IM only interested in animals that can kill me, says artist Sebastian Horsley. This, apparently, is a perfectly obvious explanation for his lifelong obsession with sharks. Dont you see You only really know what it means to feel alive when you come face to face with death.
The 34-year-old (Thats 34 physically; mentally I stopped at 16) appears somewhat eccentric. He says he has been fascinated with violence ever since he can remember. When I was young I used to spend hours making things just so I could set them on fire, he confides. Not that he appears at all menacing -I love violence anywhere ... except in real life. When it comes to myself Im a bit of a ladys blouse.
Sebastian had an irresistible urge to encounter a great white shark, so he learned to dive and got himself onto an expedition to Dangerous Reef off South Australia. Hearing about it, you cant help being reminded of the film Jaws. Hardly surprising, then, that the expedition was led by Rodney Fox, who worked as the chief adviser on the film, and who has himself survived an attack by a great white.
The other members of the expedition were all marine biologists and experienced divers, says Sebastian. I had only just learned to dive and had already forgotten most of the course - I never even managed to retrieve my kit from the bottom of the pool when I was training, he laughs.
Aluminium shark cages, designed by Fox, were fastened with winches to the deck of the teams 18m fishing boat. They measured 1.5m by 2m, with an observation gap for filming which, insists Sebastian, was big enough for a sharks snout to poke through.
For two weeks, the team waited for the sharks. Was he nervous Of course. I was worried they wouldnt come. We stayed in the cages for hours, just waiting. We were meant to go down in pairs but I would try to find a time early in the morning or evening when I knew I would be on my own - everything is magnified when youre on your own.
Some of the sharks, when they finally arrived, measured up to 5m long. I felt like I was on a natural high. Ive never felt more alive. They would appear out of the darkness, sometimes crashing into the bars of the cage as they grabbed at the meat we had thrown out - it turned the water such a beautiful colour, he says.
On one occasion, as the boat was drifting towards a reef, a shark came out of the gloom and bit through one of the mooring ropes. We had to move off quickly; our cage was hanging on one rope and the boat pulled us along, like we were waterskiing. The doors of the cage kept opening, and we had to struggle to keep them closed as we moved along. He grins as if he were describing a ride at a funfair.
Sebastian started to paint sharks ten years ago, but destroyed all the canvasses. My paintings were awful, but at least I learned how to be a failure, he says. It wasnt until he went on the expedition four years ago that he felt he could capture what he calls the essence of a shark - the moment when violence and beauty merge.
His work is influenced by the likes of Francis Bacon and Vincent Van Gogh, and he prefers to paint in darkness ( I paint what I feel, not what I see.) to create what he calls a womb-like atmosphere. I work for about four hours, until I begin to feel like a caged animal, then I have to get out, he says - I like living; I dont want to be a ghastly recluse.
He believes there can be no beauty without violence, which must explain why the walls of his Mayfair home are plastered with photos of shark-attack victims. He points to a close-up of a mutilated leg. Look at the shape and colours of that wound - dont you think its beautiful
In the next room, alongside a photo of himself in a previous incarnation as a male escort (Good money - bit of a laugh) there hangs a rack full of human skulls.
Is he obsessed with death He finds the question surprising. Isnt everybody I can see the futility of life; personality is just a defence against despair. I believe passionately ... in nothing, if you see what I mean.
He boasts that he has never had a real job. Its the only thing Im really proud of - I dont believe in being useful. Thats why I like art. Its so useless, not as pleasurable as a bottle of wine and not as useful as a washing machine.
His background is hardly conventional. He grew up in Yorkshire - a small village where I spent my deformative years. I couldnt understand a word they said so I left - and moved to London. After being kicked out of art school (Art school polishes pebbles and dims diamonds, and Im a diamond), he hooked up with one of Glasgows best-known hard-men, Jimmy Boyle.
He says they met through Sebastians grandfather, who was a prison visitor. The pair embarked on a series of business ventures (bona fide, of course), including a drinks company - to finance our drink habit - and an organisation in Scotland to help prisoners and drug-users. When he tired of that, he turned to his painting. Today, when he is not in his studio, he gambles on the stock market.
There are 13 paintings, selling at up to 7000 apiece, in the Great White Series. The artist is now working on a series of sunflowers - an odd transition, but, he points out, Where do you go once youve done sharks I hardly think anyone would be interested if I announced the opening of my Great Sardine Series...

  • Sebastian Horsleys Great White Series was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in May, and can be caught at the London Aquarium until the end of June.