Books: Fogeyish but humane

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: January 25, 2017 Last modified: January 25, 2017

The Orwell Essays
by Bryan Sewell
Quartet £12

Brian Sewell first came to public notice as the golden-vowelled spokesman for his friend, and fellow art historian, Anthony Blunt when the latter was unmasked as a Soviet spy.

After Blunt’s death Sewell carved a niche for himself as a ‘populist’ art critic for the Evening Standard, his traditionalist tastes and dislike of the avant garde – particularly  ‘YBAs’ like Hirst and Emin – providing him with a following among art-spurning commuters somewhat at odds with his defiant elitism. Which is not to say that he was just an art-world toff: he could be an entertaining writer (assuming he was not just a pawn of the ES subs desk) and often had interesting and insightful things to say about the art he liked.

Eventually ES editor Max Hastings (a fellow toff) gave him a general comment column to write, and here are some of the efforts that eventually won him the Orwell Prize.

This selection offers a pretty comprehensive portrait of the author, who died in 2012: elegant, idiosyncratic, often predictable, sometimes surprising, generally humane, in a privileged, self-admittedly old-fogeyish sort of way.

Sewell’s subjects range from child labour to addiction, fish heads to Zionism, Turkey in the EU (“the EU, with 15 members, is already absurdly extended,” he writes in 1998) to the return of the Elgin marbles (it would be “a cultural disaster”).

I’m not sure an Orwell Prize was entirely deserved, but I’d rather read Sewell than Aaronovitch any day of the week.

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune