Before coffee houses were homogenized into interchangeable Starbucks, and sucked dry of atmosphere and character, the espresso bar was a meeting place for Beats, musicians, writers, radicals and artists. Each coffeehouse had its own distinct style and clientele, and provided a much needed venue for the meeting of minds and the sharing of ambitions over 2-hour long cappuccinos.
It was the arrival in London of the first espresso machine in 1952 that started this incredibly diverse sub-culture, which became a focus for writers like Colin (Absolute Beginners) MacInness and pop stars like Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde, who frequented the famous 2-i’s cafe. This beautiful, short film serves up a frothy serving of London’s cafe scene in 1959, long before Starbucks ruined it all.
The artist, writer and dandy Sebastian Horsley claimed he was an accident, the product of a split condom. His mother drank through her pregnancy, and tried to abort the unwanted child. She failed and Sebastian was born in 1962. This might explain Horsley’s difficult relationships with women in later life, preferring to use prostitutes rather than share any emotional intimacy with another.
Horsley was originally called Marcus, which he may have preferred as it was closer to his idol Marc Bolan. But after registering his name as a baby, Horsley’s mother knew she had made a mistake, and opted instead for Sebastian. It only took her 5 years to change it by deed poll.
The name Sebastian suited Horsely. It suggested the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows for his faith. In the same way Horsely was nailed to a cross in the Philippines for his art. Or, Sebastian Flyte - Evelyn Waugh’s character from Bridehead Revisited, whose beauty and desire were numbed by addiction to alcohol. As Horsley in his way was addicted to heroin and cocaine - a mixture of which eventually killed him. Or, Sebastian Dangerfield, J. P. Donlevy’s dissolute bohemian artist of The Ginger Man.
Horsley briefly attended St. Martin’s Art College but was kicked out after only a few months.
“I don’t think by going to college you can really achieve anything whatsoever - except perhaps they teach you how to be ordinary.”
He taught himself how to be an artist, and saw painting as a way of creating a new, unspoken language. Yet, he often felt incapable of expressing this language, and destroyed many of his paintings. He died in 2010 from an accidental overdose, leaving a life that was, in many respects, his greatest work of art.
In this brief interview from 1995, Sebastian Horsley talks about his background, his view of art, and his sartorial style.