Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare, the fourth of the five children of Philip Newton Spare (1857–1928), a policeman, and his wife, Eliza Ann Osman (1860–1939), was born London on the 30th December, 1886. He left his elementary school in Smithfield at 13 but had some formal tuition at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art and before exhibiting at the Royal Academy at the age of sixteen. This created some interest in his work and in an interview in The Daily Chronicle he told the reporter that he was interested in inventing his own religion.

Spare became a close friend of Sylvia Pankhurst. He left art college in 1905 without completing the course. The same year, now aged eighteen, published his first book, Earth: Inferno (1905). His first exhibition was at the Bruton Galleries in 1907. It was widely attacked by the critics and George Bernard Shaw suggested that "Spare's medicine is too strong for the average man". His biographer, Phil Baker, claimed that his work was influenced by that of Aubrey Beardsley and Edmund Sullivan: "He took something from both, but he struck an off-key note of the cracked, decayed, and corrupt which was all his own." In 1911 he married the theatre actress Eily Gertrude Shaw (1888–1938).

Spare published The Book of Pleasure in 1913: Robert Ansell has argued: "The years between 1909 and 1913 were Spare’s golden era. He staged several West End exhibitions and enjoyed numerous commissions from private collectors and publishers. The period reached its apex in 1913 with the publication of Spare’s masterpiece, The Book of Pleasure. Inspired by his marriage to the actress Eily Gertrude Shaw in 1911 the book is now regarded as a classic in 20th century esoteric studies. Complex and obscure, Spare’s writing in The Book of Pleasure sketches out a vision of a magical process entirely devoid of ceremony and thus swept away all conventional notions of ritual praxis."

Spare was opposed to the First World War but in 1917 Spare was conscripted into the Royal Army Medical Corps. Early in 1918 the government decided that a senior government figure should take over responsibility for propaganda. On 4th March Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, was made Minister of Information. Under him was Charles Masterman (Director of Publications) and John Buchan (Director of Intelligence). Lord Northcliffe, the owner of both The Times and the Daily Mail, was put in charge of all propaganda directed at enemy countries. Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, was appointed director of propaganda in neutral countries. On the announcement in February 1918, David Lloyd George was accused in the House of Commons of using this new system of getting control over all the leading figures in Fleet Street.

Beaverbrook decided to rapidly expand the number of artists in France. He established with Arnold Bennett a British War Memorial Committee (BWMC). The artist chosen for this programme were given different instructions to those sent previously. Beaverbrook told them that pictures were "no longer considered primarily as a contribution to propaganda, they were now to be thought of chiefly as a record."

Artists sent abroad under the BWMC programme included Spare, John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, John Nash, Henry Lamb, Henry Tonks, Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson, Colin Gill, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Philip Wilson Steer, George Clausen, Bernard Meninsky, Charles Pears, Sydney Carline, David Bomberg, Gilbert Ledward and Charles Jagger. Most of his Spare's paintings in France such as Operating in a Regimental Aid Post and First Field Dressing featured the work of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

During the war his relationship with his wife, Eily Gertrude Shaw, came to an end. According to Robert Ansell "it was Spare’s satyr-like sexual reputation that probably ended the marriage: his fourth book, The Focus of Life, published in 1921, delivers a dream-like narrative and voluptuous pencil nudes – none of which were his wife. It was well received, but Spare found himself out-of-step and alienated from London’s art society and he retreated to his roots in South London."

From October 1922 to July 1924 Spare edited, jointly with Clifford Bax, the quarterly, Golden Hind for the publishers, Chapman and Hall. It collapsed for lack of support, but during its brief career it reproduced impressive figure drawing and lithographs by Spare and others. In 1925 Spare, Alan Odle, John Austen, and Harry Clarke showed together at the St George's Gallery, and in 1930 at the Godfrey Philips Galleries.

According to the author of Austin Osman Spare (2010): "Spare increasingly parted company with fame and fortune during the 1920s, and between the wars he held selling exhibitions in his council flat. He drew intense pastels of Southwark locals from life, art deco pictures of film stars from magazines, and he experimented with anamorphic distortion, which he termed siderealism."

The Times reported that: "A dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, he (Spare) had that complete other-worldliness so often depicted in romantic fiction and so rarely found in real life. Money meant nothing to him. With his talents as a figure draughtsman he might easily have commanded a four-figure income in portraiture, but he elected to live quietly and humbly, rarely going out, painting what he wished to paint, and selling his works at three or four guineas each. Even in outward aspect he conformed to type - with his untidy shock of hair, small imperial, and a scarf instead of a collar."

The journalist, Hannen Swaffer, claimed that in 1936 Spare sent a self-portrait painting to Adolf Hitler. According to Swaffer, Hitler was so impressed that he invited Spare to go to Germany to paint him. Spare replied: "Only from negations can I wholesomely conceive you. For I know of no courage sufficient to stomach your aspirations and ultimates. If you are superman, let me be for ever animal.”

Spare worked from a small flat in Brixton during the Second World War. In 1941 Spare was seriously injured during a bombing raid. According to one source: "For three years he struggled to regain the use of his arms until finally, in 1946, in a cramped basement in Brixton, he began to make pictures again, surrounded by stray cats. At the time he had no bed and worked in an old army shirt and tattered jacket. Yet he still charged only an average of £5 per picture."

Austin Osman Spare died in South Western Hospital, Landor Road, Stockwell, on 15th May, 1956, following appendicitis.

Austin Spare, an artist of unusual gifts and attainments and of an even more unusual personality, died on May 15th 1956, in hospital in London at the age of 67.

A dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, he had that complete other-worldliness so often depicted in romantic fiction and so rarely found in real life. Even in outward aspect he conformed to type - with his untidy shock of hair, small imperial, and a scarf instead of a collar. But for most of his life he did not mix in what are called 'artistic circles'. Not Chelsea, Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury or Hampstead claimed him, but for years a little fiat in the "south suburbs by the Elephant" far removed from the coteries, deep-set in the ordinary life of the people.

He would teach a little from January to June, then up to the end of October, would finish various works, and from the beginning of November to Christmas would hang his products in the living-room, bedroom, and kitchen of his flat in the Borough. There he kept open house; critics and purchasers would go down, ring the bell, he admitted, and inspect the pictures, often in the company of some of the models - working women of the neighbourhood. Spare was convinced that there was a great potential demand for pictures at 2 or 3 guineas each, and condemned the practice of asking L20 for "amateurish stuff'. He worked chiefly in pastel or pencil, drawing rapidly, often taking no mon than two hours over a picture. He was especially interested in delineating the old, and had various models over 70 and one as old as 93.

Spare's alleged 'automatic' and 'psychic' drawings tended to lack discipline, and were on the whole inferior to his 'straight' work. The last chiefly comprised nudes, which combined strength and delicacy of a high order and have a wonderful three-dimensional feeling. His minute draughtmaship may have owed something to the Pre-Raphaelite influence, though general his art was much more human and full blooded than that of the 'brethren'. Of his technical mastery then can be no manner of doubt. The collection of his drawings may yet become a cult.


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Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare (30 December 1886 – 15 May 1956) was an English artist and occultist who worked as both a draughtsman and a painter. Influenced by symbolism and art nouveau his art was known for its clear use of line, and its depiction of monstrous and sexual imagery. In an occult capacity, he developed idiosyncratic magical techniques including automatic writing, automatic drawing and sigilization based on his theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self.

Born into a working-class family in Snow Hill in London, Spare grew up in Smithfield and then Kennington, taking an early interest in art. Gaining a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, he trained as a draughtsman, while also taking a personal interest in Theosophy and Occultism, becoming briefly involved with Aleister Crowley and his A∴A∴. Developing his own personal occult philosophy, he authored a series of occult grimoires, namely Earth Inferno (1905), The Book of Pleasure (1913) and The Focus of Life (1921). Alongside a string of personal exhibitions, he also achieved much press attention for being the youngest entrant at the 1904 Royal Academy summer exhibition.

