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Joshua Compston UK

(June 1 1970 – March 5 1996)


The Late Joshua Compston 31 May 2006


Nicola Green's portrait of her friend the late Joshua Compston was selected for the 2006 BP Portrait Award, which showed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland and at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol.  


The painting is now on show at the Courtauld Institute in London in the Eastwing Collection.  Compston was the director of conceptual art gallery Factual  Nonsense in Hoxton. London. and organised the Fate Worse Than Death events in the late 90s, which featured YBAs Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk and Gary Hume.  


After Joshua's death, his mother chose Green to paint his portrait with the help of photographs, his death mask and fond memories.   "Her Joshua looms down from a great height, his hair as tactile as ermine, an empty packet of Craven A at his feet."  Evening Standard C. R. Cecil    


 "Compston was a pivotal personality in the Shoreditch art scene of the mid 1990s, until his death at the age of 25 in March 1996. An enigmatic figure, his great creative energy was the driving force of his life, art his weapon. His lasting success has been to bring together a group of artists now at the forefront of the London art scene. Yet Compston's attempt to establish a 'capitalism of the avant garde' foundered, in part due to an inability to recognise the implications of his ambitious schemes. In 1992 Joshua Compston set up Factual Nonsense, a 'gallery and project centre' in Charlotte Road in Hoxton, in a Victorian furniture factory.  From this space he organised a whirlwind seven openings in six months and began to feel the existence of a community, giving him the confidence he needed to organise 'Fete worse than Death', the first of many local events. This took place in the streets around Factual Nonsense, a mile away from Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin's 'The Shop' in Bethnal Green.  The list of participants reads like a Who's Who of young British art Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Matt Collishaw, Gavin Turk, Gilbert and George, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Damian Hurst, Angus Fairhurst, Jessica Voorsanger, Sue Webster and Tim Noble, Molly Nyman, Hannah Greenway."  No Fun Without You The Art of Factual Nonsense by Jeremy Cooper.



Joshua Compston (June 1, 1970 – March 5, 1996) was a London gallerist whose space, Factual Nonsense, was closely associated with the emergence of the Young British Artists (YBAs).


Life and work

Joshua Compston graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1992. Interest in the YBAs was growing, but there was a shortage of established dealers, and Compston opened Factual Nonsense at 44a Charlotte Road in Hoxton, which had become the centre of the emerging YBA scene.


Compston worked with many of the leading artists of the second wave of the YBA movement including Tracey Emin, and organised an annual fete in Hoxton Square. He did not have the financial backing to sign the artists to secure contracts, and, as they became successful, his artists often moved on to other dealers, notably Jay Jopling.


Lack of money and seeing the YBA artists that he had nurtured leave him contributed to a downward spiral of drug abuse, which ultimately led to his death. Compston died of an accidental ether overdose. His funeral was attended by several hundred mourners including many leading figures of the London art scene.


Obituary: Joshua Compston

Independent, The (London) ,  Mar 15, 1996   by David Cohen


Ironically, Joshua Compston was last seen alive at the opening of the current Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, in London. Basquiat, the New York graffiti painter, died of a drugs overdose aged 27, in 1988; Compston's death, at 25, was the awesome corollary of a creative life lived in the fast lane. Although the evidence suggests his death was accidental, it already seems that Joshua Compston will be remembered as the Chatterton of the artistic generation he helped define.


Compston was a unique and highly eccentric figure whose precise job description is hard to define. The terms "dealer" or "impresario" would suggest an ancillary role to the work of others, whereas Compston's attitude and demeanour were nothing if not creative. I once discussed his irregular hanging style, which sometimes ran contrary to an artist's wishes, with Gilbert and George. "The thing with Joshua," exclaimed Gilbert, "is that he is the artist."


Compston did in fact begin a training in fine art, but after completing the foundation year at Camberwell School of Art he switched to the Courtauld Institute to read art history instead. He was disturbed, however, by what he regarded as the scant attention paid there to living art, and promptly loaned them a work by the abstract painter David Taborn from his family's collection.


This was the prelude to an initiative for which he was solely responsible, the Courtauld Loan Collection, in which pieces were borrowed and hung in seminar rooms. Artists included established names such as Howard Hodgkin, Albert Irvin and Gilbert and George, and (then) up-and-coming younger artists, Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, Gary Hume. Compston secured the patronage of the Duchess of Westminster and the collector Jeremy Fry to cover insurance and costs (his enterprise was tolerated rather than encouraged by the college authorities). 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.


In the summer of his graduation in 1992, Compston curated a group show of students from London art schools, at the Benjamin Rhodes Gallery in the West End of London, an unlikely venue for an outlandish show which owed more to its installation than to the quality of its work. "Abstractions From Domestic Suburb Scene (Sin)" juxtaposed works of art with choice examples of kitsch. Compston insisted that the art he had found was not "neo-Pop" but rather "high- Modernist abstraction". An uncompromising idealist in his curating, Compston would stick with a theoretical programme regardless of whether material he could find truly made sense of it.


The most extraordinary object in the exhibition was neither art nor appropriated kitsch but the letterpress catalogue, written in extravagantly polemical prose-poetry by Compston and typeset by Thomas Shaw, with whom he continued to collaborate for the rest of his career. Shortly after the "Suburb Scene" exhibition Compston opened the Factual Nonsense Gallery in Hoxton, east London. It took its peculiar name from Ludwig Wittgenstein via the title of a painting by David Taborn, who used it as a title for one of his paintings.


