A final party for art's unlikely hero

Joshua Compston was not a well-known figure beyond a small circle of modern art's movers and shakers. He lived fast and died young. In death, he has been celebrated by many venerable figures and his funeral tomorrow will be a major event. Jonathan Glancey investigates a wild phenomenon

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:12

Ronnie Kray was the last famous regular to eat at Pellicci's, a London-Italian cafe on the Bethnal Green Road, in the East End. When he died, his magnificent funeral cortege passed by the cafe's door - six jet-black drays, a Gothick hearse, baroque floral tributes, Cadillacs, Jags, Rollers and Mercs ... it was quite a sight and quite a morning.

Pellicci's today is a favourite haunt of young artists, either poor or wannabe "pauvre", who enjoy the frisson and low rents of the East End. Joshua Compston, Putney born, son of a judge, educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, and the Courtauld Institute of Art, was one such. He delighted in showing West End friends and other impressionable arty-smarties the super little caff, with its char, wad and Art Deco panelling, he had "discovered".

Joshua Compston, the intrepid young art world impresario and East End adventurer choked fatally on his own vomit a fortnight ago, staggering home from the opening of the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. Basquiat was the pretty but doomed New York graffiti artist who committed suicide in 1988, aged 27. In Joshua's case it was a lethal cocktail of booze and ether (which he sniffed as a sedative) that did for him at the even tenderer age of 25.

Tomorrow, Compston will be given a spectacular East End send-off, a match for Ronnie Kray's, albeit with a different cast list. Where Kray's courtege comprised some of the country's most notorious villains, Compston's will include a broad canvas of British artists, the provocative, in-your-face double act Gilbert and George and Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst infamous amongst them. Last week, his death was marked by obituaries writ large in the Independent, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, occupying more column inches than any number of brilliant physicists, doctors and musicians were granted before him.

Why? What was it about a 25-year-old who cannot have been known far beyond the bounds of his London circle that could attract such attention? Reading his obituaries you could be forgiven for remaining unsure what exactly he was: "a fun-loving revolutionary", says one, "an exuberant showman" another. He was "a catalyst in British contemporary art", an "energetic impresario", an inventor and orchestrator of "happenings".

The Guardian's Richard Gott paints Compston as a revolutionary. To the art critic Louisa Buck, he was "a kid, a pain in the arse who pissed off a lot of people ... a frustrated artist who made a lot of noise through a gang of talented, pushy, wey-faced rude kids; Compston was having a bit of fun and often laughing behind our backs."

Through Factual Nonsense, his "Duchampian" gallery in Hoxton, in the East End, Compston aimed to "explode the gap between art, advertising, entertainment, high-street retailing and real estate development". Or, what his friend, Tom Shaw, East End printer and designer, describes as "the Terence Conran retail revolution meets Futurism".

Compston was an inspired organiser of wacky celebrations and parties in Hoxton Square, a bun's throw from Pellicci's: "The Fete Worse than Death" was an "artist's garden fete" held in two successive years and featuring bizarre stalls and sideshows where, for example, Damien Hirst first made his now-famous spin paintings and where tombola prizes included out-of-focus holiday snaps of Charles Saatchi. His "The Hanging Picnic" was a surrealist tea party with confectionery fashioned by Compston's hamper of artists. His "happenings" were as potty as they were funny as they were cherished by those who attended; "The Hanging Picnic" was even the subject of an LWT documentary.

A showman Compston undoubtedly was: as a student he ran a stall in Brick Lane market in the East End, where he sold antique radiators and used to drum up trade by walking around in a leather skirt and a gas mask. But still, this was hardly unlikely behaviour for a fine art student, so why the plaudits and the expansive memorials to his life?

The answer, perhaps, is that Joshua Compston is one of those fringe art world figures whom an older generation can invest with its own myths. He is the angry young radical who pops up every 10 years or so in the history of the 20th-century art, makes a noise, dies and becomes a much- quoted footnote in art history, like Marinetti, the angry young Italian Futurist gunned down in the Great War.

