Joshua Compston (1970 – 1996): Who was he?
I suspect many people who are interested in Modern Art have heard of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst or Gavin Turk and the Young British Art (YBA) movement in the 1990s. You might also know of their connection with East London and in particular Shoreditch. But have you ever heard of Joshua Compston? I had no idea who he was until Mitch left a comment on my blog back in July this year. “Try to lay your hands on a book called “Factual Nonsense: The Art And Death Of Joshua Compston” by Darren Coffield. This is not directly about street art but will throw some light on the first artyfarty folks coming to Shoreditch. Joshua died aged just 25 at 44a Charlotte Road EC2.” So that is what I did.
Joshua Compston was young man with a vision; to open an art gallery in East London in order to bring art to the people. This was during the early 1990s when the London art scene was in a very quiet conservative period. The YBAs had not yet blast onto the scene. Joshua’s gallery was called Factual Nonsense (FN) and it was in an old empty warehouse on Charlotte Road, EC2. He wasn’t alone in spotting these low rent, empty buildings, highly suitable for artists to live and work in. Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas had their shop in Bethnal Green Road around this time. But he encouraged others to come. And he had a passion for buildings as well as art which drew him to Shoreditch.
Now this all sounds very noble and earnest but from reading the book, Joshua sounds much more like an agent provocateur who saw his role in life as shaking up the Establishment. He adopted an air of pretension to expose the pretentiousness of others. I love his friend Darren Coffield’s first memory of him at Camberwell School of Art. “sitting on the steps… wearing a tweed three-piece suit and his grandmother’s mink coat… pretending to read Ulysses.. using the book as a sign and a social foil.”
I’d highly recommend Coffield’s book which is a series of interviews with everyone who knew him. Its an honest 360° portrait of the man showing his strengths, charms and weaknesses. I admired him more from knowing this rather than being presented with a hero.
Joshua Compston: My search for his grave
When I told Mitch that I’d got hold of the book, he asked me for a favour. As an “artysleuth… who likes grave stones” (he’d read my posts on Brompton Cemetery) would I find Joshua’s gravestone in Kensal Green Cemetery? And also take a snap of it and tell him how to find it easily? He already knew it would be hard to find on a short, time-restricted visit for someone not resident in London. Would I help him out? I do like a challenge and as I was in the midst of reading the book, I thought, why not.
Kensal Green Cemetery: Saturday 15th August 2015
Kensal Green is over in West London, W10 and its not an area I know at all. So I thought the search would be more fun if I invited a friend who lived in the area to come along. The cemetery itself is on 72 acres of land and I’d not found any clues online as to where Joshua’s grave could be found. So a second pair of eyes would also be a help.
After you pass through the main gate, it is hard to know which of the three paths facing you to take. The one to the left goes away from the main cemetery, so we didn’t choose that one. And the one straight ahead also looked as if it was a side route. So we chose the winding path to the right that went towards the main body of the graveyard. I could tell this from the small map by the entrance which simply has the plot numbers on it.
In Darren Coffield’s book, there is photograph of Joshua’s gravestone. Rather than an upright headstone, it looks like a boat with a man lying on it with his arms folded across his chest. It reminded me of the medieval tombs that you see old churches. It is so distinctive that I thought it would be easy to spot.
As you can see from the photograph above, this path alone was chock full of headstones and memorials. We took our time, overwhelmed by the dazzling variety of styles and inscriptions. And that afternoon, I collected enough photographs for a separate blog on this cemetery too.
At the end of this path we reached a fork in the road.
The graves straight ahead looked very old and grand. This must be where the first graves were dug when the cemetery opened in the early 1880s. As Joshua was only buried here 1996, I made the decision to look at the newer graves on the path to left.
And then the path disappears and you’re faced with fields of headstones. And whilst many of these are very old, new graves are dotted amongst them.
We were skirting around the perimeter of the cemetery with no luck. So we moved into the middle and arrived at back of the central monument which is called The Dissenters Chapel. It was used in Victorian times for performing the burial rites.
There are two people buried here also. I didn’t look for their names but I was captivated by pictures they made in my viewfinder.
After admiring this faux Greek temple, we walked over to the other side of the cemetery to continue our quest. Its a glorious wilderness of gravestones and planting.
After this point, I left my friend to sit on a bench and rest her weary feet whilst I skirted around the rest of this vast grave yard.
This next photograph sums up how I felt after trawling through the cemetery for over two hours.
At the far side is another entrance where I spotted a lady in a Visitor hut who might help me. She looked up Joshua’s name in her list of famous people buried here. But I could have told he wouldn’t be there as I’d already checked online. I was also worried when she didn’t recognise the distinctive gravestone from the photograph in Coffield’s book. Then she asked if he was Catholic but I had no idea. And when she pointed out another cemetery behind this one, where Catholics were buried, my heart sank even further.
It was getting late and my poor friend was waiting, sat on a bench with not even a smart phone to keep her company. I decided to call it a day and went to find her. I put on a brave smile when we met up but inside I was very frustrated that my mission had failed.
On the way home, I wondered whether I should give up. Why was I a rushing around for someone I didn’t know who had posted on my blog? Was I a bit soft? Was Joshua Compston laughing at me, wondering why I was wasting my time on a grave stone when I could be making my own art?
When I got home, I had to do something with my disappointment, so I checked online again to see if I could find a clue. And I found this link, The London Dead: Joshua Compston and then I struck gold. It told me exactly how to find the grave. And I also remembered seeing the clue to finding it which was a memorial that resembled a large four poster bed. And I knew I would be going back soon.
Kensal Green Cemetery: Sunday 16th August 2015
I did have time to return if I went early the next morning. And it took me 30 minutes to find and photograph the gravestone from every angle I could think of.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now which path it is near to. Yes, that central one where all the elite Victorians are buried in the 1880s. As I walked along it I could only see giant mausoleums and trees. The graves behind are secluded from view.
And its along this path that you look for the grave of William Mulready RA. His statue lies recumbent on his splendid marble bed. I thought it was fitting that the clue was another member of the Art world.
You leave the path, walk behind it and immediately you can spot Joshua’s beautiful grave stone. In the last 19 years, its aged to blend in perfectly. I’ll leave you to enjoy the photos. You should find it easily Mitch. It is really worth a visit. Thanks too for introducing me to Joshua Compston and his life story.
Joshua Compston’s gravestone was carved by his good friend, the artist and sculptor Zebedee Helm. “He carved him in his boat with his pet Jack Russell under his feet, like a medieval knight. You probably know that historically if one has been a crusader your dog lies under your heard, and if not the dog lies under the knight’s feet.” Bronwen Lenton, Joshua’s mother. (this is a quote from Darren Coffield’s book.)