Compston's cranky bombastic prose style and extreme (sometimes politically dubious) pronouncements owed something to the Vorticist manifestos of Wyndham Lewis. His projects were often pervaded by a nostalgia for the avant-garde of yesteryear, despite the aggressive punk quality of his aesthetic. One scheme encapsulates his sensibility, at once vital and historicist, subversive and artsy-craftsy: "Other Men's Flowers" (1995) is a portfolio of images by luminaries of the "Britpop" generation of young artists responding to Compston's idea that they submit their neo-conceptual practice to Victorian constraints of material and technique at Tom Shaw's letterpress workshop.


Compston was obsessed with finding ways of reaching beyond the precious confines of the art world, although his aesthetic agenda was anything but populist. He had begun to develop a project to loan a private collection of American abstract expressionists to comprehensive schools, for instance, and intended to lecture to children on its transformative value. He reached his widest public with bizarre street happenings, such as the "Fete Worse than Death" in the Hoxton area, in summer 1993 and 1994, in which artists of his circle, including Damien Hirst and Gavin Turk, manned stalls selling art and alcohol, and the "Hanging Picnic", a picnic held surrounded by works of art hanging from the railings of a London park, which was filmed by London Weekend Television in a profile of him in 1995.


I first met Joshua Compston at a reception for the Royal Academy's Pop Art exhibition, where I noticed him wandering around with an empty 1950s Typhoo Tea carton. This he described as a "Non Pop Art appropriation", and he was getting all the assembled Pop artists to sign it. This neatly illustrates the uncanny ability of this perpetual tiro to enlist the least likely collaborators in his madcap schemes.


Joshua was born at Putney on June 1 1970, the son of a Judge.  Known as a child for his violent inclinations, he was educated at St. Edward's School Oxford, where his housemaster observed 'Joshua will be known'.


On his 18th birthday he was presented with membership of the Colony Room Club by the publisher Tom Hartman, with whose daughter Joshua was friendly.


The Soho artists' and loafers' hang-out was an appropriate setting for the garrulous and sociable young man.


He valued his friendship with local publicans in Shoreditch as much as he did that with Gilbert and George who championed Compston and featured him in a number of their works.


With his mane of blond hair and his loud checked waistcoats, Compston appeared a cross between a patrician English squire and a wild-eyed Marxist revolutionary.  He loved words and loved to talk: his exhibition invitationswould feature rambling diatribes which functioned as proposals or hypotheses, partly ironic, partly serious.


Although there was the air of the dandy about him, Compston was fearless.  On one occasion a large, drunken and violent visitor to an FN private view was hauled singlehandedly into the street by Compston, who then talked the trouble maker into obedience with a complex metaphysical argument.  Later that evening Compston was dancing on the tables himself.


Newspaper cutting in my possession but untitled.




[005186] BACON, FRANCIS. L'arc: Francis Bacon. Paris: Duponchelle, 1990. First Edition. Small 4to. Original Wraps. Association Copy. Inscribed By Artist. Very Good / N/A. Inscribed by Francis Bacon 'To Joshua from Francis Bacon' (faint inscription, signature crisp), texts in French, plain and colour plates, original pictorial card covers, minor light wear. Uncommon Bacon inscribed French publication. the copy is inscribed to Joshua Compston who was a pivotal personality in the Shoreditch art scene of the mid 1990s, until his death at the age of 25 in March 1996. He was a hugely enigmatic figure and seminally important in bringing together the YBA's of the 1990s in London. A fascinating association copy between two great enfants terribles of the British art world. Signed/inscribed copies by Francis Bacon are scarce. £850.00


The Hanging Picnic was conceived and produced by Factual Nonsense and centred around an examination of the means and metaphors of the art of picnicking intertwined with an open air art exhibition. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard exhibited Down on the Farm (version 2), a revised version of a work concerning an incident that Iain had been involved in at the 1992 Reading Festival, from their Goldsmiths degree show which had closed the day before The Hanging Picnic.


In addition to the curating and subsequent hanging on the railings of Hoxton Square 'objects' by over 25 artists, The Hanging Picnic also presented an essentially private act made 'grossly' public - the picnic. The event, including the process of its curation and organisation was featured as part of a documentary on Joshua Compston and his role as FN's director, directed by Liz Friend and commissioned and screened by LWT.


Two days before the event, Joshua wrote to each of the participating artists. In his letter he said of the project:


"The whole of Hoxton Square is not the exhibition playfield nor is the exhibition meant to be what might be termed 'site interventionist'. Thus as a result, unless a strong case can be argued for such an approach, the work must situate itself within a mirroring of the hanging on the Bayswater Road. This is as much to set up a feeling of "walls of art" that must be penetrated in order to visit the picnic as it is a desire to follow closely the real practice upon which it is based."


Joshua Compston (1 Jun 1970 - 5 Mar 1996).

Joshua set up Factual Nonsense, his gallery and project space, in Shoreditch, London in October 1992, shortly after graduating in art history from the Courtauld Institute in London. Aiming to establish a cultural revolution of some kind, he intended his space to be 'a forum for all elements disenchanted with the laxity and ennui of current thinking'. Between 1993 and his tragically premature death in 1996 at the age of twenty-five, he organised exhibitions and performative day events in Hoxton Square, as well as commissioning the pages of Other Men's Flowers from his artist friends.


The Hanging Picnic Hoxton Square London N1 8 July 1995  12 noon - 8pm