A decade after Sebastian Horsley’s death, Gustav Temple recalls the decadent flash of dandyism that was extinguished on 17th June 2010
Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy. Charles Baudelaire, 1863
On this day ten years ago, Sebastian Horsley died aged 47 of a heroin overdose. Having befriended this charming libertine a few years previously, a world without him suddenly seemed unsurmountably empty, and at liberty to run its absurd course without this dark satanic dandy to laugh at it. Just as each previous era needed its Lord Rochester, its Oscar Wilde, its Vivian Stanshall or its John Lydon to hover on the sidelines of ordinary society and, through art, witty comment and sensational clothing, sprinkle impish stardust on its self-assurance, so Sebastian did that for ours.
Sebastian Horsley was an Anarcho-dandyist anachronism, and a beautiful one, to boot. An outrageous Regency fop in an age of bland tracksuits, blond highlights and dull opinions; the very fact that Sebastian endured the 21st century at all was a slap in the face with a scented handkerchief to all that he despised. Sebastian dabbled with various art forms, but most of his energy, when he could be bothered to get out of a whore’s bed, was devoted to creating himself. He embodied Baudelaire’s dictum: “The specific beauty of the dandy consists particularly in that cold exterior resulting from the unshakable determination to remain unmoved; one is reminded of a latent fire, whose existence is merely suspected, and which, if it wanted to, but it does not, could burst forth in all its brightness.” Sebastian fired off quote after quote, most of them prepared beforehand or simply borrowed from other raconteurs, but he could just as easily switch to giving perfectly sound marital advice, though it usually ended with the recommendation of a good brothel.
Despite having England’s finest wardrobe, excessive on sequins and velvet, Sebastian was always the first to stress that dandyism was not only about clothes: “Dandyism isn’t image encrusted with flourishes. It’s a way of stripping yourself down to your true self. Dandies are a brotherhood of higher types. The true princes of the world. Like precious stones, their personalities derive their value from their scarcity.”
Sebastian’s dandyism was quite unique: a completely original work of art. He was much more than somebody trying to embody Regency dandyism in the wrong age. His was a dandyism with its own set of reference points, from Baudelaire to Francis Bacon, via Rimbaud, Wilde, Tintin, Marc Bolan, Johnny Rotten and Quentin Crisp. Instead of eyeing up duchesses in carriages on Rotten Row, he followed hookers up grotty alleys in Soho, revelling in the filth and squalor of an anti-life. If invited to an event outside the W1 postcode, he would simply throw the card in the dustbin. This was not a pose or an affectation; this was making a choice and sticking to it. The fact that he chose the noisiest, smelliest, most chaotic square mile in the country, and one that was constantly changing and being invaded by this or that new youth tribe, made his stoicism all the more courageous. How much easier it would have been to be Sebastian Horsley in St John’s Wood. But how less dandiacal.
Sebastian was Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die, his face daubed with light and shadow, black and white, day and night. He was Dracula towering over the terrified children in a black cape with scarlet lining; he was Byron and Baudelaire, he was Clark Gable with painted fingernails, Elvis Presley but with higher heels; Marlene Dietrich in masculine evening wear and cocked top hat. He was Saint Sebastian the wounded martyr, his naked body pierced with a dozen arrows, his face a defiant mask of humility and contrition, accepting his fate as a punishment for his sins with dignity and grace. He was Lucifer, sneering at a population that valued the doing of good deeds as the highest estate of man, laughing at the fools who denied themselves pleasure in return for the reassurance that they’d be rewarded for their restraint. Sebastian was Springheeled Jack, Shockheaded Peter and every mischievous imp who had ever glided through myth and legend without allowing any of the rules of society to circumvent their desire to impose chaos upon order.
If the mark of a genuine artist is not to care whether he is worshipped or despised, then Sebastian embodied this. He would never think of altering any of his thoughts in accordance with fashion, or decency, or good manners. Statements like: “There are no female dandies for the same reason that there is no female Mozart or Jack the Ripper. The key attribute of dandyism – detachment – cannot come from someone with a womb” were calculated to annoy people, but contained kernels of truth. “The true dandy,” he wrote, “is part warrior, part stargazer, part gambler, part crusader, part plunderer, part violator, part martyr. He is fit for the highest and lowest society – and keeps out of both.”
Sebastian would have been 57 this year. Unlike one of his heroes Quentin Crisp, he was too attached to youth to be able to contemplate old age. Apart from being mercilessly cruel about old people (“stop decomposing on the pavement, go and die somewhere”). Sebastian still looked like a rock star at 47; he was too brightly illuminated ever to allow himself ever to fade away. People are sometimes described as “lighting up the room”. When Sebastian sauntered along Old Compton Street, he lit up the whole of Soho. He commanded the street and sucked all the energy of the Queer Mile towards him, bathing in its sickly neon and being sustained by it.
When Sebastian died in 2010, it was hailed by London’s Bohemia as a tragedy. Now that he has passed into legend and yet another pizzeria opens on the street where he lived, it is impossible to imagine a 57-year-old Sebastian shuffling about Soho, beginning to show the signs of age. He would have hated himself so much, and hated everyone for seeing him like that, it would have proved unbearable to be near him.
We mourn his passing on this tenth anniversary, but we also look at the world that has found its own miserable form of chaos, and wonder whether Sebastian would have belonged in it. If a literary titan such as JK Rowling is being hunted down for her opinions on sexual politics, God only knows how Sebastian would have fared in this absurd witch-hunt for the disobeyers of the credo of not causing offence. Sebastian lived and breathed to cause offence, but to do so while giggling at his own absurdity. To quote one of his favourite songs by Marc Bolan, “Distraction he wanted/To destruction he fell/Now he forever stalks the ancient mansions of hell.”
RIP Sebastian Horsley 8th August 1962-17th June 2010