Narcissism And Neurosis

Originally published in the New Statesman, photography by Spencer Murphy

Three months ago a photographer friend and I met with Sebastian Horsley while researching a book on outsiders in British society. We arrived at his Soho flat to find him hanging out the first floor window, exchanging innuendo-riddled pleasantries with a woman on the street we assumed was a friend, though it transpired he’d only laid eyes on her a moment earlier.

“The dandy is both an outsider and an insider,” he said, disappearing into his kitchen to make coffee and returning with half a bottle of gin. “The artist, like the dandy, should be fit for the highest society and he should be fit for the lowest society, but he should join neither.”

Horsley’s notoriety peaked with the publication in 2007 of his autobiography, Dandy In The Underworld, the current stage play of which Sebastian himself saw in the days before the accidental heroin overdose that last week ended his life. For his many critics, Horsley’s death was a parting shot at fame from a shameless self-publicist who’d spent 47 years trying to write himself into legend – from his dysfunctional aristocratic upbringing and reinvention as an artist to his heroic appetite for hard drugs and hookers (he conservatively estimated to have slept with over 1,000). Horsley joked that he divided opinion: people either disliked him or they hated him.

“I’m used to being criticised and sneered at. Living in England is like being married to an exquisitely spiteful wife: there’s no other nation on earth that’s quite so horrible. But if you’re writing or painting, in many ways your work is aimed at something beyond your fellow men – let’s not drag god into this, let’s just say the abyss. So you can never really be happy with a society that claps any more than you can one that jeers and spits.”

Horsley seemed perfectly comfortable skirting self-parody as he posed for the camera, sweating slightly under his top hat, a cigarette smoking between his fingers. His flat was littered with the accumulated mementos of a life lived perilously close to the edge: photographs of the great white sharks he’d insisted on diving with before committing them to canvas; a procession of syringes artfully arranged beneath a cabinet of human skulls; a revolver laid on a velvet cloth beside his bed.

“Dandyism is about taking up a position of ironic detachment from the world and living it out in scrupulous detail. For me, the most civilising force in life is doubt. The dandy mocks everything, himself included. This is why dandyism usually ends in ruin, because it oscillates between narcissism and neurosis, vanity and insanity, between Savile Row and death row.”

Horsley referred to Dandy In The Underworld as his tombstone; he said it was bad form to live past 40, and that he should long ago have acted out the suicide note with which the book ends. He appeared to swing between a fear of going unnoticed and a fear of becoming famous by conventional means.

Horsley's Soho flat was cluttered with memento mori

“I generally despise art. It’s just another beautiful, cold-hearted lady who looks pretty and says nothing. But what I hate most is that art in a capitalist society is only available in commodity form. There’s nothing new about making an object and selling it for more than it’s worth. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst – how is that interesting? To me, you have to be as radical as reality itself.”

It was an attitude Horsley took to extremes in the act for which he will be most widely remembered. In 2000, frustrated by his inability to compete with the likes of Bacon in representing the crucifixion (Horsley was a mediocre painter in many opinions, his own included), he travelled to the Philippines with a photographer and filmmaker and documented the process of being crucified himself at an annual re-enactment. Horsley recalls being “pinned like an insect between two eternities of darkness, the darkness of the sky and the darkness of the lake”. Moments later the footrest broke, spilling him into the arms of the mock mourners below. The only miracle was that his hands weren’t savaged by the nails.

“When I saw the film afterwards I thought the whole thing had been a complete disaster, even by my standards. But then I thought no, this is good. This is what an artist does: he turns disaster into art. We present an image of ourselves to the world – this vitality, this grandiosity, this sense of knowing what’s going on – but we don’t what’s going on, and people don’t like us for that reason anyway. They like us for our vulnerability.”

Vulnerability might not be a word on the lips of those who knew Sebastian for his blogs (bilious attacks on children, animals and the elderly), or his sex columns for the Erotic Review or the Observer (the latter curtailed after four months due to complaints). But his sensitivity was the characteristic most apparent to those willing to look beyond the swearing and the suits tailored with secret pockets for syringes; he was courteous and accommodating, capable of making complete strangers feel like firm friends, and determined not to let dread or self-doubt eclipse his good humour.

“On drugs, off drugs, life is a pretty ghastly experience whichever way you look at it. You have to embrace it as a big metaphysical joke, the only logical response to which is laughter. What I wanted to do with the book was flip the convention so that you laugh at the author’s moral earnestness but take seriously what’s presented lightly. For me it’s all about lightness.”

Sebastian had attended the wake of Michael Wojas, erstwhile proprietor of artists’ den the Colony Room Club, before embarking upon the binge that killed him. His death was accidental, yet it’s hard not to imagine him being relieved that he made his exit at the height of his fame; that he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of turning 50, or see the seediness of his beloved Soho further eroded by the forces of gentrification.

“The point about art is that what else is there? What alternatives do we have? We can commit suicide – which I think is a completely legitimate response to human existence – but you must do it in joy rather than in misery. Once you realise your life is a work of art, suicide is the frame. It’s very important to leave the stage with the same panache with which you entered it.”