“Should have been more famous”

5 min readFeb 8, 2021


Part III

Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956) is arguably one of the most original and innovative characters of twentieth century occultism. An inherent artist and psychic, his study of the creative energies produced a body of work that almost mocks traditional occultism, right up to the present day cliches. Like Blake, way ahead of his time, he was dismissed by Aleister Crowley immediately, eventually finding admiration and kinship with a fresh lineage who adored and understood his ideas.

A born Londoner, Spare spent most of his life no more than 10 miles from his place of birth, Holborn. Living in the shadow of Smithfield Market, his 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 early 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 main focus in the development of Spare’s ontology, especially the central role played by ‘automatism’ which came to form the basis of the artist’s mystical processes.

In 1904 a little drawing executed when Spare was only fourteen was acknowledged into the Royal Academy and he was pushed out of nowhere into the public gaze. The experience was upsetting, yet ended up being an impetus, for the next year Spare distributed his first book, Earth: Inferno. It remains an incredible work and clarified Spare’s plan: otherworldly, twisted, frequently dim and questioning, Earth: Inferno tries to move the peruser to see the world suspiciously, through the eyes of the craftsman. A subsequent folio, all the more politically skewed and named with taunting humor A Book of Satyrs was secretly distributed in 1907 – only preceding his first famous West End presentation at The Bruton Gallery. In the event that there had been any uncertainty with respect to Spare’s plan, this show dissipated any waiting vulnerability. One pundit stated: “His innovative work is spectacular and startling in its inventive progression of incomprehensible abhorrences … “ The timid child craftsman from Kennington had become the enfant horrendous of Mayfair!

During the years between 1909 and 1913 Spare was in his element. Managing to produce several West End exhibitions and enjoying commissions from private collectors and publishers. The period reached its height in 1913 with the publication of Spare’s acclaimed, The Book of Pleasure. Taking inspiration from his marriage to Eily Gertrude Shaw in 1911 the book is now regarded as a classic in 20th century esoteric studies. Layered and obscure, Spare’s writing in The Book of Pleasure draws a vision of a magical life devoid of the established rituals and cliché.

By the time War came along Spare’s marriage was in trouble. His uncompromising approach left him vulnerable to the shifting societal mood and lack of funds. His conscription as an Official War Artist, placed enormous pressure on the relationship. But it was Spare’s sexual reputation that possibly ended the marriage: his fourth book, The Focus of Life, published in 1921, delivers a daze-like narrative with 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 familiarity 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.

Spare’s many portraits of himself ‘as woman’ were not legally allowed to be exhibited within his time. He was a clear visionary who’s influence is kept alive by all who seek the magic of buried treasure. It is testament to how nepotistically myopic the art world is that he was featured in a magazine article about starving poets and their struggle — a sort of Closer magazine for the 1940s — instead of having his work showcased, but perhaps it is testament to his chaos magic that the article manifested tins of pineapple and salmon sent in the post by well-wishers.




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