The Nightmare World of Austin Osman Spare
If you were an art student in Britain in the last decades of the 20th century, you would have been extremely fortunate to learn of the existence of Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956), “one of the greatest living draughtsmen” as he was described within his lifetime, and certainly “the greatest artist you’ve never heard of,” as the cliché goes.
In an item on the BBC’s ‘The Culture Show’ aired to coincide with a major retrospective of Spare’s work in 2010, no less a commentator than Andrew Graham Dixon introduced him as:
An intriguing Edwardian artist of the magical, the otherworldly and the grotesque, whose claims that mystical practices lay behind his disturbing imagery brought him admirers and detractors in equal measure.
As the subtitle of a recent highly acclaimed biography of Spare described him, he was truly “London’s Lost Artist” – or perhaps even England’s… But Austin Spare, the ‘lost’ artist, is apparently lost no more, judging by the fact that his popularity is on the increase, and his work fetches ever-higher prices these days.
If you had a talent for drawing and were deeply interested in representing the human figure – not just by itself, but also within a meaningful, erotic and maybe esoteric context – you would not have had the inspiring and stimulating example of this ‘lost’ artist at your disposal. And you certainly would not have known about Spare’s later years, when he led an almost liminal existence but still created amazing images.
There are the now well-known pictures of him in his dingy basement flat, which doubled as his studio, surrounded by stray cats and his drawings and paintings, looking like an old vagrant, which by all accounts he had almost become. You would most likely have been greatly moved by it, and perhaps shocked.
Maybe you had a friend who knew someone in the occult-inspired underground bands of the 1980s, like Psychic TV or Coil, or the subculture that sprung up around them. In these circles Spare was celebrated, rightly or wrongly, as an ‘outsider’ hero for apparently turning his back on the mainstream and embracing a life of poverty, like some sort of Cockney ascetic.
You might have heard he was admired and collected by such unlikely figures as Barry Humphries, or guitarist Chris Stein from Blondie. You may have caught wind of the emerging Chaos Magic movement that claimed Spare as a kind of spiritual forebear: an artist shaman, a spiritual currency with ever-increasing status.
The near-mythic image of Spare – the arch-individualist who thumbed his nose at authority and worldly success to go his own way, living only for his visions and his art – had something for everybody.
Kenneth & Steffi Grant
Most people caught wind of Austin Spare through the books of Kenneth Grant, former acolyte of the ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, and tireless documenter of the 20th century ‘magical revival’. Grant and his wife Steffi, herself a talented artist, had personally known Spare in the last years of his life, and were instrumental in supporting and promoting his work from the 1970s onward.
Acclaimed author, graphic novelist, and self-confessed magician Alan Moore acknowledges Grant’s contribution in his Introduction to Phil Baker’s fine biography Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2011):
… without the tireless championing of Kenneth Grant the vast majority of us would, in all likelihood, have never heard of Austin Osman Spare.
Kenneth and Steffi were both magicians themselves, she working more with magic in her art, he in his writing: the nine volumes of “The Typhonian Trilogies,” which Grant wrote from the early 1970s up to the Millennium, and for which Steffi provided illustrations, nearly all featured artwork by, and information on, Spare. Additionally, the Grants produced two fine volumes dedicated solely to him: the now-classic Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare (originally published in 1975, but reissued by Fulgur in 2003), and a lavishly illustrated volume – Zos Speaks! (Fulgur, 1998) – reproducing much of their correspondence with Spare, that gives a moving and insightful account of their friendship.
In her Introduction to Zos Speaks!, Steffi writes a vivid account of her first meeting Spare at his address off Brixton Road, a run-down Victorian terrace house that narrowly escaped the Blitz. The old man in front of her was “bent and decrepit looking.” He was unkempt and wore tattered clothes he had probably slept in, and his hands trembled. The contrast could hardly have been greater to the precocious boy star who wooed the Royal College of Art many years before. Herbert Budd, an art teacher, in whose classes Steffi sometimes posed, told her that back in the day, Spare was considered:
A god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd.