According to Richard Gott, the Guardian's former literary editor accused of being in the pay of the KGB, Compston was "a beguiling and improbable revolutionary in the British art world", a "deeply endearing" megalomaniac who "planned to wage war against contemporary capitalism with the weapons of art". So enamoured is Gott of a young man he himself might have been that he appears to applaud Compston's "fun loving" revolutionary ways; "at one stage", writes Gott, "he actually took off to join the revolution in Central America but, typically, he ran into an oligarch's daughter and teamed up with her for a while instead". My dears, what fun. Those dusky Latin types with their romantic revolutions and M1-carbines were clearly as diverting to young Master Compston as the Ronnie and Reggie lookalikes who nosh at Pellicci's.

But Louisa Buck admires the way in which Compston made his potty art shows a must in the diaries of the West End contemporary art mafia. "The grown-ups trotted off dutifully, in a sort of Dejeneur sur l'Herbe sort of way, to Josh's happenings in Hoxton Square. He did bring gallery owners and collectors, the likes of Norman Rosenthal, Charles Saatchi and Anthony D'Offay, to meet the bright young Turks from Goldsmith's [the south London art college that has given us a zoo of sparky and now internationally famous young artists including Damien Hirst]."

To Tom Shaw, "Josh was pretty dotty, but what you might call together dotty. He wanted to be as famous as Andy Warhol and for longer than 15 minutes. He wanted to take the concerns of the art world beyond its insincere and precious confines. At the same time, he knew that a lot of contemporary art is a special sort of nonsense, a kind of nothing presented as something because it was a nothing done by artists capable of spouting half-digested bits of Wittgenstein and fashionable continental philosophy. He loved spouting psycho-babble, partly to impress the gullible and partly to send up the verbiage that keeps the art world up its own orbit.

"He wanted to be the head of an enormous art movement, but in the end had no idea how to make or to cope with money. He didn't realise that when you're very young the world will give a lot of rope to do your own thing, but after a while, the world of money gets a hold of you and won't let you go. He talked a lot of bollocks really. But he was a generous and honest nutcase operating in a smug, elitist and dishonest world".

Charm and savoir faire did get Compston somewhere. For some years, say friends, he was, although decidely heterosexual, financially underpinned by "an elderly homosexual". He had a charm and chutzpah that encouraged Britain's most extreme artists to lend him pictures for a show of contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute. "This was the Courtauld's first such show," says Louisa Buck. "I don't think anyone other than Josh would have had the gumption and bare-faced cheek to get away with it. When I was at the Courtauld, it was still the finishing school where tutorials were held in Anthony Blunt's living room."

The Courtauld served the 20-year-old Compston well in other ways. "It was here," says the critic David Cohen, "that he plunged into the world of Dada Paris and the Futurists. He made much use of their idea of art as manifesto; the press releases he sent out from Factual Nonsense were full of references to the Futurists; some are used seriously, some ironically. And how he liked to provoke. He said he wanted to send out a troop of artists in uniform, taking his cue from the Salvation Army, who would take Art into the pubs of London's East End. He was also hoping to borrow a collection of Abstract Impressionists to lend to local comprehensive schools. I think he had something to say, but I do think he was sending us all up."

As with the Bible, you can read what you want into the strange - and short - life and times of Joshua Compston. There is Gott's revolutionary, Buck's "pain in the arse", Shaw's irredeemably doomed, yet good-hearted pugilist slugging it out with the snake-in-the-grass London art world, and Cohen's ironic post-modern Futurist.

This "famously violent child" (Gott) did grow up - a bit - to move and shake the money-driven, fame-fuelled world of art. In the end, however, he was simply a part of it. Yes, Joshua Compston was angrier and more energetic, more honest and fun-loving than many of his po-faced contemporaries and rivals, but his conventional background and ultimately patrician values withheld Andy Warhol's mantle from his young shoulders. His sought-after parties and outlandish posing got him close: as David Hayles wrote, in a footnote to Gott's obituary last week, "At his now infamous private views at Factual Nonsense, people didn't come to see the art hanging on the walls, they came to see Josh".

Sadly, in 50 years' time, while people may well buy pounds 1,000 tickets to attend the charity gala to celebrate Sir Damien Hirst's 80th anniversary retrospective, and while artless East Enders choff in Pellicci's, Joshua Compston will have been all but forgotten, a footnote in the Courtauld Institute's art history courses along with others who have tried to move and shake a strictly-corseted world that is ultimately far more interested in money and prestige than in getting a Rothko on to the walls of a Bethnal Green comprehensive.

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