Art critic Brian Sewell is well-known for his acerbic comments, but he’s just a big softie when it comes to his dogs, as Harry Mead discovers

HE means it. On his opening page, Brian Sewell tells us that since childhood he has always “slept with all my dogs, one, two, three or four at a time”. Of one of them, Mop, he fondly recalls “the joy of reaching out in the middle of the night to run my fingers through the fur about her neck, to feel her silken ears, to hold a beautiful paw.”

Britain’s best-known art critic, 82-year-old Sewell would probably accept that he owes that status as much, if not more, to his unmistakeable, exaggeratedly-plummy diction than his formidable professional expertise. Both are a surprise given his early background. An illegitimate child, he was raised in near-poverty in Whitstable, to which his parents – a philandering father and his mistress – retreated for both its then obscurity and their inability to afford London rents.

Art critic Brian Sewell with one of his pets

But a dog, Prince, introduced by Sewell’s mother, became part of the household. On the eve of the Second World War, Sewell’s father shot the animal, with a revolver retained from the First World War. “He was, of course, quite right,” says Sewell. “On what, our rations near starvation level, could we have fed him?” But he adds: “I did not know how much I loved him till the day of our sudden parting.”

Ever after, though, he has fully recognised his love for the numerous dogs – 19 if this reviewer has counted aright – that have shared his life. Only one, a whippet, has boasted a pedigree.

Several were rehomed from refuges or vets. Sewell and a friend disentangled Mop, an Alsatianish mongrel, half-dead, from a bush in Turkey. Sewell still cherishes her bones and those of all but the first two of his deceased dogs. He explains they have been “buried, exhumed and now reburied in my garden, to be persuaders for me at St Peter’s Gate”.

Sewell calls this celebration of his bond with his dogs “a peripheral autobiography”. But there’s nothing peripheral about his relationship with his pets. The deaths of at least a couple caused him literally to howl in anguish.

Sleeping usually on, but sometimes in, his bed, his dogs receive “whispered endearments and cuddling”. For five nights he slept on the floor with one sick dog – “in touch, to reassure her”.

Sewell with canine pals including Mop, right, rescued half-dead from Turkey

Few franker and more remarkable testaments to the depth and strength of the companionship often forged between humans and dogs can have been written. Telling how he planted a tree to mark the grave of one dog, Sewell asks: “Why should a comparatively sane man be so stricken by the death of a dog as to make a ceremony and a memorial of it?

“In my relationship with her I sensed, not mawkish sentiment, but something beyond scientific recognition, almost lost, but natural and ancient beyond the numbering of years.”

Convinced of the “mental, emotional and physical” benefits dogs can provide, he urges that “in certain circumstances... dogs should not only be allowed, but encouraged to visit patients in hospital.”

The art critic sometimes breaks in. Adopted after being found tied to the railings of a refuge, one his current dogs, a part-Staffordshire bull terrier named Lottie, is described as “the very image of a dog in a painting by Stomer, a deaf and dumb Dutchman.” And of a dog covered in duckweed, he recalls: “She resembled a ridiculous painting of Ondine, a water sprite, by Agasse, in the Musee d’Art in Geneva – and I laughed.”

YES, there’s humour, which even colours a climactic tribute to the manifold benefits bestowed by a dog: “A dog’s devotion is unquestioning, undemanding and undiminishing; he never cares how you look first thing in the morning, does not look aghast at belch or fart, nor does he grumble if you choose not to shave. He doesn’t care a damn whether you drive the latest Mercedes-Benz or a clapped-out Morris Minor... he responds to your foulest mood by minding his own business...

he laments your going and rejoices at your coming back...

“The dog even offers considerable advantages over the wife, the mistress, the toy-boy and the paramour: you do not have to take him out to lunch or dinner, conspire to be away for long weekends, share a bank account with him or settle outrageous bills run up on credit cards. You do not have to remember your dog’s birthday, wedding day or any other anniversary, and you do not have to mend your quarrels with perfume and red roses, because you never quarrel with a dog.”

Sewell’s most telling affirmation of his love for his dogs comes earlier in his tribute: “For me, proof of the existence of God and his heaven will be my waking one morning to find all my old dogs sleeping on my bed or nuzzling my face and demanding to be let into the garden – then I shall know that I am dead, in heaven.”

Brian Sewell in the park as a young man

Is there any dog lover who will not wish to read this book?

  • What does your dog mean to you? Write to Hear All Sides, The Northern Echo, PO Box 14, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF.