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Sebastian Horsley: Remembering the Dandy of the Underworld

by Tom Armstrong
10 November 2013 18 Comments

The unmistakeable artist that stalked the streets of Soho, Horsley is still sorely missed since his death 3 years ago of a heroin overdose. We reminisce with some of his greatest quotes...


At first I thought Dino had slipped something funny into my espresso. But the shuffle of seats and a mixture of laughter and gasps from the tables around me confirmed that I wasn’t the only one who had spied that at the very end of Frith Street where it meets Old Compton Street, stood a man, around 6’9 in platform heels, dressed in a red regency style three piece suit as red as a winter apple, with a matching top hat taller than Napoleon himself. Strutting down a metropolitan catwalk with his head, almost literally, in the clouds, he made the usually unshockable patrons of Soho’s bars and restaurants crane their necks to catch a glimpse. He didn’t so much cross your path as parade through it, complete with trumpets and fireworks, before marching on as quickly as he’d come leaving me bewildered and eager to know more. “Oh that’s Sebastian” I heard a woman say on the table next to mine, half giggling.

“It is unthinkable for a dandy to arrive at middle age without having syphilis. Without it, one simply cannot claim genius”

The man we’d all seen was Sebastian Horsley – dandy, artist, wit and pervert, whose excessive lifestyle of drug-addiction and sexual misadventure made the Marquis De Sade look like Donny Osmond in comparison. Throughout his life he reportedly spent £100,000 on prostitutes, was banned from the US on grounds of ‘moral turpitude’, and crucified himself in the name of art. As a person he was controversial, sometimes arrogant, but good humour and eyes that his friend Stephen Fry described as being “just short of pleading” made it hard to ever find him anything other than charming. Above all this though, he was very funny, and possessed a wit often compared to his idol Quentin Crisp.

I wasn’t to see the flamboyant figure of Sebastian Horsley again, as within a month he had fallen victim to what his friends agree was an accidental heroin overdose and died, aged 47. Soho mourned the loss of one of its own, one of the last great English eccentrics. His death was even more poignant as it came just two nights into the Soho Theatre’s run of ‘Dandy in the Underworld’, a stage adaptation of his outrageously funny memoirs. But like so many greats before him, in death Sebastian merely transcended Soho’s physical streets and became part of her very fabric, living on in the stories that still whisper down the corridor of Dean Street on any given evening, in the cobbled alley of Meard Street which he called home, or in many a Berwick Street doorway. So in honour of the man who said “I don’t speak, I quote” here are some of his best:

On Sex

“I only write to get my knob sucked, but the kind of girls I’m attracted to are illiterate”

“The difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less”

“I have probably slept with 1,000 prostitutes at a cost of £100,000. I wish I was more ashamed”

“Of all the sexual perversions, monogamy is the most unnatural”

On Drugs

“A dealer is a pickpocket who lets you use your own hands”

“Emily was the only fat junkie I ever met. She looked like a condom full of custard”

On Dandyism

“It is unthinkable for a dandy to arrive at middle age without having syphilis. Without it, one simply cannot claim genius”

“The only place a dandy would push a pram is into the Thames”

“You can’t cage a dandy anymore than you can nail a butterfly to a wall”

On Britain

(Edinburgh)  “For eleven months of the year it produces nothing but vomit”

(Hull) “It’s like a cemetery with traffic lights”

On Himself

“For a successful first date with me, wear a full length mirror around your neck and say nothing”

“If I had never existed, it is unlikely anyone would have had the nerve to invent me”

“Dancing with me is like trying to assemble a deckchair”

“I am a lighthouse in the middle of a sewer. Brilliant but useless.”


Follow me on Twitter @tomdisco

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Harold Monk 11:18 am, 25-Feb-2011

He always struck me as a fucking idiot that was trying get peoples' attention.

griff 4:48 pm, 25-Feb-2011

i met him a few times. a dandy? an artist? how about an attention seeker who liked being rude to people. this eyeliner and top hat man about Soho schtick might have worked on some people but i think deep down he was a pretty sad and disappointed man. he didn't find success beyond the shock stunts and occasional pithy put down and i suspect he tired of the act. after all going into your 50's skint and having to perform like a monkey to get attention so he could make a few quid must have been fairly bleak. i wondered at the time if the drugs overdose was really an accident or whether he controlled his own exit as part of the myth..

Tom Armstrong 10:39 pm, 25-Feb-2011

Griff, it's hard for me to defend the personality of a man I never met, but from reading his very honest autobiography and reading/watching everything the internet has to offer on the man in preparation for this article, I think he was quite clear on the fact that he was hardly ever happy. He came across as a very comically self-depreciating man, and admits that the dandy persona was a veneer and suited his need for attention. He also didn't think much of himself as an artist and jokes about how badly his paintings sold. In fact I don't think he'd disagree with anything you mentioned. It might not make him a great role model or win him any awards for artistic integrity, but I don't think it stops him being a funny man or a great character.

Mel 1:03 pm, 27-Feb-2011

I knew him. He was nothing but lovely in all of our encounters. His death was tragic and untimely. He was ruder about himself than he ever was to anyone else. It was all part of the banter. Tom - you are right, he is sorely missed by his friends and those who never met him... It's very hard to walk by his apartment and see the blinds open and the studio empty... Thanks for remembering him.