After publishing two short-lived art magazines, Form and The Golden Hind, during the First World War he was conscripted into the armed forces and worked as an official war artist. Moving to various working class areas of South London over the following decades, Spare lived in poverty, but continued exhibiting his work to varying success. With the arrival of surrealism onto the London art scene during the 1930s, critics and the press once more took an interest in his work, seeing it as an early precursor to surrealist imagery. Losing his home during the Blitz, he fell into relative obscurity following the Second World War, although he continued exhibiting till his death in 1956.

Spare's spiritualist legacy was largely maintained by his friend, the Thelemite author Kenneth Grant in the latter part of the 20th century, and his beliefs regarding sigils provided a key influence on the chaos magic movement and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. Spare's art once more began to receive attention in the 1970s, due to a renewed interest in art nouveau in Britain, with several retrospective exhibitions being held in London. Various books have been written about Spare and his art by the likes of Robert Ansell (2005) and Phil Baker (2011).

Austin's father, Philip Newton Spare, was born in Yorkshire in 1857, and moved to London, where he gained employment with the City of London Police in 1878, being stationed at Snow Hill Police Station. Austin's mother, Eliza Osman, was born in Devon, the daughter of a Royal Marine, and married Philip Newton Spare at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street in December 1879. Together they moved into a tenement called Bloomfield House on Bloomfield Place, King Street in Snow Hill, which was inhabited by the families of police officers, drivers, clerks and market workers. The Spare's first child to survive was John Newton Spare, born in 1882, with William Herbert Spare following in 1883 and then Susan Ann Spare in 1885.

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Austin Osman Spare

“There must be few people in London interested in art,” the Art Journal told Edwardian readers back in 1907, “who do not know the name Austin Osman Spare.” Before long they might have done better to ask if there was anyone out there who did know the name, weirdly memorable though it is, because Spare had his career upside down: he began as a controversial West End celebrity and went on to underground obscurity in a South London basement. Hard to categorise, impossible to pin down, he remains one of England’s strangest and most enigmatic artists. In the words of an obituary, ‘Strange and Gentle Genius Dies’ in the London Evening News, “You have probably never heard of Austin Osman Spare. But his should have been a famous name.”

Spare was born near Smithfield Market in 1886, the son of a policeman, and spent his later childhood and youth in Kennington. Feted as a prodigy, he became the enfant terrible of the Edwardian art scene, where he was hailed as the next Aubrey Beardsley. He experimented with automatic drawing some years before the surrealists, and went on to work as an illustrator and War Artist, but for complex reasons – which would have to include changing fashion, his refusal to embrace modernism, and a lack of the social skills needed to get on in the metropolitan art world – his career foundered in the early Twenties. Having been “the darling of Mayfair” he began to fall back into working-class life south of the river, moving to a Borough tenement block and living, as he put it, as a “swine with swine.”

Increasingly reclusive and living outside of consensus reality, Spare spent the Twenties voyaging into automatic and “psychic” drawing, only to find a new identity thrust on him in the Thirties as the first surrealist (“FATHER OF SURREALISM – HE’S A COCKNEY” said a newspaper headline in 1936). This sensational and more than slightly tongue-in-cheek claim was based on his experiments with automatism, but unfortunately it didn’t mean he was hanging out with Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, dispensing avuncular advice. Instead, he was trying to sell his Surrealist Racing Forecast Cards through a small ad in the Exchange and Mart.

Now based in a studio above the Elephant and Castle Woolworth’s, Spare was developing a particularly strong line in pastel portraits of local Cockneys, like his picture of a flower-seller [X]. She is more conventionally attractive than many of the Cockney portraits, which often featured working men and in particular elderly women, with whom Spare had a particular sympathy he had a lifelong principle that what he looked for in portrait subjects was “character and not beauty”. He also had a deep and heartfelt line in self-portraits, and was said to have done as many as Rembrandt. His own face had as much character as anyone’s, manifest in the ambitious and somewhat wary, hunted-looking young man of [X], still unsure of his place in the world the unfazed stoic of [X], characteristic of Spare in later life and the warmer and more charismatic [X], from 1936, looking thoughtful and a little put-upon.

One of the stranger and more hyped stories about Spare’s career involves a request from Hitler for a portrait, possibly through a member of the German embassy staff Spare seems to have refused on principle, and briefly became a hero in the local papers. When his studio was bombed during the worst night of the blitz, 10 th May 1941 – the night the Elephant and Castle area was completely devastated, with record casualties – he referred to it as “Hitler’s revenge”. Spare suffered a great loss of work in the blast, with perhaps a couple of hundred pictures and particularly his local portraits. In some cases portraits and their subjects probably perished together in the same night.

Mutating beyond straight portraiture, Spare was also producing exquisite stylizations of film stars such as Mary Pickford and Jean Harlow, using an anamororphic technique of altered perspective that he called “siderealism” [EXAMPLE IN SHOW?], along with Pan-like “satyrizations” of male faces, often modelled on real-life locals. One of the extraordinary things about Spare’s art is the chameleonic range of styles and modes, including automatic drawing – which itself ranges from the fertile scribble, with faces materialising, in the lower half of [X] to the more developed characters of [X], related to Spare’s early Twenties albums A Book of Automatic Drawing and The Book of Ugly Ecstasy. At the same time Spare’s more traditional draughtsmanship led to comparisons with Old Masters such as Michelangelo and Durer, often by people outside the art world who were surprised to find “real art” was still being made. The difficulty of getting to grips with Spare’s work on its own terms has led to similarly excitable comparisons pointing forwards: not only was he credited as Britain’s proto-surrealist in the Thirties, but in the Sixties art critic Mario Amaya (a pop-art specialist, shot and wounded alongside Andy Warhol when Valerie Solanas tried to assassinate him) saw him as Britain’s first pop artist.

Spare’s output also includes overtly occult work, and his involvement with the occult has kept his memory alive in some quarters and yet marginalized him. At the core of his innovative approach to magic was an attempt to manipulate his own unconscious, giving his wishes the demonic power of complexes and neuroses and nurturing them into psychic entities, like the older idea of familiar spirits. In order to talk to his unconscious in a language he thought might get through to it, Spare developed the experimental scripts that can be seen at the foot of his magnificent study of a woman holding a crystal ball [X], with a line of “sigils” (a condensation of words, based on the principle of the artist’s monogram, and intended to bypass the conscious mind) and then four more elegant lines of the “alphabet of desire.”

Part of mankind’s long history of trying to control reality with writing, Spare’s experiments with script also make him a precursor of the “hypergraphics” movement of the Fifties, associated with the Lettrists in France. They are no less part of the long fascination, particularly in magic, with arcane lettering as the writing of otherness, both external and internal. In the words of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus,

These metaphysics of magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly.

Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters:

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.[i]

Three centuries later the Surrealist heroine Helene Smith produced supposedly Martian script in mediumistic trances, while more recently Susan Hiller’s Midnight, Baker Street (1983) scrawls cryptically over a photo-booth self portrait with something that looks midway between Arabic and shorthand, suggestive of unconscious and nocturnal realms. And when the American writer William Seabrook – alcoholic, sado-masochist, cannibal, and sensationalistic explorer of voodoo and witchcraft – taught himself even plain Pitman shorthand as a teenager in the first decade of the twentieth century, he felt himself escaping (as if to “war, to jungles, to deserts, and ultimately to drink”) into its “mysterious, beautiful, secret, hieratic” script.

There is a less encoded occult engagement in the extraordinary 1910 drawing [X] featuring an idealised self-portrait of a handsome youth with ram’s horns, beside a hermaphroditic devil figure with an austere, hieratic dignity. Aligned with his very organic-looking horns, the devil is stretching oddly-shaped wings upwards, their shape perhaps making more sense if they are represented both as unfurling – with a sideways, elbow-type movement suggestive to modern viewers of a bygone disco monstrosity, ‘the funky chicken’ – and at full vertical stretch, anticipating the simultaneous depictions-in-time of the Futurists, like Giacomo Balla’s dynamic dog with its moving legs in multiple positions at once (an older and more static example might be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, with his variant limb positions). The spontaneous energy and intensity of the pencil inspires a further dancing squiggle to continue over one of the ram’s horns, as the local energy of the hand rises up like whorls of smoke from a joss stick, or the ornamental flourishes of be-bop taking off from the overall controlling melodies of earlier swing. And at the bottom of the picture is a cloudy density of ‘automatic’ line, with vague animal heads taking shape the whole thing should stretch our idea of what was going on in British drawing in 1910.

