Thursday 14 December 2017

Dandy in the afterworld

Sebastian Horsley, who was found dead on Thursday, aged 47, relentlessly pillaged the misery of his upbringing and the sexual idiosyncrasies of his adulthood to promote himself as a "dandy" and "artist".

To secure his reputation as the former, he chose to wear red velvet suits, top hats, waistcoats and tails. But his claim to be an artist who "leaves my footprints in Bacon's snow", rested on more slender evidence. His paintings, large-scale oils for the most part, drew on Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal or featured the sharks among which Horsley had swum as a young man, and were neither the subject of universal acclaim nor endless gallery displays. In fact, Horsley's greatest talent was for self-promotion.

The pinnacle of his career in this regard came in 2000, when he travelled to the Philippines and was crucified ("Christ, after all, had profound style"), fainting when the nails were driven in and falling when his footrest fell away.

It was a stunt some saw as extremely poor taste, but the name Horsley was trumpeted around the world, and, he seemed to suggest, to the heavens. "I'd been rejected by a god I didn't believe in," he noted.

Sebastian Horsley was born on August 8, 1962, in Hull. Both his mother, Valerie Walmsley-Hunter, and his father, the Northern Foods magnate Nicholas Horsley, were alcoholics. The couple had known each other 13 days when they got married and in later life Sebastian would waste no time telling interviewers that he was the product of a split condom and a failed abortion.

"When mother found out she was pregnant with me, she took an overdose. It didn't work. Neither did nine months of heavy drinking. Had she known I was going to turn out the way I did, I'm sure she'd have gone the whole hog and found the cyanide."

Of his mother, he noted that "motherhood wasn't her thing". As for his father: "He didn't give a toss about me. And I hated him. But I hated stepfather even more. He was a tosspot. I'd come home to find him in bed with mother, and father in bed with someone else. Clearly everyone in my life who should have been vertical was horizontal."

Sebastian went to Pocklington school and then applied to Edinburgh university before landing up at St Martins School of Art in London, where he graduated in 1983. However, instead of plunging straight into Bohemia, he made money on the stock market, though, as Northern Foods had been worth £2bn at its peak, he could easily live well.

Thereafter, Horsley withdrew to his skull-festooned Soho flat, only leaving to give interviews or visit his tailor. Things did not always go to plan. He was refused entry to the US in 2008 for "moral turpitude". That seemed a reference to his drug habit.

But Horsley delighted in revealing the seamy quality of his sex life, too, sometimes in a weekly column for The Erotic Review that was eventually dropped for its unflinching gynaecological or scatological detail.

He claimed to have slept with more than 1,000 prostitutes, noting: "I can count all the lovers I've had on one hand -- if I'm holding a calculator."

Perhaps inevitably, he seemed deeply bored most of the time, taking refuge from his life of ease in narcotics. He described injecting heroin as "the kiss of the archangels, breathtaking, heart-stopping, brain-burning pleasure".

In 2007, he produced what he called an "unauthorised autobiography", Dandy in the Underworld. In it, he claimed to have had an affair in the early 1980s with the Scottish gangster Jimmy Boyle, a relationship that, he said, stemmed from "my desperate search for a father figure".

Perhaps the best description of Horsley was provided by the author Will Self, who said he was "simultaneously anachronistic, grotesque, stylish and affected".

Earlier this month, Dandy in the Underworld was transferred to the stage. Milo Twomey, who plays Horsley, said that, in part, it sought to answer public curiosity about the artist. "People say: 'What is there to him? A twat in a hat'."

Sebastian Horsley married, in 1983, Evelynn Smith. They separated a decade later and she died in 2003. In an interview earlier this month, Horsley suggested that, at 47, he was "two-thirds dead".

He was wrong. An apparent drug overdose killed him eight days later. "I haven't really had a life," he noted in that interview. "I've just sat in a room and died. That's what we all do."

Irish Independent

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