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.)
What a great story. What an incredible grave stone. I had seen his name in lists of young British artists around that time but that was all it was to me.
This is great and very inspirational
Thanks. And so delighted you apprecited it. There is so much in Darren Coffield’s book. And such a shame his life was so short. And thanks to fellow blogger Mitch for passing his name on, keeping the flame alive.
Did a google search – so much I have missed. I used to live in Hackney Wick – and moved abroad before this wonderful art explosion.
I love Hackney Wick and only discovered it a couple of years ago. Sadly all this art will be pushed out in next few years as developers move in. Sigh.
More empty apartments for wealthy non-dom investors? – So important to take lots of photos – you are doing important work
Sadly yes. As a Londoner it breaks my heart. Thank you for seeing it that way too. I won’t stop. 😀
Hello Tanya…. Well blow me down!!!! Mission completed with such gusto and dedication.. Soooo informative and brilliant photos that match the quest I sent you on. I’m truly grateful for all the effort you put into finding the grave and producing such a professional insight into Joshua Compston. I’m sure over time many folks will read your account written so well here and be enlighten to the short life of Joshua Compston. I myself can now make that trip to Kensal Green Cemetery armed with all the info from you blog in finding his gravestone, a work of art that will be here long after my lifetime! Thank you again my artysleuth!! Looks like I owe you a beer or two.. Please also say thank you to your poor kind friend that was dragged along on your quest. I’m sure in the end and reading this it was well worth all the footwork….~x~
Hi Mitch. My pleasure. I’ve enjoyed uncovering this important piece of British art history. I’m also pleased with how it all turned out and that I’ve paid due respects to Joshua Compston’s memory. The thought that those who knew him might read this was never far from my mind. And it felt quite a responsiblity which is another reason it took a while to complete. I will say thanks to my friend who is now being willingly dragged to the Lucy Sparrow shop this week. And look forward to a beer sometime. And that you find the grave 😉
On my next visit to London I will head to the grave for sure.. One thing you might want to include is that there is a plaque above 44a Charlotte Road where Joshua lived and died. I’m not sure but the last time I walked past I think it looked to be back open as a gallery again!! When you come out of the Lucy Sparrow shop turn right to walk up to the top of Green’s Court and left at the junction of Peter Street, walk on the same left hand side almost to the dead end. On the white wall you can make out a well worn almost washed away face!! Take a photo in b/w or sepia quite close…. This is less than a minuet from the shop! Not far away at 39 Broadwick Street is the Sam’s Smith pub “The John Snow”… I have yet to visit it but sounds well worth a visit!!! Try it and maybe as you drink your Alpine larger you will enjoy finding out just why John Snow was such a great man around Soho!!! I’m sure I may well soon be sending you on another quest young lady!!!!!
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i wonder why he is memorialised in a high speed boat. Is that apparent from something in his biography?
That is an interesting question. The boat is meant to be a dinghy, a rowing boat. And in the book, his sister Emily says, “our childhood was quite Swallows and Amazons.” And as children they had a rowing boat which they used on the Thames. This love of boats continued throughout his life. “He liked to escape in his dinghy to explore the river which he adored.”
I must again add my thanks to Tanya, as today (24/10/2015) with her help I tracked down the grave of Joshua Compston and I don’t think I could of found it without reading her posting. I arrived at around 9.30am via the no 18 bus and had the cemetry all to myself. The rain held off for all my snaps. Sooooo pleased to have been there as golden bronze autumn leaves fell around my feet.
Many thanks Tanya, your dedication was well worth all your supportive effort..
My pleasure Mitch. Sounds like it was a beautiful time with all the autumn leaves around too.
Tanya did you know you have repeated two of your photos on here?
Yes I did. One pair have a slightly different crop. And the other repeat is to create the affect of walking around the grave stone 360° Glad you’re enjoying the post so much.
Arrrrr I thought there would be a reason why… I know all about walking around that grave!!!
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Interesting read. I stumbled across his grave around 2000 while visiting the cemetery, and was so intrigued by his grave that I wrote his name down and researched all about him online. Interesting story, I wasn’t dissapointed.
So glad you found Joshua’s grave Sarah. Isn’t it beautiful. There’s a great book Factual Nonsense about his life. I got a copy online. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.