Spare’s occultism was rooted in the place and period of his early life, with spiritualism, theosophy, and the late nineteenth-century occult revival, along with a rising excitement about the unconscious. It is a biographical commonplace to say that such-and-such a figure lived from the era of the horse and cart to the first jet planes, or some similar span, conveniently forgetting the same is true of millions of people from the same generation, but Spare really did inhabit his times in a particularly distinctive way. He lived from the dog-end of the Aubrey Beardsley era, stayed loyal to the Edwardian cult of Pan in his satyr pictures, and embraced the heyday of Hollywood Babylon and the social changes beyond, with his post-war portraits of spivs. Post-war London was a ravaged but atmospheric landscape, with stray cats proliferating in the ruins, wild plants springing up on bomb sites, and live pianists in public houses, where Spare could often be found. The Harry Lime Theme, from the 1949 film The Third Man, was popular on pub pianos at the time and a friend remembered it as “almost Spare’s signature tune”.

Moving to a dank Brixton basement after being bombed, where he looked after a horde of cats, Spare was now in poverty but he never gave up. Needing to survive outside the gallery system, shortly after the war he hit on the idea of holding reasonably priced shows in South London pubs, and mounted three with varying degrees of success. And when a popular magazine of the Forties, The Leader, ran a human-interest photo feature about Spare as a starving artist, members of the public posted him tins of food.

It was this same article that brought Spare to the attention of a young couple named Steffi and Kenneth Grant, and it was in the occult writing of Kenneth Grant that Spare was to be recreated as a dark sorcerer, seduced and initiated in childhood by an elderly witch. Grant’s mythologised version of Spare was influenced by Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, and Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, and his Spare seems to live in a parallel London: a city with an alchemist in Islington, a mysterious Chinese dream-control cult down in Stockwell, and a deceptively small shop with a labyrinthine basement, supposedly decorated by Spare, where a magical lodge held their meetings. This shop, near Baker Street – then a furrier, now an Islamic bookshop[ii] – really existed, and part of the fascination of this confabulated life is its misty overlap with a real London. Whether Spare ever went near any of these places is another question.

Famous and obscure in his lifetime, since his death in 1956 Spare has been simultaneously forgotten and celebrated: a shadowy cult figure, collected by rock stars (notably Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), championed by graphic novelist Alan Moore, and taken up by the British music underground centred around Throbbing Gristle and Coil. He even made an arcane appearance on late Sixties vinyl when a little-known band called Bulldog Breed (psychedelia with a touch of Kinks-style nostalgia, not to be confused with any later bands of the same name) recorded a track about him on their 1969 LP Made in England. And now, at last, it looks as if he is finally reaching a wider audience outside the occult ghetto, and gaining the serious recognition that largely eluded him in life.

At best, particularly seen in the flesh, Spare’s work has a remarkable presence. He is, par excellence, the artist of the aura, that almost magical quality of ‘is-ness’ in a work of art that seems able to face the audience on equal terms, as if it could return the viewer’s gaze. Not everyone likes this intensity, and in the Thirties an unknown ginger-haired man was seen to rush out of one of Spare’s shows shouting “Horrible, horrible! Go to Hell!” But at best his work also has an extraordinary, enigmatic beauty, and a compulsive pleasure. The French writer Georges Bataille, eroticist and thinker of extremes on the fringes of the surrealist movement, once asked if any man could love a painting the way a fetishist loves a shoe. If we ever find that man, he may well turn out be a Spare collector. [2088]


Austin Osman Spare - an Introduction

“There must be few people in London interested in art,” the Art Journal told Edwardian readers back in 1907, “who do not know the name Austin Osman Spare.” Before long they might have done better to ask if there was anyone out there who did know the name, weirdly memorable though it is, because Spare had his career upside down: he began as a controversial West End celebrity and went on to underground obscurity in a South London basement. Hard to categorise, impossible to pin down, he remains one of England’s strangest and most enigmatic artists. In the words of an obituary, ‘Strange and Gentle Genius Dies’ in the London Evening News, “You have probably never heard of Austin Osman Spare. But his should have been a famous name.”

Spare was born near Smithfield Market in 1886, the son of a policeman, and spent his later childhood and youth in Kennington. Feted as a prodigy, he became the enfant terrible of the Edwardian art scene, where he was hailed as the next Aubrey Beardsley. He experimented with automatic drawing some years before the surrealists, and went on to work as an illustrator and War Artist, but for complex reasons – which would have to include changing fashion, his refusal to embrace modernism, and a lack of the social skills needed to get on in the metropolitan art world – his career foundered in the early Twenties. Having been “the darling of Mayfair” he began to fall back into working-class life south of the river, moving to a Borough tenement block and living, as he put it, as a “swine with swine.”

Increasingly reclusive and living outside of consensus reality, Spare spent the Twenties voyaging into automatic and “psychic” drawing, only to find a new identity thrust on him in the Thirties as the first surrealist (“FATHER OF SURREALISM – HE’S A COCKNEY” said a newspaper headline in 1936). This sensational and more than slightly tongue-in-cheek claim was based on his experiments with automatism, but unfortunately it didn’t mean he was hanging out with Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, dispensing avuncular advice. Instead he was trying to sell his Surrealist Racing Forecast Cards through a small ad in the Exchange and Mart.

Now based in a studio above the Elephant and Castle Woolworth’s, Spare was developing a particularly strong line in pastel portraits of local Cockneys, like his picture of a flower-seller [X]. She is more conventionally attractive than many of the Cockney portraits, which often featured working men and in particular elderly women, with whom Spare had a particular sympathy he had a lifelong principle that what he looked for in portrait subjects was “character and not beauty”. He also had a deep and heartfelt line in self-portraits, and was said to have done as many as Rembrandt. His own face had as much character as anyone’s, manifest in the ambitious and somewhat wary, hunted-looking young man of [X], still unsure of his place in the world the unfazed stoic of [X], characteristic of Spare in later life and the warmer and more charismatic [X], from 1936, looking thoughtful and a little put-upon.

One of the stranger and more hyped stories about Spare’s career involves a request from Hitler for a portrait, possibly through a member of the German embassy staff Spare seems to have refused on principle, and briefly became a hero in the local papers. When his studio was bombed during the worst night of the blitz, 10 th May 1941 – the night the Elephant and Castle area was completely devastated, with record casualties – he referred to it as “Hitler’s revenge”. Spare suffered a great loss of work in the blast, with perhaps a couple of hundred pictures and particularly his local portraits. In some cases portraits and their subjects probably perished together in the same night.

Mutating beyond straight portraiture, Spare was also producing exquisite stylizations of film stars such as Mary Pickford and Jean Harlow, using an anamororphic technique of altered perspective that he called “siderealism” [EXAMPLE IN SHOW?], along with Pan-like “satyrizations” of male faces, often modelled on real-life locals. One of the extraordinary things about Spare’s art is the chameleonic range of styles and modes, including automatic drawing – which itself ranges from the fertile scribble, with faces materialising, in the lower half of [X] to the more developed characters of [X], related to Spare’s early Twenties albums A Book of Automatic Drawing and The Book of Ugly Ecstasy. At the same time Spare’s more traditional draughtsmanship led to comparisons with Old Masters such as Michelangelo and Durer, often by people outside the art world who were surprised to find “real art” was still being made. The difficulty of getting to grips with Spare’s work on its own terms has led to similarly excitable comparisons pointing forwards: not only was he credited as Britain’s proto-surrealist in the Thirties, but in the Sixties art critic Mario Amaya (a pop-art specialist, shot and wounded alongside Andy Warhol when Valerie Solanas tried to assassinate him) saw him as Britain’s first pop artist.

