Sebastian Horsley obituary
Artist and self-styled Soho dandy, he underwent crucifixion for his art and was celebrated for his wit
Sebastian Horsley, who has been found dead aged 47, always favoured the provocative in his writing and art. In 2000, he notoriously underwent a crucifixion in the Philippines as a participant in a rebirth ceremony. He was nailed to a cross for 20 minutes, fainted from the pain and fell when the footrest gave way. The incident – photographed by Dennis Morris and filmed by the artist Sarah Lucas, with accompanying music by Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush – inspired a series of paintings by Sebastian. These, along with the photographs and the film, were exhibited in his 2002 show Crucifixion.
Having swum with sharks when he was young, Sebastian became fascinated by their capacity for beauty and danger, and they became a recurrent motif in his large-scale paintings. His 2007 retrospective at the Spectrum Gallery, in London, was entitled Hookers, Dealers, Tailors and included displays of his flamboyant bespoke tailoring. The outfitters Turnbull & Asser created a shirt in his honour. Sebastian was as comfortable in the glittering salons of London’s art world as he was in the backstreet dives of Soho, where he lived. Visitors to his two-room flat on Meard Street would be confronted by a sign on the black door stating: “This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address.” If one were allowed to enter – a Byzantine process, often involving multiple rings of the bell and telephone calls – one encountered a cross between a Dickensian grotesque and a Byronic dandy, with just a touch of the ringmaster.
Sebastian thrived on organised squalor and considered such niceties as kitchens and bathrooms to be optional luxuries. The focal point of his small but lavish drawing room was an extensive collection of human skulls. If you were female and halfway attractive, Sebastian would normally try to seduce you, less out of lechery than out of what he considered common courtesy. If you were male, similar treatment often awaited.
Underneath the witticisms, one-liners and affectations, he was a kind, sincere and extremely loyal man, despite occasional (usually drug-induced) forays into paranoia and misanthropy. His posturing and preening was an elaborate pose, rather than a deeply held conviction. As an artist he was perhaps ultimately mediocre, but he was a compelling, if derivative, writer and, as a modern-day dandy, he was unparalleled.
He was born in Hull, the son of the Northern Foods magnate Nicholas Horsley and Valerie Walmsley-Hunter. He claimed that, when he was born: “I was so appalled that I couldn’t talk for two years.” His parents both had alcohol problems – “everyone in my life who should have been vertical was horizontal,” Sebastian once explained – and they divorced in 1975. After attending Pocklington school, he failed to get into Edinburgh University and took up a place at St Martins School of Art in London in the early 1980s, but was soon expelled.
In his autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld (2007), Sebastian wrote that he had an affair with the former gangster Jimmy Boyle around this time. He married the artist Evlynn Smith in 1983, but the pair separated in 1990. She died of an aneurysm in 2003. He enjoyed a lucrative period playing the stock market in the 80s, but the money he made was swallowed up by his addictions. He became an aficionado of prostitutes and once estimated, conservatively, that he had slept with around 1,000 of them.
Sebastian wrote a regular column for the Erotic Review, from 1998 to 2004, waxing lyrical about the joys of paying for sex and his dissolute habits. His agony uncle column for the Observer in 2006 came to an end shortly after he wrote an article about sodomy, published on Easter Day. He contributed short and idiosyncratic pieces to the books The Decadent Handbook (2006) and A Hedonist’s Guide to Life (2009), for which he wrote on sex and death.
Sebastian had always had an unhealthy relationship with death. He slept with a pistol next to his bed, explaining that, accidentally picking it up rather than the telephone, he might shoot himself. He eulogised suicide, writing in his autobiography: “I have decided to stop living on account of the cost.” As with so much of Sebastian’s life and work, the quote was pastiche Wilde, but the sentiment was his own.
His turbulent life was ripe for a memoir. Dandy in the Underworld (renamed from Mein Camp) was published in 2007 to critical acclaim. The following year he was proud to be denied entry into America on the grounds of “moral turpitude”. His autobiography was adapted as a one-man show for the Soho theatre, written and directed by Tim Fountain, with Milo Twomey as Sebastian. Sebastian professed to be horrified by the idea of it: “Why should I go to the theatre to see rape, sodomy, alcoholism and drug addiction? I can get all that at home.”
The show opened earlier this month. It was typical of Sebastian that he should die at the peak of his success. “If I had known I was going to live this long,” he once said, “I wouldn’t have taken such care of myself.”
He is survived by his mother, his brother Jake and his sister Ashley.
• Sebastian Horsley, artist and writer, born 8 August 1962; died 17 June 2010