William Arthur Sewell was born on 9 August 1903 in Goole, Yorkshire, England, the son of William John Sewell, a chemist, and his wife, Ada Mary Hill. Arthur's family were devout Methodists, and from the age of seven he had to attend five religious sessions every Sunday. Although he later abandoned Christianity, it was at recitals in chapel that he learnt the skills of live performance which he later used to such good effect in his university teaching.
After obtaining a BA in English language and literature at the University of Leeds, Sewell won a scholarship to Queen's College, University of Oxford, in 1925. He left Oxford with a second in modern greats in 1926 for his first academic post as senior lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town. While in South Africa he married Margaret Ella Abrahamson at Somerset East on 18 July 1929. He also published his first book, The physiology of beauty, in 1931. He returned to Oxford in 1932 to complete a BLitt degree, and was subsequently appointed to the chair of English at Auckland University College.
Sewell arrived in New Zealand in late 1933. He was to remain at Auckland for 12 years, and later claimed that he did his best work there. Certainly he soon made an impact on both the university and the community. He introduced his students to new literature and ideas during lectures which were as much a performance as they were instructive. He gained a reputation for his lively productions of plays such as Macbeth, and for his encouragement of several amateur theatrical groups. He became influential at the university, being elected chairman of the professorial board from 1936 to 1939. He supported the welfare state and was politically active, speaking out in particular against restrictions on free speech – an issue in which the university had itself become embroiled. For his 1934 pamphlet, Freedom of speech, he was attacked in the New Zealand Herald and denounced in Parliament as a promoter of atheism and revolutionary socialism and an advocate of free love.
During his Auckland years Sewell associated closely with the poets A. R. D. Fairburn and R. A. K. Mason, as well as with the philosopher R. P. Anschutz, the historian Willis Airey and the lawyer Frank Haigh. Students of his who achieved distinction included Keith Sinclair, Robert Chapman, M. K. Joseph, Kendrick Smithyman, Alan Horsman and Paul Day. His two major critical publications of the period were Katherine Mansfield: a critical essay (published in 1936, it was one of the earliest studies of her work, which attempted to penetrate behind her 'purity of style'), and A study in Milton's Christian doctrine (1939). He also edited 1840 and after: essays written on the occasion of the New Zealand centenary, and compiled a style book for students, The practice of prose (1942).
In the early 1940s Sewell began a relationship with one of his students, Rosemary Seymour, and the social and professional consequences seem to have contributed to his leaving Auckland in 1945 to return to England. The following year he was appointed Byron professor of English at the University of Athens, and subsequently held the directorship of the British Institute in Barcelona (1952–53), and professorships of English at the University of Ankara (1954–56) and at the American University of Beirut (1956–65).
Having obtained a divorce, Sewell married Rosemary Yolande Levinge Seymour in London on 26 July 1951. That year he published his most important critical work, the series of essays Character and society in Shakespeare, in which he argued that Shakespeare's characters derive their 'particular life' not from psychological insight but from 'a complex of social attitudes'.
Sewell returned to New Zealand in 1965, first as visiting professor, then as foundation professor of English at the University of Waikato. He remained there until his retirement in 1969, but his professorship was something of a disappointment: administration was neglected, and his scholarship had not developed significantly since his time in Auckland. However, he made a lasting impression on a number of students and colleagues, including Lauris Edmond, Michael King and Vincent O'Sullivan. In 1970 he was awarded an honorary LittD by the University of Auckland. After his retirement he lectured occasionally to senior school pupils. He died in Hamilton on 19 April 1972, survived by his wife and their son.
Arthur Sewell was a small, handsome man of considerable wit, generosity and charm whose emotions were close to the surface. He was also occasionally given to provocative and extravagant behaviour that could involve distortions of the truth. Much respected as a scholar in his principal fields of Milton and Shakespeare, he had a wide-ranging mind which encompassed philosophy, politics, theatre, film and the visual arts, as well as the most recent literature. His lectures set literature in its context and always stayed close to the text. It is as a teacher that he achieved most, influencing more than one generation of students, many of whom were to play important roles in New Zealand academic and literary life.