Spare’s output also includes overtly occult work, and his involvement with the occult has kept his memory alive in some quarters and yet marginalized him. At the core of his innovative approach to magic was an attempt to manipulate his own unconscious, giving his wishes the demonic power of complexes and neuroses and nurturing them into psychic entities, like the older idea of familiar spirits. In order to talk to his unconscious in a language he thought might get through to it, Spare developed the experimental scripts that can be seen at the foot of his magnificent study of a woman holding a crystal ball [X], with a line of “sigils” (a condensation of words, based on the principle of the artist’s monogram, and intended to bypass the conscious mind) and then four more elegant lines of the “alphabet of desire.”

Part of mankind’s long history of trying to control reality with writing, Spare’s experiments with script also make him a precursor of the “hypergraphics” movement of the Fifties, associated with the Lettrists in France. They are no less part of the long fascination, particularly in magic, with arcane lettering as the writing of otherness, both external and internal. In the words of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus,

These metaphysics of magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly.

Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters:

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. [i]

Three centuries later the Surrealist heroine Helene Smith produced supposedly Martian script in mediumistic trances, while more recently Susan Hiller’s Midnight, Baker Street (1983) scrawls cryptically over a photo-booth self portrait with something that looks midway between Arabic and shorthand, suggestive of unconscious and nocturnal realms. And when the American writer William Seabrook – alcoholic, sado-masochist, cannibal, and sensationalistic explorer of voodoo and witchcraft – taught himself even plain Pitman shorthand as a teenager in the first decade of the twentieth century, he felt himself escaping (as if to “war, to jungles, to deserts, and ultimately to drink”) into its “mysterious, beautiful, secret, hieratic” script.

There is a less encoded occult engagement in the extraordinary 1910 drawing [X] featuring an idealised self-portrait of a handsome youth with ram’s horns, beside a hermaphroditic devil figure with an austere, hieratic dignity. Aligned with his very organic-looking horns, the devil is stretching oddly-shaped wings upwards, their shape perhaps making more sense if they are represented both as unfurling – with a sideways, elbow-type movement suggestive to modern viewers of a bygone disco monstrosity, ‘the funky chicken’ – and at full vertical stretch, anticipating the simultaneous depictions-in-time of the Futurists, like Giacomo Balla’s dynamic dog with its moving legs in multiple positions at once (an older and more static example might be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, with his variant limb positions). The spontaneous energy and intensity of the pencil inspires a further dancing squiggle to continue over one of the ram’s horns, as the local energy of the hand rises up like whorls of smoke from a joss stick, or the ornamental flourishes of be-bop taking off from the overall controlling melodies of earlier swing. And at the bottom of the picture is a cloudy density of ‘automatic’ line, with vague animal heads taking shape the whole thing should stretch our idea of what was going on in British drawing in 1910.

Spare’s occultism was rooted in the place and period of his early life, with spiritualism, theosophy, and the late nineteenth-century occult revival, along with a rising excitement about the unconscious. It is a biographical commonplace to say that such-and-such a figure lived from the era of the horse and cart to the first jet planes, or some similar span, conveniently forgetting the same is true of millions of people from the same generation, but Spare really did inhabit his times in a particularly distinctive way. He lived from the dog-end of the Aubrey Beardsley era, stayed loyal to the Edwardian cult of Pan in his satyr pictures, and embraced the heyday of Hollywood Babylon and the social changes beyond, with his post-war portraits of spivs. Post-war London was a ravaged but atmospheric landscape, with stray cats proliferating in the ruins, wild plants springing up on bomb sites, and live pianists in public houses, where Spare could often be found. The Harry Lime Theme, from the 1949 film The Third Man, was popular on pub pianos at the time and a friend remembered it as “almost Spare’s signature tune”.

Moving to a dank Brixton basement after being bombed, where he looked after a horde of cats, Spare was now in poverty but he never gave up. Needing to survive outside the gallery system, shortly after the war he hit on the idea of holding reasonably priced shows in South London pubs, and mounted three with varying degrees of success. And when a popular magazine of the Forties, The Leader, ran a human-interest photo feature about Spare as a starving artist, members of the public posted him tins of food.

It was this same article that brought Spare to the attention of a young couple named Steffi and Kenneth Grant, and it was in the occult writing of Kenneth Grant that Spare was to be recreated as a dark sorcerer, seduced and initiated in childhood by an elderly witch. Grant’s mythologised version of Spare was influenced by Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, and Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, and his Spare seems to live in a parallel London: a city with an alchemist in Islington, a mysterious Chinese dream-control cult down in Stockwell, and a deceptively small shop with a labyrinthine basement, supposedly decorated by Spare, where a magical lodge held their meetings. This shop, near Baker Street – then a furrier, now an Islamic bookshop [ii] – really existed, and part of the fascination of this confabulated life is its misty overlap with a real London. Whether Spare ever went near any of these places is another question.

Famous and obscure in his lifetime, since his death in 1956 Spare has been simultaneously forgotten and celebrated: a shadowy cult figure, collected by rock stars (notably Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), championed by graphic novelist Alan Moore, and taken up by the British music underground centred around Throbbing Gristle and Coil. He even made an arcane appearance on late Sixties vinyl when a little-known band called Bulldog Breed (psychedelia with a touch of Kinks-style nostalgia, not to be confused with any later bands of the same name) recorded a track about him on their 1969 LP Made in England. And now, at last, it looks as if he is finally reaching a wider audience outside the occult ghetto, and gaining the serious recognition that largely eluded him in life.

At best, particularly seen in the flesh, Spare’s work has a remarkable presence. He is, par excellence, the artist of the aura, that almost magical quality of ‘is-ness’ in a work of art that seems able to face the audience on equal terms, as if it could return the viewer’s gaze. Not everyone likes this intensity, and in the Thirties an unknown ginger-haired man was seen to rush out of one of Spare’s shows shouting “Horrible, horrible! Go to Hell!” But at best his work also has an extraordinary, enigmatic beauty, and a compulsive pleasure. The French writer Georges Bataille, eroticist and thinker of extremes on the fringes of the surrealist movement, once asked if any man could love a painting the way a fetishist loves a shoe. If we ever find that man, he may well turn out be a Spare collector. [2088]

Phil Baker is a writer in London. His books include The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley (Dedalus, 2009) and Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2011). He has also published on Samuel Beckett, absinthe, and William S Burroughs, and more recently co-edited Lord of Strange Deaths: The Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer.

[i] Dr Faustus, Scene I, lines 78-81. The word “scenes” is generally felt to be wrong, and it has been suggested that it was originally “sayings”, as in spells, or even “signs”.

[ii] Formerly David Curwen furs, 7a Melcombe Street. Enquiries about the basement are not welcomed.


Austin Osman Spare

ZOS SPEAKS! Encounters With Austin Osman Spare - Kenneth & Steffi Grant (DELUXE BINDING, Fulgur 1998)

IMAGES & ORACLES OF AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE - Kenneth Grant (Ltd. SIGNED, 1975 1st Edition HB)

S.S.O.T.B.M.E. - Ramsey Dukes (Signed & Inscribed, 1975 1st Edition)

LIBER NULL (2nd Edition, Late '70s w/ illustrations) + THE BOOK OF RESULTS (3rd edition, Late 1970s) Morton Press Limited Editions

CHAOS INTERNATIONAL Issue #1 (SIGNED Copy, 1986)

A BOOK OF SATYRS - Austin Osman Spare (1907, 1st Edition)

THE FOCUS OF LIFE The Mutterings of Aaos - Austin Osman Spare (1921, 1st Edition, The Morland Press)

THE EXHIBITION CATALOGUES OF AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE (Deluxe Ltd ED 1/96) - Edited by Robert Ansell (Fulgur Press, 2012)

AUSTIN SPARE: Evolution Vols I and II (From Influx To Automatic Drawing & A Fearful Asymmetry) LTD to 225 & 300, Numbered - Stephen Pochin (Mandrake Press, 2008 / 2012)

THE STARLIT MIRE w/ TEN DRAWINGS BY AUSTIN O. SPARE - James Bertram & F. Russell (1st Edition, 1911. Limited to 350 copies only. Published by John Lane, London.)