In Australia, the late Nevill Drury (1947-2013) wrote about Spare in his 1972 book The Search for Abraxas (co-written with Stephen Skinner, reissued by Salamander & Sons, 2013). Drury was also keenly interested in Rosaleen Norton, the notorious artist and “Witch Queen of King’s Cross” (in Sydney), and he may have regarded Spare as being her occult cousin. He would come back to them both, separately or together, a number of times, and one of his last books was the lavish Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare, again produced in collaboration with Salamander & Sons in 2012.
An Unsual Muse
An important part of the Austin Spare story is that he had a very unusual Muse. Apparently, she was a local witch, Mrs. Patterson: an elderly woman, ugly but vigorous, who is said to have seduced him at a young age – though, of course, we shall never be able to ascertain how much, if anything, of the story is true. She was not his only Muse, but she played a vital role, introducing him to magic and witchcraft. She gave him his ‘ugly ecstasies’. The impression given is that she ravished him, her special trick being the ability to ‘project a glamour’ (the original meaning of the word ‘glamour’ being a kind of spell or enchantment), in which she could transform herself into an alluring young woman. She could also project visualisations for fortune telling, and make forms originating in your mind appear as if they were tangible and real.
Austin Spare certainly had developed the ability to make shapes and figures visible in front of your eyes through his extraordinary ‘witchy’ creative gifts. Even if there was no flesh-and-blood ‘Witch Patterson’, Spare unquestionably ravishes us with his artistry. When the prospect of a full-blown artistic career had disappeared below the horizon, She would still vividly materialise, if not in front of him then certainly in his imagination, to inspire him, as revealed in his later splendid artwork.
As his redorces and health dwindled, he “carried everything into his art,” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote of great men who “let their lives get overgrown like an old path…”
That his Muse was ancient and ugly gains significance in the light of a largely forgotten chapter in British history. Centuries before, during the iconoclasm or smashing of religious images – which the fanaticism of the Protestant Reformation visited upon Britain (and a few other countries in north-western Europe) – the country lost a great deal of its artistic and spiritual legacy. It is estimated close to eighty percent of religious images were destroyed. Up until that time of image destruction, an artist with Spare’s gifts and occult tastes, even without being a devout Christian – which he certainly wasn’t – might still have found visual inspiration and ideas in the iconic painting and sculpture found in churches and cathedrals.
The intervening centuries were lost spiritual territory to visionary artists like Austin Spare and William Blake – a fellow artist-visionary with whom Spare strongly identified. He was probably only half-joking when he remarked he had been Blake in a former life, and he surely could have claimed as his own Blake’s words:
I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.
Being both fiercely individualistic personalities and visionaries, they insisted on creating their own cosmologies. In a way, they had to.
For a while as a young man, before the Great War, flushed with success and newly married to a dancing-girl called Eily Shaw, Spare played at being a Mayfair artist, courted by wealthy patrons. But it wasn’t to last. He would spend most of his adult life south of the River Thames, an area he came to strongly identify with.
Till age seven he had lived with his family – his father was a City of London policeman, his mother the daughter of a Royal Marine from Devonshire, and he had three siblings. The place of residence was in Bloomfield Place, near Smithfield meat market, where he would have seen thousands of animal carcasses and a great toing and froing of animals – alive and dead. This, no doubt, left a powerful and abiding impression on him, giving him a strong sense of flesh, of life and death. In modern terminology, he’d say the place had a ‘bad vibe’. At the same time, as was not uncommon in that age of rapid technological development, the meat market was overarched by ironwork of an almost ecclesiastical magnificence (it’s still there.) The Central Avenue has been described as being “like a cathedral nave,” hinting at a subliminal connection between the slaughterhouse and religion. One major symbol in Spare’s work, the totemic vulture, almost certainly was conceived in this landscape of death and animal suffering.
The family moved south of the Thames, to Kennington, when he was seven. In those early years, as a strong vigorous child, Austin liked physical activities such as boxing and wrestling, swimming and cycling. He went to school at St. Agnes Church, which had been re-modelled by Gilbert Scott, the Gothic-revival architect.
