Which, incidentally, was not what killed him in the end, at the premature age of 47. That was heroine and cocaine, and ruled an accident. Horsley always was the adventurous type, prone to using his body as a vessel for experimentation. But stop, you see, this is the problem. Already this article is begging to be dragged down a rabbit hole of Horsley shenanigans, and that was, and is, arguably the curse and blessing of his creative life. Where did the madness end and the talent begin? Could one exist without the other? Did his personality eclipse his art, or did people only ever pay attention to his art because of his personality?
It’s a question Marine Tanguy, the curator of Horsley’s upcoming posthumous exhibition, appropriately titled The Whorseley Show, is slightly at a loss to answer. Cheerful, beautiful and very French, Tanguy is just now diving into full preparations for the show, and she happily admits that in line with her deceased star artist’s tendencies, she’s facing “absolute madness for a full month.”
Crucifixion No.3, Sebastian Horsley
She ponders the question of Horsley’s personality versus his art, and eventually replies, “He’s in every single brush stroke and the two are totally intertwined. It’s impossible to separate them.
“He lives through his art. He was a piece of art himself. (...) he took so many photographs of himself, he disguised himself so many times, he was almost a painting himself. He was the absolute king of Soho.”
And that’s another thing impossible to separate: Horsley from Soho, and Soho from Horsley.
“I think Sebastian Horsley, without Soho, would not be Sebastian Horsley,” Tanguy says.
So who was Sebastian Horsley? Here are some interesting factoids:
- He was born in Yorkshire to parents who were wholly incapable of properly raising children.
- He lived and breathed Soho. His old home, 7 Mead Street, has become famous for the sign on the door which reads: "This Is Not A Brothel / There Are No Prostitutes At This Address"
- He openly loved and lauded prostitutes and made a video called The Sebastian Horsley Guide to Whoring.
- He also loved velvet, top hats, and nail varnish.
- He underwent a voluntary crucifixion at a Good Friday ritual in the Philippines in 2000 to prepare for a series of paintings on the subject. He refused the recommended painkillers and was nailed to a cross, passed out, then fell off when the cross was raised and the footrest broke.
- His column, Sewer Life, ran in the Erotic review from 1998 to 2004. He also wrote a sex advice column in The Observer, which was cancelled after manifold complaints.
- He wrote a memoir called Dandy in the Underworld, which was also adapted into a one-man play, which opened at the Soho Theatre in London on 15th June 2010.
- He was discovered dead at his flat the following day from a drug overdose. His friends ruled out suicide on the basis “Sebastian would not have missed the opportunity to leave a note.”
Here are some choice Horsley quotes lifted from just half an hour browsing YouTube, delivered in his customary soft, almost shy style, oddly reminiscent of a brown-eyed, velvet-clad, black-haired Princess Diana:
“Grandiosity is a reflex against the futility of existence. Life is completely pointless (…) so we might as well be extraordinary, because nothing matters very much and very little matters at all.”
“I only write to get my knob sucked and the kind of women I'm attracted to are illiterate, so...”
“Sex is one of the most beautiful, wholesome, spiritual things that money can buy.”
“I hate art. I really don't like it at all and I really don't consider myself to be an artist.”
“The amount I sell wouldn't keep a dwarf in donuts for a day.”
Well, The Outsiders and Tanguy are expecting Horsley’s art, this time around, to make a little more than that. And whether Horsley liked it or not, he certainly was an artist – an artist with a bold, yet delicate style.
“Almost like the Fauvism of the early 20s in France,” says Tanguy. "Very deep, lots of different tones and very dark contours. There always seems to be dark contours, which contain the madness of the brightness so there’s a bit of a mix. Very full on and almost abstract.”
Of her favourites, the paintings from The Flowers of Evil exhibition, based on Charles Baudelaire’s dark collection of 19th-century poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, she says:
“The beauty of the flowers, mixed with very thick, almost very violent brush strokes is very representative of Sebastian Horsley, who is very sensitive but very violent in his way of conveying his sensitivity (…) It really is the beauty of decadence, of eroticism and death. They touch on something that is difficult to handle.”
Despite his obvious talent and vision, whether Horsley while he was alive, was what the industry might have deemed successful, is hard to say.
“For me, someone who is a great artist is someone who has a vision of their own,” says Tanguy, “and they question the art world with that new vision. And so yes, he does qualify as a successful artist in that sense, because he brought something new to the party.”
The Whorseley Show will feature pieces from two of Horsley’s biggest exhibitions during his lifetime, The Flowers of Evil and The Crucifixion. There will be a large collection of self-portraits, rescued from storage, along with various personal affects. The film of his crucifixion will also be shown, but Tanguy stresses the emphasis of the show will be the work itself – not the hype. The pieces for sale will range between £5,000 and £16,000 (which would buy a lot of donuts). She adds it’s difficult to price Horsley, because he’s something of an anomaly with no market research backing him.
Yet it’s hard to imagine the work won’t sell. And it’s impossible to imagine the people won’t show, for Horsley was as loved by the many people who knew him, as he was hated by so many who didn’t – and an object of endless fascination for all. He may have courted controversy, but he also courted devotion, a sentiment Tanguy, who often refers to him in the present tense, radiates.
“I love his courage towards everything. He was not scared of anything, he wants to try everything, he wanted to live everything, he wanted to go through everything and he did it and it was very brave. I would not go through half the things he has gone through.
“I think because we see him in his glittery suit and all his funny lipstick and red nail polish, we think the message he tries to convey must be attached to a very weird type of people, but when you really look at the art and dig into the message it tries to convey, it’s very much questions that are very relevant to all of us.”
Tanguy goes on to affectionately quote Horsley, who appears to be a bottomless goldmine of flawless contemplations; not just an artist and writer – but a philosopher too.
“‘An Artist has to go to every extreme, to stretch his sensibility through excess and suffering in order to feel and to communicate more. I have always been fascinated by blood. Pain can be vitalizing; it gives intensity in the place of vagueness and emptiness. If we don’t suffer, how do we know that we live?
“‘I am by nature irresistible. My good looks, my charm, my mental instability and emotional evasiveness. Oh and my tendency to incest. I am a peacock without a cause. A pansy in the garden of love. A futile blast of colour in a futile colourless world.’”
Tanguy hesitates to call Horsley a philosopher, but she admits he was a deep thinker, a poet.
“There are people who have got that sensitivity and they capture certain meanings because they’re more sensitive than we are and I do think he had a very poetic sensitivity that you can find in his art. (…) Very, very sensitive. There are these people that are wonderful because they touch on a little bit of reality and some things that are not reality and they mix them together and they create magic.”
The Whoresley Show runs at Soho's The Outsiders gallery, August 9th to September 14th.