I can't help hoping that the death of the artist Sebastian Horsley, reported last Thursday, is a hoax. He was a creature of such grisly panache that I wouldn't put it past him; perhaps he is, right now, in a false beard, en route to Mexico, furious he didn't make more front pages. We are dealing, after all, with a man whose best-known work of art was having himself crucified (Sarah Lucas filmed it for posterity), so rising again would be a perfect second act. Sadly, the Metropolitan Police seem to think this unlikely. His death, at the age of 47 from a suspected heroin overdose, is the loss of a glittering character, one of Soho's last true eccentrics, a tender and witty anarchist.
The timing of his departure is impeccable – a week into the run of a play about his life at the Soho Theatre, the adaptation of his autobiography, the instant cult classic Dandy in the Underworld. In every sense – and if this sounds macabre, it's only what he would have wanted – he went out on a high.
His last email to me was debonair and full of plans for the future. It began with the usual salvo – "Oi Hermione, are you still gorgeous? Me too" – and ended with: "Fancy a fuck?" – a sign-off he used to all and sundry, boys and girls. He even put it on the bottom of his 45th birthday invitation. The rest of the email was full of excitement about Dandy in the Underworld, which opened on 7 June for "a six-week run in the West End, then touring, then Edinburgh, then Broadway. Stephen Fry has bought the film wrongs." There was his usual arch tone: "Who is playing me? Well it won't be me. I would be completely miscast for the role darling. Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it... "
All seemed to be going well, although he had recently been troubled by debts, owing his tailor Mark Powell £20,000 for his magnificent ensembles. It was hard to see, through the flamboyance, his genuine urge to delete himself: "I have been trying for some time to develop a lifestyle that doesn't require my presence," he wrote to me in March. "I seem to have finally succeeded." On seeing himself portrayed onstage, he said: "They say seeing one's own doppelganger is an omen of death."
We weren't close, but I enjoyed his self-abasing wit, his humility and his huge poise. He laid his vulnerabilities remorselessly bare and had the gift of creating an impression of intimate friendship with slim acquaintances, even people he had never met. This is, perhaps, the definition of a star. He flattered outrageously, but I never heard him criticise anyone but himself. He mocked all his own creative productions. In his glam-rock phase, he cut a single (a vanity recording) that sounded, he said, "like an unsavoury stench in the ear". His oil paintings, usually of sharks or sunflowers, he rated little better. When he came home to find burglars had taken everything but his canvases, he applauded their good taste.
He was born in Hull to a rich, dysfunctional family beset by alcoholism. "Mother didn't breast-feed me. She said she liked me as a friend," he wrote in Dandy in the Underworld. Surprisingly she came to the book launch. Elegant in a red dress and veil, she had the same snub nose as him – I'd always assumed he'd had cosmetic surgery. It seemed unlikely anything about him, even his nose, could be spontaneous.
He didn't speak so much as repeat dialogue he had written for himself. He polished his epigrams as thoroughly as his shoes. When I quizzed him about how, as a man who claimed to have visited 1,000 prostitutes, he felt about trafficking women, he retorted: "Oh, I wouldn't go along with that. I may be a cannibal but I still say grace... We're all prostitutes. Who are we to tell someone what parts they can and cannot sell of themselves? " He was a true counter-cultural in that, while his heart was fundamentally in the right place, he didn't follow any received pieties. He was thrilled when, in 2008, he was banned from entering the US on grounds of "moral turpitude".
He was a dream interviewee, even going to the trouble of pulling a pistol on me, just to give me good copy.
He kept the pistol beside his bed, and always wondered if one day, instead of answering the telephone, he would shoot himself. Now his shadow dance with death is over. He remains, because of the skill of his writing, very much alive. His voice shouts out to me from his emails: "There is no real distinction in art between a hoax and a revelation... Still beautiful? Me too."
Hermione Eyre's interview with Sebastian Horsley appeared in 'The IoS' on 2 September 2007. tiny.cc/igr19Reuse content