student is a full time job, or was. I don’t think it is any longer. Times change. And trying to continue with my violin meant that there really was no spare time for anything. It was one of the reasons why it was… Courtauld was not a good place to be, if you’re going to spend four hours a day practicing, because that four hours a day is much better spent gallivanting off to Dulwich or, you know, fairly local museum of paintings to see what is there. Because what you really need to do is add to your computer, as it were. You’re building up images, you’re learning more and more about painting all the time. More and more is coming into your head that you need to retain. And if you don’t actually go out and gather that stuff, if you don’t get on a train and go to Birmingham to see what’s there, if you don’t save up your pennies and take a weekend in Amsterdam to go and look at the Rijksmuseum or Paris at the Louvre and so on, you are impoverishing the whole of your education as an art historian, because you’re working entirely from books and photographs, which is not the same as looking at pictures.

So from that point of view, it was difficult, and I wasn’t getting enough intellectual nourishment from travelling and looking at museums and galleries elsewhere. As for any other enjoyment, well, there were occasional evenings at the opera, and my friendship with Alan Harverson, the organist, was still, sort of, very important for me, because he would occasionally whisk me off to listen to a recital or actually… he had a whole circle of organist friends, and anyone who was coming from France or Germany or America who was an organist, to give a recital, would connect with Alan. And Alan… I was always tagging along. And so I met people like Fernando Germani from St Peter's and Jeanne Demessieux from Notre Dame in Paris, and Virgil Fox from the cathedral in New York. And so on. So all these extraordinary people. And we’d go to… we went once, Jeanne Demessieux and Alan and I, we went off to Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral, and played the organ far into the night. And it was marvellous, because she actually defeated the organ by having so many stops out, and it was my job to pull out the stops, so I was, sort of, pulling and then rushing around the back, pulling them out on that side, and then the whole thing just went [deflating sound] and didn’t have enough wind to go on. So, you know, there were memorable experiences of that kind that I thoroughly enjoyed and I’m glad I had. But they were rather irrelevant.

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: Westminster Cathedral, Louvre, Rijksmuseum, Alan Harverson, Virgil Keel Fox, Fernando Germani, Jeanne Marie-Madeleine Demessieux

Duration: 3 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013