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Titian's Assumption of the Virgin


Just good friends, doing what good friends do
Brian Sewell Writer
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[Q] Were you in love with Jill?

No. I think if you can imagine a love in which there is no sexual element at all, then the answer is yes, but how can you… how can you be in love without sex? But I wasn’t interested in her sexually. That would have been a disaster, an absolute disaster. But she was a really good companion. Made that trip work for me. I think if Jill had not been there, our power, our resolve, our determination would have been very much reduced. Because I think there’s no doubt that the combination of Jill and me… oh God, we may have been insufferable, for all I know. But I think the others got out of it what they got possibly because we were there, and that they wouldn’t have got it if we hadn’t been there. We were energetic and purposeful and determined to a really difficult degree for other people to keep up.

On the other hand, you see, we… it suddenly… I remember, we were in Florence on Good Friday and everything closes. And we hadn’t exactly forgotten that it was Good Friday, but I think we were sort of suddenly taken by surprise that there was really nothing to do and nowhere to go. And so we bundled a sort of picnic together somehow and got in the car, drove out of Florence to somewhere that… we didn’t know where we were going, we were just going to find somewhere nice to spend the day, and we found a deserted farm and there was nobody there, and we parked the car and spent the day. And we read to each other. We’d all taken… we’d all agreed that we would take six books each, which meant that there was 36 books in the car, and so we would never run out of reading matter, because we were going to be away for about 36 days. And I’d taken Boccaccio... two volumes of Boccaccio stories and… oh, I’ve forgotten what else, but I remember particularly Boccaccio, because we sat down in this idyllic circumstance and nibbled and drank wine and nibbled some more, and read another Boccaccio story and so on, and had just an absolutely delectable day of reading stories and picnicking.

And then on the way back into Florence, we found a public swimming bath. And of course, none of us had anything, but that didn’t matter with your five lire or whatever it cost to get in, they actually gave you a bathing slip and a bathing cap. There didn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between them. And so we all went swimming afterwards. And that… I said, gosh, yes, well, you know, a great day.

So it wasn’t… I don’t think it was ever disagreeable. I can’t… I can only remember having one cross moment, which was with our only smoker, who was a boy called John Acton, and we had put quite a lot of luggage on the roof, on a roof rack, and it was the day we were leaving Florence, and therefore it had to be proper packing, and John was down on the pavement, and I was running up and down stairs with cases and bags and whatnot, because the packing… the packing was one of those things that had to be absolutely precise, or there was no room inside the car, because we had to have things on the floor and so on. And John was there with a cigarette in one hand and a suitcase in the other, sort of idly trying to lift the suitcase up on… all the way up on to the roof rack with one arm, and repeating this sort of damned silly gesture, banging the suitcase against the side of the car. And I said, 'For God’s sake, John, put that bloody cigarette down'. So… but I think that was the only cross moment. It’s certainly the only one I can remember.

[Q] It must have been quite some car, if there were six of you.

It was a Vauxhall Velox, Phase II.

[Q] Not a lot of room for six people, is it? Must have been three in the front, three in the back. Yes, three in the front. It had bench seating in the front.

Yes, it had a bench seat and a steering column gear change.

[Q]  Ah, yes. Yes. Who did most of the driving?

We were smaller in those days, I think. Well, that actually was quite good, because there were only… only three of us could drive. Jill could drive, I could, and there was an American boy called Alton Jenkins, who had done the equivalent of national service in America and had been in the navy and so on, and who was really sort of very calm and adult and beautiful. And so the three of us, sort of, we managed. I think if there had been six people wanting to drive, it would have been a bit fractious.

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: Florence, Good Friday, Vauxhall Velox, swimming, picnic, Jill Spencer Rigden, Jill Spencer Allibone, Giovanni Boccaccio, Alton Jenkins, John Acton

Duration: 7 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013