Austin Osman Spare

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Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) is one of the most influential and innovative figures in twentieth century occultism. A natural artist and psychic, Spare’s explorations of the creative focus gave rise to an ontology and body of work that departs radically from conventional occultism, both then and now. Ahead of his time, he was dismissed by Crowley early in his career, but found appreciation and understanding with the next generation, who embraced his ideas with alacrity.

A true Londoner, Spare was born in December 1886 near the Holborn Viaduct and spent most of his life no more than 10 miles from his place of birth. Living in the shadow of a burgeoning Smithfield Market, the family soon moved south of the river to Kennington, then a vibrant borough with music halls, taverns and a history of political and religious dissent. Spare’s formative years were spent at the school attached to the nearby Catholic church of St. Agnes, yet although many of his early drawings show us traditional religious themes, there is also evidence of interests in Eastern mysticism, Theosophy and Spiritualism. This latter movement was to become a key influence in the development of Spare’s ontology, especially the central role played by ‘automatism’ which came to form the basis of the artist’s modus operandi.

In 1904 a small drawing executed when Spare was just fourteen was accepted into the Royal Academy Summer show and he was thrust suddenly into the public gaze. The experience was stressful, but proved to be a catalyst, for the following year Spare published his first book, Earth: Inferno. It remains a powerful work and made clear Spare’s agenda: mystical, grotesque, often dark and polemic, Earth: Inferno seeks to challenge the reader to see the world askance, through the eyes of the artist. A second folio, more politically slanted and titled with mocking humor A Book of Satyrs was privately published in 1907 – just prior to his first notorious West End exhibition at The Bruton Gallery. If there had been any doubt as to Spare’s intent, this show dispelled any lingering uncertainty. One critic wrote: “His inventive faculty is stupendous and terrifying in its creative flow of impossible horrors …” The shy boy artist from Kennington had become the enfant terrible of Mayfair.

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.

By the outbreak of War, Spare’s marriage was faltering. His refusal to compromise artistically left him vulnerable to the shifting cultural zeitgeist and the ensuing financial difficulties, combined with his conscription as an Official War Artist, placed enormous pressure on the relationship. But is 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.

The 1920s were a period of intense introspection for the artist. Living and working in his tiny studio in the Borough Spare’s anger and frustration manifested in 1927 with his last published book Anathema of Zos: it was not well received. After the failure of his 1927 and 1929 shows, Spare produced his most commercial work for years. His exhibition at the Godfrey Philips Gallery in 1930 was full of beautiful elongated portraits of women and film stars collectively titled “Experiments in Relativity”. Despite the global depression they were a moderate success, but it was to be his last West End show for 17 years and by 1932 Spare joked with his journalist friend Hannen Swaffer that he was contemplating “the gas oven”.

Salvation came in an unexpected form, an old sweetheart Ada Millicent Pain inspired Spare to renew his efforts and the arrival of Surrealism in London in 1936 gave him added impetus. At the age of fifty, Spare’s abilities to produce exquisite, fine ink and pencil drawings were deteriorating and he shifted his focus towards the more fluid medium of pastels. His three shows of 1936, 1937 and 1938 received significant press coverage, but tragically in 1941, at the height of the Blitz, Spare’s studio in the Walworth Road received a direct hit and was completely destroyed. Spare was injured and after some months as a nomad he found a home in Brixton with his childhood friend Ada Millicent Pain. Yet Spare, nearly 60 and in failing health, was about to enter one of the most productive and successful periods of his life.

His exhibition at the Archer Gallery in 1947, engineered by his journalist friend Dennis Bardens and for which he produced over 200 works, was almost a complete sell-out and ushered in his astonishing post-war renaissance. Assisted by his friend Frank Letchford and inspired by the late Aleister Crowley’s protégé Kenneth Grant and his wife Steffi, Spare’s exhibitions mid tavern-shows of the early 1950s showed a mature artist of incredible vigour and imaginative power. At the age of sixty-eight his command of the pastel medium could scarcely be equaled and he received the willing patronage of doctors, psychologists, journalists, teachers, critics and connoisseurs.

copyright © Robert Ansell, 2007