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An Introduction to

AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE (1886-1956)



If you were an art student in Britain in the last decades of the 20th century, you would have to
have been extremely fortunate to have even been made aware of the existence of Austin
Osman Spare, one of the greatest living draughtsmen as he was described within his
lifetime, and certainly the greatest artist youve never heard of as the clich goes. In an
item on the BBCs The Culture Show aired to coincide with a major retrospective of Spares
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
Londons lost artist or perhaps even Englands...
If you had a talent for drawing, 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 his art at your disposal. And you certainly
would not have known about his 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, as well as shocked, perhaps.
But maybe you would have had a friend who knew someone in the occult-inspired
underground bands of the 1980s, like Psychic TV or Coil, or the subculture that had sprung
up around them, in which Spare was celebrated, rightly or wrongly, as an outsider hero for
apparently turning his back on the mainstream, and embracing his life of poverty, like some
sort of Cockney ascetic. You might have heard that he was admired and collected by such
unlikely figures as Barry Humphries, or guitarist Chris Stein from Blondie. Or else you might
have caught wind of the emerging Chaos Magic movement, which 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 had thumbed his nose at authority and
worldly success and gone his own way, living only for his visions and his art, had something
for everybody.
If you knew about Spare in those early days and had a way with words, you would ever after
be remembered among the steadily growing number of admirers, because you were one of the
first, when he was still largely unknown unfairly relegated to footnote status, and the more
for his esoteric interests than his artistic gifts, such as his dismissal as a satanic occultist by
critic Mario Praz in his study, The Romantic Agony (Oxford, 1933.)
Most likely it would have been through the books of Kenneth Grant, former acolyte of The
Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, and tireless documenter of the 20
th
Century magical revival.
Grant and his wife Steffi, herself a talented artist, had known Spare the man and the artist
personally 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, has
acknowledged Grants contribution in his Introduction to Phil Bakers fine biography, Austin
Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of Londons Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2011), in
which he writes:
... 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 about Spare, in addition to which 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 reproducing much of their correspondence with Spare, that gives a moving
and insightful account of their friendship, Zos Speaks! (again from Fulgur, 1998.)
In her Introduction to Zos Speaks!, Steffi writes a vivid account of her first meeting with
Spare at his address off the Brixton Road, a run-down Victorian terrace house that had
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, Nevill Drury wrote about Spare in his 1972 book The Search for Abraxas
(reissued by Salamander & Sons, 2013) co-written with Stephen Skinner. Drury was also
keenly interested in Rosaleen Norton, the notorious painter and Witch Queen of Kings
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.
Part of the story of Austin Spare the lost artist though apparently lost no more, judging
by the fact that his popularity is on the increase, and his work fetches ever-higher prices these
days and something that may partly explain why his life shows such a remarkable sweep,
from early success and celebrity (brief though they were) to obscurity, is that he had a very
unusual Muse. She was a local witch, apparently, 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 the magical 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 materialize, if not in front of him, then certainly in his imagination and inspire him, as
his later splendid artwork is a witness too. As his resources 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 religious 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 that up to eighty percent of religious images were
destroyed. Up to that time an artist with Spares gifts and occult tastes, even without being a
devout Christian which he certainly wasnt might still have found visual inspiration and
ideas in the iconic painting and sculpture to be 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 said he had been Blake in a former life, and he surely
could have claimed as his own Blakes 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 wasnt to last, and 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 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 being transported. It no doubt left a powerful and abiding
impression on him, giving him a strong sense of the flesh and its life and death. The place had
a bad vibe we would say now. 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 (which is 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 Spares 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 incensed: burning incense and an act of devotion to Mary virtually
amounted to the drunken bliss of the strumpet kiss of the Jezebel of Rome.
In Spares art you would 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 dont 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
Artists Books, 1905-1927 (IHO, 1995; reprinted Mandrake, 2005) Dr. William Wallace does
a great job unearthing his sources of inspiration, interests and influences, such as Dantes The
Divine Comedy, The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, The Rubiyt by Omar Khayym,
the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Kabbalah, the Works of William Blake and Albrecht
Drer, and various texts of Eastern mysticism.
There are 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 Rembrandts time. They made
him a quick buck when he badly needed it, especially 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 Spares
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 his 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. Theyve 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 hermaphroditizing 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 realization.
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. For 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.
There is a fullness about Spares creative universe it 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)

EMMA DOEVE, September 2014.

BOOKS BY AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE:
Earth Inferno (1905)
A Book of Satyrs (1907, republished by John Lane, 1909)
The Book of Pleasure (1913)
The Focus of Life (The Morland Press, 1921)
The Anathema of Zos (1927)

BOOKS ABOUT AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE:
Kenneth & Steffi Grant, Zos Speaks! (Fulgur, 1998)
Kenneth Grant, Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare (Fulgur, 2003)
Frank Letchford, Michelangelo in a teacup: Austin Osman Spare (Mandrake Press Ltd, 2005)
Dr. William Wallace, Austin Osman Spare: The Artists Books, 1905-1927 (Mandrake Press Ltd, 2005)
Phil Baker, Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of Londons Lost Artist (Strange Attractor, 2011)
Neville Drury, Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare (Salamander &
Sons, 2012)