Thursday, 20 February 2014

Joshua Compston, 1970-1996, Kensal Green

“The funeral was his greatest production. Hundreds of people turned up. I think most of them were there just to make sure he was dead and properly buried. He was 50% brilliant and 50% stupid. I think now we would realise that he was high functioning autistic but people didn't understand that then. So he just annoyed them….But he was obsessed with William Morris and his ideas, and he just wanted to make the world a better place.”
Daniel Coffield

Joshua Compston died of an overdose of ether and alcohol at the age of 25 after spending an evening at the Serpentine Gallery at the opening of a posthumous exhibition by Jean-Michel Basquiat (who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27). He was born in Putney, his father Christopher was a high court judge and his step mother an exhibition organiser at the Tate Gallery, and educated at St Edwards, a public school in Oxford, and the Courtauld Institute. Whilst at the Courtauld he campaigned for the Institute to pay more attention to living artists and began the Loan Collection which borrowed and hung pieces of contemporary art in the Institutes seminar rooms. “In a 1991 press release for the collection, Compston claimed that this was the first exhibition of contemporary art staged at Somerset House since the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1836.”

"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."

After graduation he opened his gallery Factual Nonsense at 44 Charlotte Road in Hoxton. He was amongst the first wave of artists and entrepreneurs to set up shop in what was later to become the über trendy area of Shoreditch. His happenings have become legendary. In 1993 he staged the ‘Fete Worse Than Death” at the corner of Charlotte Road and Rivington Street; Gary Hume dressed up as a Mexican bandit selling tequila slammers. Damien Hirst dressed as a clown and renting out his spin painting machine to produce instant artworks (signed by himself) at either £1 or 50p a go or, alternatively, showing you his polka dot painted testicles for the same price. Tracey Emin was either palm reading or selling  kisses depending on which source you believe (some even claim you could get a lot more than a kiss for your money as the dusk settled on the carnival but that sounds just too good a story to be true). Then there was “A demure evenings drinking with Sara and Tracey” (Lucas and Emin)  and “The Hanging Picnic.”  

“Joshua Compston ………was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals. It was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End as Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that he inspired in a sense, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

Compston’s tomb was designed and carved, from a 3 ton slab of Portland stone, by his friend the artist and cartoonist Zebedee Helm. On his website he says that it took him six months to produce; “The mauseleum (sic) can be seen at Kensal Green Cemetry (double sic) in West London, where it was said to be the most flamboyant addition in over a hundred years. Being a large cemetry (triple sic) it is however almost impossible to find.” The man may not be able to spell and may not know what a mausoleum is but the tomb is impressive and very much a worthy addition to the cemetery’s stock of idiosyncratic and eye catching monuments. It should be much better known than it is. Helm’s claim that it is hard to find is not true either – it lies on a path a short distance behind William Mulready’s grandiose  neo-renaissance stone catafalque.  

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