Austin Osman Spare – A Biography of the Artist and Occultist

Guest writer Robert Ansell tells the story…

Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare
Born in the City of London in 1886, Austin Osman Spare displayed early an extraordinary ability for drawing. When his family moved to Kennington he was enrolled for evening classes at Lambeth Art School and in 1903 became the youngest ever recipient of the National Mathematics Award with his treatise on Solid Geometry. The following year he was recommended for a free scholarship to the Royal College of Art by Sir William Richmond and Mr. F. H. Jackson R B A. and within two years a small drawing executed when he was only fourteen excited great interest amongst connoisseurs and art critics at the 1904 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Encouraged by success he privately published his first illustrated book Earth: Inferno in February 1905, aged eighteen. A powerful and metaphysical perception of the ‘self’ in relation to the cosmos, Earth: Inferno heralded an active period of patronage and book illustration work. Art connoisseurs such as Charles Ricketts, Andre Rafflovich, Pickford Waller and Desmond Coke were quick to appreciate Spare’s unique gift: the hand of Dürer and the eye of Dante.
A second folio, The Book of Satyrs, was privately published in 1907 – just prior to his first notorious West End exhibition at The Bruton Gallery in October. In a summation of the fine watercolours and pen and ink drawings that the show offered one critic wrote: “The amazing eccentricities to the perpetration of which that precocious, genius Mr. Austin O. Spare, applies his rare gifts, will probably he the talk of the London studios for many a day to come … His craftsmanship is superb: his management of line has not been equaled since the days of Aubrey Beardsley; 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.
Between 1909 and 1913 Spare had several West End exhibitions while developing his most important work: The Book of Pleasure. Catalysed and inspired by his marriage to Eily Gertrude Shaw in 1911 it was published two years later and shows us the earlier style had given way to a finer, more subtle, pencil draughtsmanship. More importantly, however, the book suggested techniques for accessing what the psychologist Carl Jung would later term ‘the collective unconscious’ as a method of inspiring creative genius.
This fundamental principle, later one of the cornerstones of Surrealism, was largely misunderstood in Edwardian London. Undeterred, in 1916 Spare founded and co-edited Form: A Quarterly of the Arts under the imprint of John Lane. Lavish and expensive the title folded the following year when Spare was conscripted, becoming an Official War Artist. It was revived briefly in a modest ‘second series’ by Spare after the publication of his fourth book The Focus of Life in 1921.
This latter work, a catharsis of his war experiences, delivers a dream-like narrative and visionary pencil drawings. It was well received, but was to be his penultimate published work. In 1924 The Golden Hind, of which Spare was then co-editor with Clifford Bax, ceased publication prompting the artist to retreat to his roots in south London.
Living and working in his tiny studio in the Borough Spare’s anger and frustration manifested in his last published book The Anathema of Zos in 1927. His exhibition at the Godfrey Philips Gallery in 1930 would he the last West End show for 17 years and Spare joked with his journalist friend Hannen Swatter that he was contemplating “the gas oven”. However, Spare survived the Great Depression and developed a new technique for portraiture which he termed ‘Siderealism’.
Based on a logarithmic form of anamorphic projection it proved to be a popular success ;and his show of 1936 resulted in an unexpected request. Adolf Hitler received one of Spare’s pastel portraits as a gift and was so impressed he asked the artist to travel to Berlin to undertake a commission. Spare refused – and became a minor celebrity! Tragically though 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, but recovered, and found a home ill Brixton with an old friend Ada Millicent Pain.
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 his exhibitions mid tavern-shows of the early 1950s showed a mature artist of incredible vigour working at the height of his powers. 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.
Spare’s entire oeuvre is an affirmation of his vision of the subtle and complex nature of existence. His idiosyncratic modes of graphic expression, such as ‘Automatism’, ‘Siderealism’, ‘Psycho-Realism’, ‘Psycho-Revisionism’ and ‘Sigillic Formulae’ remain pioneering techniques seeking to delineate and encrypt latent states of mind and subconscious perception. His sudden death. on May 15th 1956, prompted many tributes mourning the loss of a singular and peculiarly English genius.
About Robert Ansell
Whilst visiting the library of reclusive musician Kaikoshru Sorabji in 1986, Robert Ansell encountered the work of Austin Osman Spare. Three years later Spare’s longtime friend Frank Letchford introduced him to Gavin Semple and together they founded Fulgur Limited in 1992 with the aim of raising awareness of Spare’s life and work. The press specialises in the work of Austin Osman Spare and Kenneth & Steffi Grant and issues one or two titles a year.
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Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.