David Sylvester

David Sylvester, who wrote many memorable pieces for this paper, died in 2001.

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

Icannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

A good deal of indoctrination must have gone into that. Did it come from...



18 May 2000

David Sylvester writes: I am extremely grateful to John Elderfield for his criticisms (both of my text and of the LRB cover announcement). Nevertheless, I don’t think I can accept two of the claims made in his third point. He proposes that a historical installation is ‘a specialised sort of “thematic" installation, one organised according to historical themes’; he goes on to talk about ‘the...

Unexpected juxtaposition is one of the great artistic devices of the 20th century. In collage. In passages from The Waste Land where each successive line is a quotation from a different source. In the editing of any new-wave TV commercial. In contemporary collecting and curating and anthologising – where those who play with the arts bring together artefacts from a variety of times and places in encounters meant to surprise at first and then look inevitable.

On the Edge

David Sylvester, 27 April 2000

The debate went on for most of the 20th century: was its greatest artist Matisse or Picasso? This was perhaps the only century of the millennium in which the championship was a two-horse race – and a very close race, so that there may never be a consensus lasting more than fifty years as to which of them was the winner. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction in their greatness, one relating purely to its nature, not its degree. It’s that Matisse did not possess or need to possess genius.’

Art dealers are promising subjects for biographies. They buy and sell portable objects that can easily cost more than a castle or two. They survive by outwitting some of the world’s most cunning and ruthless manipulators of wealth, and they also know how to charm the old rich, key sources of supply. When they deal in the work of living artists they shape the careers of some of the most charismatic and paranoid individuals of their time. Their operations tend to sail dramatically close to the wind of commercial ethics and sometimes of the law. And, having lived lives generally presumed to have been even shadier than they were, they may well be immortalised as builders of temples of high culture.

Get out: Francis Bacon

Julian Bell, 19 October 2000

Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the...

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Not His Type

Frank Kermode, 5 September 1996

In a preliminary chapter called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ David Sylvester explains that he became interested in art when, at 17, he was fascinated by a black and white reproduction of a...

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Men at Work

Tom Lubbock, 12 January 1995

Personal witness has a peculiar status in the criticism of painting and sculpture, a status which it seems not to have in the criticism of other arts. There’s some feature of the visual...

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Robbing banks

George Melly, 25 June 1992

Inspired by the bourgeois ‘bad taste’ of Magritte’s house in the Rue des Mimosas in suburban Brussels, Jonathan Miller took off into one of his self-intoxicating fantasies. We...

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Bacon’s Furies

Robert Melville, 2 April 1981

In the preface to his new edition of montaged interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester draws our attention to what has become the last section of the fifth interview. Altogether, there are...

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