Distant cousins – Brian Sewell

I was saddened to hear of the death of art critic Brian Sewell recently. Whilst much has been written about Brian’s bold stance on modern art and only slightly less fuss made of his precise enunciation which a journalist once described as making the Queen sound common, few may know that Brian was actually born in humble circumstances.

I discovered my distant connection to Brian a few years ago when he made the revelation that he was the natural son of composer and hellraiser Philip Arnold Heseltine (1894-1930) alias Peter Warlock, who gassed himself seven months before Brian’s birth. Heseltine’s mother was Bessie Mary Edith Covernton (1860-1943), whose grandfather James Covernton’s (1805-1885) first wife was my great x 6 aunt Harriet Sophia Ryves (1794-1830). Incidentally, Harriet’s sister-in-law was Lavinia Janetta Horton de Serres (1797-1871), self-styled princess of Cumberland and duchess of Lancaster, but that’s another story.

Of course, Brian did not become Brian Sewell until after his mother Jessica had married Robert Sewell in 1936. Brian was actually born Brian A C B Perkins and you will find the true record of his birth indexed in the FreeBMD database in Hammersmith District volume 1a page 310 if you click here. Why Perkins? Because Brian’s mother was born Mary Jessica Perkins in St.Pancras, London on 27 November 1900. Her death aged 94 is recorded as Mary Jessica Sewell in Kensington and Chelsea District in June 1995.

I’ve encountered much misinformation on the internet and in the press regarding Brian and his mother Jessica. For example, in Brian’s obituary which you can read by clicking here, The Guardian claims he was born in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire. This massive blunder also appears in The Irish Times here ; the Daily Mail here ; the Mirror here ; and the Evening Standard here, with several others following suit. Sadly this is a result of sloppy journalism drawing upon amateur genealogy which appears as fact on Wikipedia. Happily The Telegraph got it right (for once?), as did I in the tiny obituary that I posted on Flickr on 20th September 2015 here. Fortunately Wikipedia seems to be gradually correcting its mistakes regarding Brian’s early life.

Another error found in some accounts centres on Brian’s mothers family circumstances. Whilst his putative fathers family the Heseltines were well-to-do, the Perkins family were at best lower middle class. Brian’s maternal grandfather William Perkins was, as I revealed back in September on Flickr, a publican. And following Brian’s birth his mother struggled to get by with a little help from the Heseltines. She followed this up with a marriage to Robert Sewell which brought the security that enabled her to privately educate Brian. Indeed, his mothers driving ambition for him is probably what made Brian the character he was. So let’s take a closer look at the Perkins family.

As noted earlier, (Mary) Jessica was born in St.Pancras on 27th November 1900 to publican (alias beer house keeper, as he appears four months later on the 1901 census below) William Perkins and his wife Mary. At that time they lived at 2 Haverstock Hill, which is now home to The Enterprise public house.

1901 census.jpg

(Mary) Jessica was the eldest of three daughters, the others being Violet and Dora who also appear in the 1911 census, by which time the family had moved pub to the Crimea Tavern at 36 Inkerman Road in Kentish Town, as below.

1911 census

Below is the marriage certificate for William and Mary Perkins, their wedding taking place at St.Luke’s, Chelsea on 16th November 1899.

1899 perkins-goldsmith marriage

The document reveals that Mary’s maiden name was Goldsmith and that her father Thomas Goldsmith was a coachman who, according to census records, came from Dublin. William Perkins’ father was another William Perkins whose occupation is given as farmer, and he hailed from Thelnetham in Suffolk, where his father, Henry Perkins, was an agricultural labourer in the mid 19th century. Perhaps with such down-to-earth antecedents as these it may become easier to understand why Brian despised the pretentiousness of modern art so much.


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