AOS EX-LIBRIS (DLX Limited Edition of 30. Signed. w/ Original Austin Osman Spare bookplate tipped-in) - Robert Ansell (Keridwen Press, 1988)

THE BOOK OF PLEASURE - Austin Osman Spare (1913, 1st Edition)

A BOOK OF AUTOMATIC DRAWINGS - Austin Osman Spare (1972, Catalpa Press) SIGNED 1/200

THE WITCHES' SABBATH / AXIOMATA - Austin Osman Spare (Deluxe Edition. 1/4 Leather-bound. LTD Edition of 91 numbered copies. SIGNED by Kenneth Grant and Steffi Grant) (Fulgur Press, 2008)

FROM THE INFERNO TO ZOS (Volume 1) - Austin Osman Spare (First Impressions, 1993)

THE FOCUS OF LIFE (REDUX) - Austin Osman Spare (Deluxe Edition of 88 copies only. 1/4 Vellum-bound, Numbered + Signed) (Fulgur Press, 2012)

TWO TRACTS ON CARTOMANCY (w/Surrealist Racing Forecast Cards) SIGNED and INSCRIBED TO FRANK LETCHFORD- Austin Osman Spare (Fulgur Press, 1997)

STUDY OF A PORTRAIT OF FRANK LETCHFORD - Gavin W. Semple DELUXE EDITION 1/45 (Fulgur Press, 2002)

THE BOOK OF UGLY ECSTASY - Austin Osman Spare (Fulgur Press, 1996)

THE VALLEY OF FEAR - Austin Osman Spare (Ltd Edition of 700, Numbered) (Fulgur Press, 2008)

THE CATALPA MONOGRAPHS A Critical Survey Of Austin Osman Spare (Signed Copy) - Dr William Wallace (Jerusalem Press, 2015)

AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE - COCKNEY VISIONARY (Featuring Several Essays and a Catalogue of Artworks) w/ Documentary DVD - Stephen Pochin (Editor) (Jerusalem Press, 2010)

THE TYPHONIAN TRILOGIES (Complete 9 Vol Set) - Kenneth Grant (including Signed Deluxe Edition of The Ninth Arch)

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‘Austin Osman Spare’ by Phil Baker

“What Phil Baker has accomplished here”, writes no one less than Alan Moore in his preface, “is little short of marvellous.” (p. x) So let it be stated right from the get-go: this effusive assessment is certainly no exaggeration. Nor is his preface one of those all too common vacuous courtesy pieces serving some undisclosed debt of mutual back-scratching between media workers. As a celebrated artist of no mean standing, with an entire magical system under his own belt, we can safely assume that Moore knows a thing or two about his artistic – and magical – forebear and colleague Austin Osman Spare and is in an excellent position to judge just about any biography of his. After all, much of this, to him, is familiar territory. Indeed he reveals that he had already been delving “for many years” (p. ix) into Austin Spare when he first learned about Baker’s project. In consequence his introductory words offer a lot more substantial information than a mere friendly go-along would allow us to expect:

In his relation to both art and occultism, Austin Osman Spare stands out as a strikingly individual and even unique figure […] While his line and sense of composition have at times drawn justifiable comparisons with Aubrey Beardsley and with Albrecht Dürer, if we seek a match with Spare the visionary or with Spare the man, surely the only candidate is his fellow impoverished South London angel-headed nut-job, William Blake. In both men’s lives we find the same wilful insistence on creating purely personal cosmologies or systems of belief, fluorescent mappings of the blazing inner territory that each of them clearly had access to. We find the same strangely iconic phantoms and grotesques the same heroic readiness to embrace lives of poverty the same tales of erotic drawings either burned or spirited away upon the artist’s death the same sense of unearthly realms of consciousness both actually experienced and lucidly depicted. (p. vii)

There is, however, “one glaring difference” between the two, Moore goes on to expound: “while both men were equally ignored and marginalized during their respective lives” (p. vii), we have come to learn a lot more about William Blake since Alexander Gilchrist’s biography, whereas Spare “is a presence (or an absence) wreathed in mystery and often in deliberate mystification about whom even his greatest advocates have managed to dig up comparatively little.” (ibid.) It is this highly regrettable gap that Phil Baker essays to fill with exemplary meticulous thoroughness and sensibility.

But that’s not where the foreword ends. Without pre-empting the pointillist minutiae of Baker’s portrayal, Mr Moore offers up a more sweeping appraisal of Austin Spare’s own character traits as a prerequisite to AOS myth and legend building, taking into account that this confrere was himself very much given “to smudge the line dividing fact from fantasy” (p. viii), being, and forever remaining to his unrelenting core, “a man for whom material reality and the reality of the imagination were equivalent if not entirely interchangeable.” (ibid.)

To be fair, this biographical fuzziness isn’t all Spare’s own fault: there were a number of other contemporaries, industrious contributors that would merrily jazz up the legend, ranging from his original admirer and later bête noire Aleister Crowley to an “engagingly delirious Kenneth Grant” (ibid.) who operated for decades as an undisputed key player in the overall narrative of Spare’s life, both in his later years and in his posterity, but one who did bring quite a few problems of his own to the table. While Moore does point out some of the issues accompanying Grant’s idiosyncratic narrative, foremost his often lurid anecdotal style and his cranky prose, he does do him proper justice in the same stride by acknowledging the fact that, were it not for Grant, most of us would probably never have heard of AOS and his unique magical practice. He also takes pains to point out that

the startling and dream-like episodes […] attributed to Spare are our best way of apprehending what the world of magic feels like from within the sorcerer’s own mindset, and […] understanding the mythology surrounding Spare is vital to have a full, inclusive comprehension of the man of who he was and what he meant. (ibid.)

These observations are anything but immaterial as they furnish the reader by way of some judicious guidance with an initiatory frameset before setting out on witnessing Phil Baker’s long romp through the intricately convoluted world of AOS.

Mr Moore goes on in his glowing survey of Baker‘s study, of which we will offer one final sample here:

Baker allows us access to Spare as, at least in part, a self-mythologizing fantasist without attempting to diminish the reality of Spare’s phenomenal accomplishments as a magician, artist or extraordinary human being. If anything, this emphasis upon Spare’s cat-shit and kitchen sink humanity serves only to make his glorious work of self-invention seem both more heroic and more genuinely magical. (p. ix)

Very well said – but what does it all mean? Glad you asked. So let's go find out.

Enter seventeen-year-old Austin Osman Spare, nonplussing his father Philip, a recently retired police officer, who can’t believe his eyes when he comes upon the newspaper headline announcing that a drawing of his son’s has just been hung at the Royal Academy, young Austin being hailed as the youngest exhibitor ever. (As Baker points out later in a footnote on p. 23, said well-meant claim was not quite precise: there had actually been two predecessors in 1897, both aged thirteen. Mere trivia? Perhaps, but it does seem to set an early precedent in terms of the persistent cloud of inaccurateness that was to haunt Spare’s entire life.)

This is May 1904: the commencement of a rising wave of publicity in the course of which the budding prodigy would be lauded by such venerables of the world of arts as Augustus John, George Frederick Watts, and John Singer Sargent. Here was the new Aubrey Beardsley, positively England’s finest draughtsman, with the press even speculating on his purported ambitions to attain to the eventual presidency of the august Royal Academy itself someday – a shooting star turned, de facto over night, into a veritable high brow household name. He would disclaim the presidency bid, though: “I no more aspire to be the President of the Royal Academy than I aspire to be a wastepaper basket.” (p. 25)

“Even allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole,” writes Baker, “a glittering career seemed to be on the cards. What could possibly go wrong?” (p. 1) What indeed?

After briefly recapitulating the history of the Smithfield area of London, somewhat infamous for its “unholy mixture of butchery and religion” (p. 5), where Austin was born on 30th December 1886 – “qualifying as an authentic Cockney” (ibid.) – Baker digs into his family and upbringing. He adds a lot of local colour to his narrative, mostly historic but some of it even quite current, covering architecture and lifestyle, commerce and folklore.

