Austin Osman Spare - an Introduction

Austin Osman Spare

By Phil Baker


“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, 10th 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

Valentine’s Day, 2017


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.