A neighbour remembers the young Spare being impressed by the ceremonial and ritual side of religion at the Anglo-Catholic High Church. He saw cowled and robed figures, which would later appear in his work, though hardly in a flattering light; he liked the incense and the rituals. At the opening of the church the priest wore a garment with a white stole, and there was a hymn to Mary. The Protestants were infuriated: burning incense and an act of devotion to Mary virtually amounted to “the drunken bliss of the strumpet kiss of the Jezebel of Rome.”
Development of a Style & Cosmology
In Spare’s art you often see “things in their natural state,” in the words of Steffi Grant. Spare excelled at female nudes, and many are, you might say, women in their natural state. They don’t conform to any particular idea or ideal, except when they follow the form and style of Ancient Egypt. The creatures of the natural world, from rats and toads to snakes, lions and birds, make regular appearances, often juxtaposed with his nudes. But as much as he “cared for growth and movement in the plant and tree world” – preferring them to flowers in vases, for instance – he also loved artifice and style, shaping Mother Nature for his own creative ends. He developed a unique kind of anamorphism, which he called ‘siderealism’, which strikes you with its clean and fluid handling of line and colour, conjuring the elusive Fourth Dimension and offering the suggestion of fresh perspectives. He mostly used it for portraits of film stars – after all, were they not the new gods and goddesses of his (and our) time!?
Austin Spare was a tremendous magpie when it came to what images and visual ideas he borrowed to then make inimitably his own – which is what every great artist does. Apart from his astounding flair and skill to make images, he also wrote and largely self-published books, which he naturally illustrated himself. It was all part of the creation of the Great Work, to build his own cosmology. He did not have a great formal education, but he did have the potential to be a scholar.
In his in-depth study of the five books that Spare published, Austin Osman Spare: The Artist’s Books, 1905-1927 (IHO, 1995; reprinted Mandrake, 2005), Dr. William Wallace does an admirable job unearthing Spare’s sources of inspiration, interests and influences, such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy, The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, The Rubàiyàt by Omar Khayyám, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Kabbalah, the Works of William Blake and Albrecht Dürer, and various texts of Eastern mysticism.
The Many Different Spares
There was Spare the Cockney with his Cockney portraits of market traders and characters from the local pub, which would not have been out of place in Rembrandt’s time. They made him a quick buck when he badly needed it, especially when down on his luck towards the end. He was brilliant at it, and no doubt had genuine affection for the characters he portrayed.
There was Spare the pornographer: pornographic material does exist, for example in Spare’s original folio for his 1905 book, The Focus of Life, which is far more explicit than the published version and only came to light when a copy previously owned by novelist E. M. Forster made it to auction.
There was Spare who made exquisite Egyptian pictures, such as the magical stele – created to bring luck, good health and blessings to his friends – or the fine altar-piece of a voluptuous Isis, now in the collection of former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
There was Spare the Borough Satyr, eyeing his women – one of whom liked his work “because it was dirty” – as Spare later told the young Kenneth Grant, no doubt chuckling over a pint in a South London pub.
There was Spare the maker of exquisite books, mostly self-published. They’ve become legendary among his admirers, like The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstacy (1913) – in which he set out his “Alphabet of Desire” and theory of “Sigil Magic” later hijacked and popularised by the Chaos Magicians.
There was Spare hermaphroditising men into women, or himself – at least in his drawings – posing as a woman.
There was Spare the Visionary who could only partly achieve his visual ideas because poverty, lack of patrons and status prevented their realisation.
And there is Spare the Magician, the Sorcerer, the Witch, an incarnation that appealed deeply to a generation who would encounter him in the most unlikely places: in twilight worlds of black magic, books on resurging paganism and the occult, and weird music, corners where the culture is “murkier, livelier and more unusual” as Alan Moore says.
After his initial fame during the tail-end of a Decadent age (when he could have been “the new Aubrey Beardsley”), Spare was cast out and set adrift on the troubling and troubled tides of the 20th century. In part he himself chose this fate, which made him beloved of his late 20th and now early 21st century audience – turning his back on “all that.” But there is more, much more. The fullness of Spare’s creative universe is impossible to cover here.
The last word on his Art surely belongs to the artist himself:
I AM THE LIVING TRUTH. Heaven is ecstasy; my consciousness changing and acquiring association. May I have courage to take from my own superabundance.
– Austin Osman Spare, The Anathema of Zos (1927)