When he was seven, Austin and his family moved south of the river to Kennington, where he spent an overall happy life for a while. Again, Baker depicts the environment in graphic detail, investigates various events and determines possible early influences informing young Austin.

Foremost amongst these is the strong encouragement Austin experienced from both his parents once he became more serious about drawing, earning early accolades both at school and at home from his supportive family.

This aside, his relationship with his mother was quite strained from very early on. In consequence he transferred his filial affection to another, elderly woman whom he elected as his “second mother”: the now-famous “Witch Paterson”, known from various other accounts of his life. Spare, never the most reliable witness, it must be said due to his “life-long tendency to confabulation and self-mythologising” (p. 11), would allege that not only did Mrs Paterson seduce him at an early age, thereby changing the course of his life, she also introduced him to fortune-telling with cards, manifesting, as Baker puts it, “the power to materialise thought-forms to the point where another person could see them not so very different, perhaps, from what an artist does.” (ibid.)

Alas, the veracity of this early tall tale leaves much to be desired: tangible evidence for instance. The popular lore, propagated by some accounts, of “Mrs Paterson” being the representative of some dignified ancient witch cult, is deconstructed but while Baker essays to offer us a more plausible alternative, this itself is somewhat tenuous as well. Which is all a bit of a shame, seeing that it would have qualified as a superb psychoanalytical marker to explain Spare’s gerontophiliac obsession with hags, witches and ancient female demons in his later years. But as our artist would probably have been the first to acknowledge, life doesn’t always play nice, not even for biographers.

To render an impression of Baker’s graphic style and his ingenious knack of interweaving history, local colour and biography, let the following excerpt serve as a paradigm:

In his more daylight life, meanwhile, away from the doubly shadowy figure of Paterson, Spare was attending the very religious school of nearby St. Agnes Church. Originally a plain, shed-like building that had housed a vitriol works, St. Agnes had been remodelled by Gilbert Scott, the Gothic-revival architect. Larger than some cathedrals, with magnificent stained glass windows, it was a notably “High” Anglo-Catholic church a place of ritual and incense, which caused violent controversy on its opening because the priest wore a white stole and Mary was hymned. From the Protestant perspective this was all too much, and more than halfway to “the drunken bliss of the strumpet kiss of the Jezebel of Rome.”

Nuns were a prominent feature of life around the church and school. The drawing of Spare’s which was hung on the wall of the classroom seems to have featured robed and cowled figures this was the distant memory of a neighbour, and […] these figures were to become a lifelong motif in Spare’s work.

[…]

[Spare] also told a friend in later life that all he learned at St. Agnes was how to masturbate, but this was not true. It made more of an impression on him than that suggests, not least because he had been exposed to High ritual and religiosity, and given an intensified awareness of religion of the kind that often overlaps with occultism. (p. 13f.)

This goes to underline Moore’s dictum that

Phil Baker has established himself as among the very best contemporary biographers, especially as one who finds his subjects in the murkier and much less well-regarded tide-pools of twentieth century culture, where the fauna has a tendency to be both livelier and more unusual. (p. ix)

Before his 1904 picture hanging which set the publicity ball rolling on a massive scale, Spare had been apprenticed to a couple of firms specialised respectively on imprinting and poster designs, glassworks and stained glass manufacture. He had also been recommended for a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington drawings of his where displayed in the British Art section of the St. Louis Exposition as well as at the Paris International Exhibition and he even won a National Mathematics Award in 1902 with a treatise on solid geometry. In 1903, he scored a silver medal when participating at the National Competition of Schools of Art, with the judges noting his “remarkable sense of colour and great vigour of conception” (p. 17): in short, it was honours upon honours.

Baker gives us a fairly extensive overview of what was going on in the world of art in this specific era, explaining who was who, including Spare’s personal contacts and his more remote influences. It was an eminently motley scene with plenty of talent and inspiration floating around, to which Spare obviously took with vigour and enthusiasm like the proverbial fish does to water.

Another fairly early influence proved to be Theosophy. Spare, throughout his life an avid reader, discovered Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, soon to be followed by Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, the works of Eliphas Levi, and more. Sporting a certain flamboyance in his dress, he was not beyond some dandyism and to an extent adopted the roll of an enfant terrible at South Kensington art college. Many years later, one of his fellow students describes him in retrospect as “a fair creature resembling a Greek god, curly haired, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts and taking drugs.” (p. 21) Soon he would announce his plan to publish Earth: Inferno, his first book of drawings, soliciting advance orders. At college, he became quite close with the suffragette and political activist Sylvia Pankhurst, supporting her feminist cause and her campaign against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), whereas she in turn proved helpful later in his life when his fame was in decline.

Being hounded by the Press waiting on the doorsteps of his home when he returned from college, with an endless stream of interviews to muster and having to keep track of the results, wasn't all roses, however, and private complaints soon ensued: “Spare found his celebrity painful and he became ill with stress, beginning a lifelong tendency to psychosomatic suffering.” (p. 26) While anything but a recluse at the time and not at all averse to praise and genuine admiration, he didn’t exactly embody the typical lounge lizard either: his natural shyness and introversion were at times excruciatingly painful for him to overcome.

He also focused on what was eventually to become his less public career as an occult thinker from early on.

Already Spare was working out his central ideas about what he called the “Zos” and the “Kia” […] and the interplay between the two. […]

Spare considered “Zos” to be the body as a whole, including the ordinary mind: the whole mortal, fleshly, existential entity of the person. In later life he would refer to himself as Zos. It seems to combine a sense of the biological or animal with the esoteric animal from the related Greek roots zoe, life, and zoion, animal or beast, giving rise to words like zoo, zoological, The Zoist (the name of a Victorian periodical and a society, the Zoists, to which Spare’s friend Victor Neuburg belonged), “zoetic” (‘pertaining to life’) and so on. (p. 27)

Baker continues with several further, fairly speculative derivations of the term ranging from Zeus and Zanoni to unspecified “dental sibilant gods”, which shall not concern us here. Next, he addresses Kia.

The word Kia is more complex. Spare sometimes speaks of it like a universal mind or God, but it is less personal, and more like the Hindu Brahman or the Tao of Chinese philosophy. Spare associates it with a vulture, skulls and evolution, and it is at one and the same time the fertile void behind existence and also a soul-like state of supremely detached, self-sufficient consciousness. (p. 28)

Again, Baker goes on to discuss various Kia-associations encompassing Taoism, the Buddhist idea of the absolute void or sunnyata, as well as energy concepts such as ki, chi, and so on. But it seems there’s another, more overt source for Kia as well:

The most likely inspiration […] is Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine, where the word Kia figures as a compound (Kia-yu) with an accent over the A like the one Spare tends to give it. Within a year or two he had finished a magical book or grimoire in decorated manuscript form, entitled ‘The Arcana of AOS and the consciousness of Kia-Ra’, which surfaced at Sotheby’s a few years ago. (ibid.)

Overall, his stint at the Royal Academy, where he never really learned anything of value in terms of his artistic craft, proved fairly frustrating for Spare, and he finally left without qualification in 1905 to pursue a living as a bookplate designer and illustrator. Around this time he also got involved on occasion with spiritualism, very much the craze of the day in all of the Western world, though he apparently viewed it with a high degree of ambivalence. Whilst beset by ever-recurring exposures of blatant fraud, pedestrian credulity, the most banal of revelations and general exploitative seediness, it did convey

something indeterminate and more precisely uncanny. It is this grey area of spiritualism, involving neither the spirits of the dead nor conscious fraud, that was the most thought-provoking for some witnesses, Spare among them. It seems to point to the uncanny weirdness of the human mind, and strange things happening within it. Spare left little direct record of his early involvement with spiritualism, but his work suggests that it marked him more deeply than anything else. (p. 40)

Thus Phil Baker, who also presents us with a detailed and enlightening analysis of Spare’s first work, Earth: Inferno, published in February 1905, and various possible influences informing it. He follows up by discussing some of Spare’s commissioned book illustrations and their respective context. While his biography is replete with photographs and original illustrations by Spare himself, not all of them equally familiar even to the Spare expert, Baker does spend a lot of writing effort on describing other artwork of Spare’s which is not featured by way of plates or illustrations in the book. This occasionally makes for some rather circumstantial reading.

