An acerbic critic, Sewell made no secret of his contempt for modern art and was renowned for barbs directed at the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. He called Emin “trivial” and Hirst “fucking dreadful”.
His waspish putdowns, love of fine drawing, knowledge of art history and his genteel diction made him one of the UK’s best-known critics. His witty turn of phrase led to regular television appearances, including two turns as a panellist on the BBC gameshow Have I Got News For You.
Sewell’s fastidious tastes in art were just as exacting when it came to the great masters. He once told the Observer that Raphael was suitable only if you needed “a really good Ordnance Survey” of a face, while the superior Titian could instead deliver something that would “speak to you”.
“He was fantastic,” said Darwent. “It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the tides of fashion but he didn’t just do it, he loved it. There was a side to Brian people didn’t see. He was characterised as someone who just said rude things about people but he had a hugely generous and inspiring side.”
He was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s boys’ school in Hampstead and turned down a place at Oxford University to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. His tutor at the Courtauld was Anthony Blunt, the art expert and Soviet spy, and the two went on to become friends.
He worked for Christie’s auction house after graduating and joined the Evening Standard in 1984, writing for the paper until June 2015.
He defended himself from accusations that his writing was cruel and did nothing to help Britain’s contemporary art scene. “I only review major exhibitions, so the people who really suffer are not the working artists, they’re the curators,” he said.
The Standard, Sewell’s long-time employer, said in a statement: “Simply, Brian was the nation’s best art critic, best columnist and the most brilliant and sharpest writer in recent times.
“His wit was always rapier sharp but his kindness knew no limits. He was a legend in the world of journalism and the arts. Brian will be deeply missed by all of his colleagues who have thought of Brian more as family than a friend.”