Narcissism and neurosis

Cyrus Shahrad talked to Sebastian Horsley shortly before his death this month.

Three months ago, a photographer friend and I met Sebastian Horsley while researching a book on outsiders in British society. We arrived at his Soho flat to find him leaning out of the first-floor window, exchanging innuendo-riddled pleasantries with a woman on the street below who we assumed was a friend, though it later transpired he'd only laid eyes on her a moment earlier.

“The dandy is both an outsider and an insider," Horsley said, disappearing into his kitchen to make coffee and returning with half a bottle of gin. "The artist, like the dandy, should be fit for the highest society and he should be fit for the lowest society, but he should join neither."

Horsley's notoriety peaked with the publication in 2007 of his autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld, the current stage adaptation of which he saw in the days leading up to the accidental heroin overdose that ended his life on 17 June. For his many critics, Horsley's death was a parting shot at fame from a shameless self-publicist who'd spent 47 years trying to write himself into legend - from his dysfunctional upper-middle-class upbringing and self-reinvention as an artist to his heroic appetite for hard drugs and hookers (he conservatively estimated to have slept with more than a thousand). Horsley joked that he divided opinion: people either disliked him or they hated him.

“I'm used to being criticised and sneered at. Living in England is like being married to an exquisitely spiteful wife: there's no other nation on earth that's quite so horrible. But if you're writing or painting, in many ways your work is aimed at something beyond your fellow men - let's not drag God into this, let's just say the abyss. So you can never really be happy with a society that claps, any more than you can one that jeers and spits."

Horsley seemed perfectly comfortable skirting self-parody as he posed for the camera, sweating slightly under his top hat, a cigarette smoking between his fingers. His flat was littered with the accumulated mementos of a life lived perilously close to the edge: photographs of the great white sharks he'd insisted on diving with before committing images of them to canvas; a collection of syringes artfully arranged beneath a cabinet of human skulls; a revolver laid on a velvet cloth beside his bed.

“Dandyism is about taking up a position of ironic detachment from the world and living it out in scrupulous detail. For me, the most civ­ilising force in life is doubt. The dandy mocks everything, himself included. This is why dandyism usually ends in ruin, because it oscillates between narcissism and neurosis, vanity and insanity, Savile Row and death row."

Horsley referred to Dandy in the Underworld as his tombstone; he said it was bad form to live past 40, and that he should long ago have acted out the suicide note with which the book ends. He appeared to swing between a fear of going unnoticed and a fear of becoming famous by conventional means.

“I generally despise art. It's just another beautiful, cold-hearted lady who looks pretty and says nothing. But what I hate most is that art in a capitalist society is only available in commodity form. There's nothing new about making an object and selling it for more than it's worth. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst - how is that interesting? To me, you have to be as radical as reality itself."

It was an attitude Horsley took to extremes in the act for which he is likely to be best remembered. In 2000, frustrated by his inability to compete with the likes of Bacon in representing the crucifixion (in the opinion of many, his own included, Horsley was a mediocre painter), he travelled to the Philippines to document the experience of being crucified at an annual re-enactment. He recalled being "pinned like an insect between two eternities of darkness - the darkness of the sky and the darkness of the lake". Moments later the footrest broke, spilling him into the arms of the mock mourners below. The only miracle was that his hands weren't ripped apart by the nails.

“When I saw the film afterwards, I thought the whole thing had been a disaster, even by my standards. But then I thought, no, this is good. This is what an artist does: he turns disaster into art. We present an image of ourselves to the world - this grandiosity, this sense of knowing what's going on - but we don't know what's going on, and people don't like us for that reason anyway. They like us for our vulnerability."

Vulnerability might not be a word on the lips of those who knew Horsley for his blogs (bilious attacks on children, animals and the elderly), or his sex columns for the Erotic Review and the Observer (the latter dropped after just four months following complaints). But his sensitivity was the characteristic most apparent to those willing to look beyond the swearing and the suits tailored with secret pockets for syringes; he was courteous and accommodating, capable of making complete strangers feel like firm friends, and determined not to let dread or self-doubt eclipse his good humour.

“On drugs, off drugs, life is a pretty ghastly experience whichever way you look at it. You have to embrace it as a big metaphysical joke, the only logical response to which is laughter. What I wanted to do with the book was flip the convention so that you laugh at the author's moral earnestness but take seriously what's presented lightly. For me, it's all about lightness."

Before embarking on the binge that killed him, he had attended the wake of Michael Wojas, erstwhile proprietor of the artists' den the Colony Room Club. It's hard not to imagine Horsley being relieved that he made his exit at the height of his fame; that he wouldn't have to suffer the indignity of turning 50, or see the seediness of his beloved Soho further eroded by the forces of gentrification.

“The point about art is that what else is there? What alternatives do we have? We can commit suicide - which I think is a completely legitimate response to human existence - but you must do it in joy rather than in misery. Once you realise your life is a work of art, suicide is the frame. It's very important to leave the stage with the same panache with which you entered it."

“Dandy in the Underworld" is at the Soho Theatre , London W1, until 10 July