Discussing the scant but existent references to Spare’s work in fiction, Baker finally arrives at his subject’s coming upon Aleister Crowley.

Crowley apparently told Spare that in their different ways, Crowley in his poetry and Spare in his drawing, they were both messengers of the Divine. It was the beginning of a professional and personal relationship between the two which was ultimately unhappy, and remains a puzzle. There is no question, though, that Crowley admired Spare’s work, commissioning illustrations for his journal The Equinox, taking artwork in exchange for a ceremonial robe that Spare couldn’t afford, and recommending Spare to Holbrook Jackson as an artist.

[…]

Crowley had joined a growing band of Spare’s patrons and champions, and already “a minor cult following that would last his entire life, to a greater or lesser degree” was getting under way. (p. 50)

There are plenty of other admirers, and Baker introduces us scrupulously to quite a number of them, in the same stride discussing Spare’s extensive work as a bookplate artist, interspersing his observations with references to art history and contemporary criticism, Austin’s stylistic penchant for “Nineties-style evil” (p. 51) and strangeness, comparing his own stylized “fancied brutishness” (p. 53) to Beardsley’s “stylizations towards the effete” (ibid.), and so forth. Here, Baker adroitly dons the robe of the art historian and connoisseur as well as that of the fastidious biographer. While possibly not of paramount interest to each and every reader in its obsession with detail, it does a fabulous job of making the general context of Spare’s environment come to comprehensible life.

What follows is a fairly extensive narrative centred on Spare’s sexuality and that of the varied company he kept. While many of his friends and sponsors were more or less openly gay or, as in the case of Aleister Crowley, vehemently bisexual, some of them (Crowley again included) finding the young prodigy erotically attractive, it remains unclear what stance Spare himself adopted in this respect. From the sources it appears that the protagonists involved weren’t at all decided on the matter either, speculating wildly whether he was actually a homosexual or not. For instance, one of his lifelong closest friends, Frank Letchford, claimed, citing another acquaintance, Sir Frank Brangwyn, that when Spare “dived into the tenements of Southwalk in the 1920s” (p. 57), it was in order to live his homosexuality in a less restrictive environment whereas his friend Kenneth Grant believed that what made him do so was actually his desire “to have discreet sexual relations with old, elderly and even crone-like working class women there”. (ibid.) Spare himself, on the other hand, would claim that this was a period of erotic excess for him, saying that he had actually been living with a much older woman before he was sixteen, who eventually became pregnant but lost the child. He also told a friend that he had had an affair with a hermaphrodite at the time, with a Welsh maid of violent temper, and with a dwarf woman with a snub nose and a protuberant forehead etc. The authenticity of this erotic narrative is, of course, hard to verify for all the obvious reasons.

On the 10th of July 1909 Spare took the oath of a Probationer in Crowley’s Argenteum Astrum or Order of the Silver Star (A∴A∴), one of the enticements for joining possibly being that Crowley told him he wanted to recruit famous people in the arts. He eventually became friends with co-member Victor Neuburg and was introduced to others such as Ethel Archer and Nina Hamnett. Yet, he never actually became a full member, not even advancing to the lowly status of Neophyte, which Crowley, in 1912, would claim was due to his not being able to “understand organisation”. (p. 69) But “Spare,” writes Baker, “was a self-willed, anarchic character who not only couldn’t understand organisation but distrusted it on principle.” (p. 70) As for the more intrapersonal angle, Spare himself would remember Crowley only with a high degree of distaste after their final breakup.

He also became a staunch believer in the power of the unconscious which had been a topic of public discussion since around 1886 under the then more fashionable term “subconscious”. Baker analyses the evolution of this debate in some detail, covering researchers such as William James, Frederik Meyers, Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others. But whereas Freud was loath to condone “the black tide of mud of occultism” (p. 74), this was precisely what Spare would vigorously embrace, writing: “MAGICAL obsession is that state when the mind is illuminated by sub-conscious activity evoked voluntarily […] for inspiration. It is the condition of Genius.” (ibid.)

Which leads us to what is arguably Spare’s most important contribution to the history of occultism: his sigil magic. While sigils were a time-honoured stock item of Hermetic and Renaissance magic, they were invariably tied to astrological, numerological or kabbalistic foundations if not combinations thereof. Typically, they were also assigned to specific supernatural entities such as discrete spirits or demons. Seen within this context, Spare’s approach constituted a veritable revolution:

The big difference with Spare’s method was that he dispensed with pre-existing esoterica and external beliefs, so the sigils were no longer for controlling traditional demons, angels and what-have-you, but instead for controlling forces in the unconscious psyche of the individual operator.

Spare’s sigillization was a mode of simplification, paring an idea down into a condensed graphic formula.

[…]

So in short, in Spare’s own words, “Sigils are monograms of thought, for the government of energy.” (p. 74f.)

While his technical description is quite accurate, for Baker this is merely one episode out of many in Spare’s life and he refrains from making very much of it, devoting a scarce page to the subject, an illustration included, though recurring somewhat perfunctorily on it occasionally later in the book. He even omits to give any clear indication of what to actually do with the magical sigil once it has been constructed i.e. how to charge or activate it. While no reader can reasonably expect a complete how-to treatise on applied sigil magic here, this is one bit of contextualisation we would certainly have preferred to see. To an experienced magical practitioner, this may come over as a bit underwhelming, indeed as something of a put-off.

Instead, Baker pursues his narrative further by delving into the psychical research which was all the rage at the time, permeating all classes of society, with Spare and alternating friends conducting experiments involving materialisations, the evocation of spirits, and rain-making. Here, Baker confines himself to neutral reporting of these anecdotal events straight out of the arsenal of sorcerer’s lore without either endorsing or questioning their truthfulness, though he does point to varying versions of the same tales where available.

On 4th September 1911, Spare gets married to one Eily Shaw, a chorus girl and a single mother three years his senior, with whom, it appears, he was smitten almost on sight. The affair was shrewdly engineered by Eily’s mother who was very keen on marrying off her daughter to the young gent with the very promising future, the process being further expedited by Eily’s pretending to be pregnant. The young couple set up in a flat next to Sylvia Pankhurst, located in a well-to-do Jewish neighbourhood, which prompted Spare to delve into Jewish sacred literature. His hopes of securing portrait commissions from his affluent neighbours never materialised, and though his marriage ultimately proved a failure, as an artist he was still on a rising trajectory to success. His creativity knew no bounds – one major achievement being his best-known (and arguably most difficult) literary work, The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): Psychology of Ecstasy, self-published in 1913.

For all his brilliance, his deep mystical insights, his originality of thinking and his singular artistic talent, Spare was anything but the world’s greatest writer or, for that matter, communicator. His prose can be idiosyncratic, woolly, contradictory, disturbingly vague, and downright cryptic, for all of which The Book of Pleasure is the perfect example. It is to Baker’s everlasting credit that he presents us with an exemplarily lucid and painstaking précis of its contents without endeavouring to forge it into some normative exegesis. It’s not that he ignores its shortcomings either: “his tortuous struggles to express his ideas in writing can be ponderous, awkward, and disjointed. The effect can be vexing to read […]” (p. 86) What is positive about it, deems Baker, is that it makes no pretensions “to bogus traditions or superhuman messages” (ibid.) instead, “The Book of Pleasure is simply a man speaking to his readers, without pretensions to leadership, aiming for an engineer-like practicality” (ibid.), though this reviewer would venture to suggest that the jury may still be out on the question of whether this not-too-lofty aim was actually achieved.

