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I Once Met... Brian Sewell - Penny Phillips

Blog | By Penny Phillips | Oct 12, 2022

Penny Phillips remembers an awkward spelling mishap with Brian Sewell

It was always the voice. If you knew nothing else about him, as soon as you heard that voice – on the radio, on the telephone – you’d know it was the art critic Brian Sewell.

He seemed permanently to have at least one plum either in his mouth or at the back of his throat. But what he said made you listen, and think – and see. His analysis of art, both on the radio and on the page, was shrewd, incisive to the point of ruthlessness, funny – and compelling. You always wanted to hear, or to read, more. Thousands turned to his weekly Evening Standard column to savour Brian’s viciousness. Pull punches he did not.

I first met him in 1989, when I was an assistant editor at Bloomsbury Publishing. He was exactly twice my age. That autumn, I was copy-editing a book called A Life with Food, for which Brian had written most of the text. The book had been commissioned as a memoir by restaurateur Peter Langan – who had since died, having completed only one chapter. Peter had been an enthusiastic (if often drunk) art collector – so Brian, who was a friend of his, seemed like the man to finish the job.

And so he proved. He wrote brilliantly. He was one our best authors.

Brian was nothing if not pedantic – ‘particular’, he would have said. When my editing was done, he insisted on checking every last tweak to his immaculate (in his eyes) text. He arrived at 2 Soho Square and we spent a long afternoon cooped up in my office – not much bigger than a phone box.

His prose was, indeed, almost faultless. Almost. He scrutinised every mark I had made on the manuscript. We argued over the plural of hors d’oeuvre. (I won. In French, it doesn’t change.) We argued over the plural of ‘still life’. (He won – but I was right. It is NOT ‘still lives’!)

By teatime, he was looking weary. ‘All right, Brian,’ I said. ‘Not much more. But here, I’m afraid, is something you definitely have got wrong.’

‘Oew.’ He peered down at the page. ‘And what’s that?’

‘Well, it’s…’ I pointed at the line. ‘Here. It should be cunnilingus, not cunnilungus.’

I could hear my boss in the adjoining office suppressing a gulp.

Oew,’ said Brian. ‘Well…’ He pressed a hand to his temple. ‘Well. Yes.’ He pursed his lips. ‘I’ve not had much experience of that.’

A tiny shard of ice had been chipped away. I wouldn’t say we were suddenly friends, but after that meeting Brian seemed somehow more willing to listen to my editorial comments – or at least to tolerate them. And I saw a more human, more vulnerable side of this apparently hard-boiled wiseacre.

Delivering page proofs to his home one evening, I was moved when he appeared at the door with a tumble of dogs, all tenderness and affection. His aged mother lived upstairs, and Brian looked after her. His answerphone message ran: ‘I can’t come to the phone right now, because I’m doing something unspeakable with my mother.’

It was only a glimpse. He didn’t always like women. He told my boss, ‘The trouble with women is that they want to be thanked all the time.’ He was talking about his aged mother’s nurse – not about me – but still. In his eyes, I was even more dispensable than I knew myself to be.

Brian died in September 2015, aged 84. His Standard column was unique. I don’t read the Standard any more.