Tuesday, 23 August 2011

SOUTH FROM EPHESUS - Brian Sewell, 1988,2002

This book has two subtitles: An Escape from the Tyranny of Western Art and Fragments of Autobiography. It is the second which is the most interesting.
Sewell is a learned and intelligent chronicler and I wish I understood half of what he is writing about. This book is full of facts and figures about the Turkish antiquities he is so enamoured with. If you tested me on it tomorrow I doubt that I would be able to recall any of them with much accuracy. But it is the glimpses of the man himself which make this such a fascinating read. It also helps to be familiar with his voice and style of presenting as you can then imagine him saying the words, adding another dimension. It is when he intersperses the text-book account of an archaeological exhibit with a memory of his own that it really comes alive. He is opinionated and pompous but unapologetically so and that is something I respect. His visits to tombs and amphitheatres are recorded alongside how he rates the washing facilities and how the animals were treated. The latter seems to be something of an obsession and I like him even more for that. It sometimes makes harrowing reading as animal cruelty seems to be something of a pastime for some of the communities he encounters but he always does his best to alleviate any suffering if he can.
I am familiar with Sewell the critic and I love his recreation of The Grand Tour which, again, is full of autobiographical elements and conceited pronouncements on the art he meets along the way. He knows what he likes; sometimes it even makes him cry but he has little patience with what he considers to be vulgar. This has caused him to be labelled as elitist but I doubt he would see it as a criticism. Having faith in your own opinions, when coupled with humility is an admirable quality.
I always enjoy reading the work of someone who is not only knowledgeable about but also loves their subject. I have no real interest in Turkish treasures but I still found this book an absolute pleasure to read.

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