Simon Mason 4:09 pm, 1-Mar-2011

"Simon, you and i are cut from the same cloth" Although he did often repremand me for wearinf jeans. Miss him, silly old cunt.


I met Sebastian now I think about it 5 times in entirety still signed book of condolence -he was a flamboyant character - and I suppose thats what I liked about him. Yes I do miss Seb Horsley. I have mentioned on another site previously that he was no dandy/fop of old -certainly no Brummel or Louis XV character. However he was the nod to the flamboyant past and Oscar Wilde. A shame he has gone.

KBoo77 7:44 pm, 14-Oct-2011

Anyone bonkers enough to get himself crucified deserves a certain amount of media attention. At least his minor celebrity status had some value, a lesson that all Z list celebs famous for bugger all should aspire to - I gladly provide the nails. I read Sebs book and I thought it was great. Good article too.

bogfox 9:53 pm, 14-Oct-2011

Must have been a big fan of Brendan Behan as he stole his quote about sex-for-money.

Paul Wicker 10:15 pm, 14-Oct-2011

Tellingly, one of his friends was Toby Young.

David Beaumont 9:14 am, 18-Jan-2012

Unfortunately Grif and Harold reveal more about themselves than they do about Sebastian by their comments. Sebastian admitted everything - including using other people's quotes. His performance was to use them well. Everyone takes from the culture around them and what they take defines them as much as what they create. Where he didn't invent himself, he curated - and he put on a fantastic show - but of course anyone who knew him even briefly knew he was sad and knew he was warm and beautiful too. If you only experienced a bad side of Sebastian and are left feeling the need to reveal some bitterness then that's a real shame.

graeme duddridge 11:19 pm, 31-Aug-2012

He literally WAS Art. His wonderful autobiography is fabulously funny and modest- yes , modest. True narcissists never laugh at themselves, particularly not for being vain and generally think of themselves as the norm in all matters. He made a strength of his vulnerability and everyone I have spoken to who met him has said that he was a real sweetheart... All the good ones seem to go too soon and the dullards seem to drag on eternally.

Paul 1:05 am, 28-Jan-2013

I knew him for about five or six years - the penniless years before the book came out, when he slid on and off drugs, hating himself while he was an uncreative junkie, bored by himself when he was clean & productive. One of the kindest, funniest people I've ever met. He took in waifs & strays, was adored by children, told posers like Doherty & Moss to fuck off with their heroin chic (he glamourised drug use less than any junkie I've ever known) & became a lynchpin of his NA group even though he hated 12-step bullshit with its quasi religious structure. I miss him a huge amount as does anyone else lucky enough to have been his friend for a year or an afternoon.

Ben 2:06 am, 28-Jan-2013

I like the idea of him, but those quotes really aren't very funny

John A. Cheesman 12:23 am, 4-Mar-2013

I never met Sebastian Horsley but I think Dandy in the Underworld is absolutely brilliant , incredibly funny and also very moving. The carping comments and sour asides of some of the above contributers do indeed say more about them than they do about Horsley. His book is a living testament to Wildes dictum about putting his talent into his work and his genius into his life. It also quite fittingly employs augustan stylistics and Wildean epigram in a very 21st century voice. To the accuse the book and the man of being unoriginal is to completely miss the point.

Julie Mackay 12:26 pm, 27-Mar-2013

Having known Sebastian for 20 years, he never changed and was always unique, witty, bright, funny, self depricating, kind, talented and captivating. I loved him as a friend and only wish there were more around like him as he was one of a kind and the world is certainly a duller place without him. He was a great observer and brutally honest. If he shocked you, or if you found him arrogant and craving attention then you probably wouldn't have been top of his Christmas card list either. Sebastian actually liked to be liked and if you really knew him you couldn't help but like/ love him. His art in my opinion was brilliant. He could actually paint, unlike Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin of this world. If Saachi had seen the brilliance in his Shark paintings rather than Hirsts surrounding of them in death preservative for several million quid, then I might have a little more respect for those who tell us what good and bad art is today. Sending an art critic a lump of shit in a Tiffany box was the Sebastian we all knew and loved as unlike most other self obsessed fame hungry celebs, wasn't interested in climbing up anyone's backside.

Steve 10:55 am, 17-Apr-2013

I grew up with him, knew him, lived with him...from childhood into adulthood. I am mentioned in the book and, contrary to what he claimed and others now claim for him, not all of it is is, perhaps, Sebastian's truth. One sculpted for dramatic effect and the attention he sadly thought was a necessary part of being alive. He betrayed the trust of some, sacrificed to the construct of his 'persona'. That said, he was remarkable before the persona and all the attention and for 13 years the best friend I ever had. I loved him like a brother and mourn him like one each day. Your brother may not always be right but he is always your brother. Rest in peace but not too peacefully, Sebastian.

bdhcjjd 4:41 pm, 14-May-2013

round our way dandy means woofter, and dont u southern shandydrinkin pete doherty wannabe dalston terrorising google glass wearing mockney pansies forget it

Horsley 6:28 am, 18-Nov-2013

My cousin was true to his flawed self. That is more than I can be. I wish I had more time with him. By the way Sebastian in point of fact Susan did not take her false teeth out to "suck me off".

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