The plenitude of topics, ideas, concepts, references and influences making up Spare’s Book of Pleasure as a whole would merit an entire review of its own, but this is not the place for it. Baker covers them scrupulously, ranging from the Kia to Self-Love and the Death Posture, the unleashing of the mental energy of the unconscious, the tenets and basic mechanics of sigil magic (again, no charging techniques…) and the Sacred Alphabet (better known as the Alphabet of Desire), Atavistic Resurgence (actually Kenneth Grant’s term), and plenty more. What does bear pointing out in slightly more detail here is Spare’s peculiar position on reality in general.

When it came to reality, Spare saw the extent to which it was constructed from belief. We know the importance of belief from the sometimes dramatic results of placebos and “nocebos” (negative placebos, like the pointing of the witch-doctor’s stick that kills aborigines who believe in it) but there is a larger sense in which reality is the embodiment of lived belief.

Spare was less interested in promoting this reality or that reality, and more interested in the way people confined themselves to whichever one they had: he was less interested in what to believe than in how to believe. He saw belief as something free-floating, which could be channelled and re-directed to different objects ([…] like Freud’s descriptions of “libido”, which often sound like something out of hydraulic engineering). Spare, in other words, sought to conjure with belief itself. (p. 87)

This being one of the basic tenets of Chaos Magic as developed from the mid-1970s on, it goes to illustrate Spare’s seminal albeit posthumous impact on modern occulture. Aggregate his specific legacy of sigillisation techniques and his concept of “Atavistic Nostalgia” or Resurgence as well as his idiosyncratic “Alphabet of Desire”, and it would certainly be no exaggeration to posit that Austin Osman Spare was to contemporary occulture in general, and to magic in particular, what Eliphas Levi had been to Western esotericism in the 19thcentury.

For many years, however, he would remain very much a magicians’ magician: leaving his mark on insiders of the scene such as Gerald Brosseau Gardner or the Great Beast Aleister Crowley himself, but widely unknown to the occult public at large.

I recall attending a very well-visited New Age event in San Francisco in early 1979, featuring amongst other speakers Timothy Leary, who came on stage and, when asked about Austin Osman Spare, was quite obviously out of his depth – he had admittedly never heard of him before. Neither had the likes of Michael Harner, Alberto Villoldo and Harley Swiftdeer Reagan, when I interviewed them for the German occult magazine Unicorn in the ’80s. Around the same time, Spare was, aside from a very few specialists, also still unknown to the majority of members of the Fraternitas Saturni. In fact, it was probably I myself who introduced him to a wider German readership with my very first Unicorn article on his sigil magic back in May 1982. (Within the context of Comparative Literature, Mario Praz had actually mentioned him in a footnote in his classic 1933 study The Romantic Agony – quite ironic in view of the fact that Spare’s entire existence would shift very much into footnote mode once his halcyon days as a spectacularly celebrated artist were over.) All of which goes to show that, in contrast to his precocious career as an artist, his star as an acknowledged prime influencer in the occult world was significantly slower in rising.

Back to Baker, we find him amplifying Spare’s assumptions and doctrines by cross-referencing them with other authors and currents of thought within the history of ideas, both mainstream and occult. This is illuminating and educative even for the weathered savant of occultism.

Baker’s analysis of Spare’s relationship to psychoanalysis is exhaustive and astute. The latter’s less than generous comments on some of its big names such as Freud and Jung – “or ‘Fraud’ and ‘Junk’ as he called them” (p. 95) – is quite telling, however. There is a clearly discernible envy at work in Spare’s apocryphal-to-ridiculous claims of a lifelong friendship with Havelock Ellis, or of Freud, Krafft-Ebbing, Adler and Whitehead having consulted with him, with Freud even “using” i.e. stealing one of his theses etc. As he would brag before some of his friends, Sigmund Freud not only read his Book of Pleasure but even wrote to him “to congratulate him on his original thought” (p. 106), allegedly describing it as “one of the most significant revelations of subconscious mechanisms that had appeared in modern times.” (ibid.) However, as Baker wrily observes: “Sadly this letter has not been found.” (ibid.)

This, too, is typical self-absorbed, narcissistic Spare spinning a grudging yarn and dissolving the borderline between fantasy and objective factuality once more. By way of an aside, this pompous self-portrayal ties in seamlessly with his equally presumptuous claim of being the true inventor of Surrealism in art. A more reasonable assertion, albeit for Spare an obviously far too humble one, would have been to simply point out that he was one of its precursors. Baker addresses this topic at some length, pursuing several tributaries feeding this major current of art in Spare’s lifetime: psychoanalysis, trance induction, the apotheosis of the subconscious, the fascination with the grotesque, and, perhaps the most interesting, the spiritualist roots of automatic writing and drawing.

It is also to be noted that, in the course of his professional activities, Spare managed to ramp up quite a cohort of detractors and downright haters who were less than amused both by his art and his demeanour as chief editor of the art magazine Form. Amongst his critics were such celebrities as William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.


Austin Osman Spare - History

Artist and Occultist, Austin Osman Spare playing the clarinet.

This photograph led me to The Bones Go Last, a film documentary on AOS.

This is a film about Austin Osman Spare, perhaps the greatest artist ever to be ignored / overlooked / considered too weird by mainstream art history. Spare’s work embraced religion, the occult, sex, magic, atavisms, ghosts and cockneys in ways never fully understood, or adequately appreciated.

It doesn’t have a title, yet.

What it does have, and is gaining more of (perhaps as you read this) is footage of Spare’s extraordinary artistic works along with the South East London urban sprawl that he made his home, plus interviews with foremost authorities / experts / fanatics.

Discovering Spare is one of the most rewarding art appreciation experiences there is. When completed this film will stand as a pretty good first step on that journey.


Austin Osman Spare - History

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The last occult writing of Austin Osman Spare, the founder of Sigil Magic.

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A richly illustrated book of images. Some of Spare's techniques, particularly the use of sigils and the creation of an "alphabet of desire" were adopted, adapted and popularized by Peter J. Carroll in the work Liber Null & Psychonaut. Carroll and other writers such as Ray Sherwin are seen as key figures in the emergence of some of Spare's ideas and techniques as a part of a magical movement loosely referred to as chaos magic. Zos Kia Cultus is a term coined by Kenneth Grant, with different meanings for different people. One interpretation is that it is a form, style, or school of magic inspired by Spare. It focuses on one's individual universe and the influence of the magician's will on it. While the Zos Kia Cultus has very few adherents today, it is widely considered an important influence on the rise of chaos magic.

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Wisdom is a stasis: Knowledge is like the 'snake of eternity', constantly eating itself and never finishing. More bathos: connexity of all our bloody selves to Ego is a nightmare commanded by the overlooked, unobeyed latencies of return, essential for re-union. Ego expands by that which evokes mutual effluxes therefore look for the Theocentric in the Egocentric. If God personalizes our deficiencies, then, we thus personify his? Subject understanding object by 'as if' may become, with courage, an ingressive emotional experience giving mutual expression. Falsehood, and all sham conceits, are the reflected memory of the de-related and forgotten event resurging, re-exhibiting for validation for whatever you pretend, holds a misplaced Truth, i.e., inaccurately related time and place. This also is true of the future. Time here is long&hellip Of whom do we ask forgiveness when we hate ourselves?

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Austin Osman Spare was an artist, philosopher and occult magician. Like Aleister Crowley with whom he had a brief association, Spare was a genius in his own time unappreciated and vilified by a society that could little understand him. His was the inspiration that led to the formation of the 'Illuminates of Thanateros' (IOT) in England in the late 1970&rsquos and the practice of what is now known as Chaos Magic. This concise treatise offers parables similar to Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, but directed towards magick, sexuality, and the occult.

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The Book of Pleasure: The Psychology of Ecstasy is a book written by Austin Osman Spare. The book could be regarded the central text among his writings. It covers both mystical and magical aspects of Spare's ideas and the modern ideas on sigils (as now have become popular in chaos magic) and Spare's special theory on incarnation are for the first time introduced in this book.

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* These documents are provided for information and research purposes only. Please be aware that Sacred Magick does not necessarily endorse or control the content of many of these documents, nor is it responsible for any claims, opinions or information accessed therein.

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