Friend of the Great Beast
Like Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare was obsessed with
sex and magic. But unlike Crowley, he was also an accomplished
The reputation of Austin Osman Spare, one of the oddest
characters in 2Oth century British art, is being rehabilitated by
a new exhibition in London's Clerkenwell.
Spare was an accomplished draughtsman, a child prodigy and the
youngest artist of his time to exhibit at the Royal Academy He
was also deeply interested in magic and became a friend and then
almost as inevitably an enemy of Aleister Crowley, the notorious
occult practitioner. Some of his most exquisite work was produced
in trance states in pitch darkness. In his life he was a Bohemian
and after early success turned his back on fashionable London to
pursue his art and magic in a Brixton basement. He even turned
down the chance to become Hitler's court painter.
The current exhibition is co-curated by the eminent occultists
Geraldine Beskin and John Bonner and follows a similar exhibition
they organised at the Morley Gallery in 1986. Clerkenwell, with
its peculiar psychogeography, is an appropriate location to show
Spare's work. He was born nearby in 1886 in Snowhill, Smithfield,
the son of a policeman. The Knights Hospitallers of St John are
based around the corner and there is a Masonic Lodge opposite.
John Bonner is currently the head of the Shemesh Lodge of the
neo-Masonic Ordo Templi Orientis in Hastings, in the Sussex
Downs' cult-belt. One of his predecessors was Aleister Crowley,
the self-styled "Great Beast 666".
Bonner last year curated an exhibition of Crowley's art. Now, he
and Beskin hope to rescue Spare, a much better artist, from his
current obscurity. "We wanted to show magicians that Spare was an
incredibly fine artist, and wanted the art collectors to see
something of Spare's driving force, his motivation," explains
In his childhood, Spare became close to an elderly fortune-teller
called Mrs Paterson, who claimed descent from a line of Salem
witches. Mrs Paterson inspired his interest in magic and also a
sexual fascination with older women which he never lost. He
claimed he had witnessed her transformed by magic into a
desirable young woman.
The family moved to south London where Spare studied art. He
became known to his family as "a weird one" and was apt to draw
his visions all over the walls at home. His father took some of
his drawings to the Royal Academy where they were immediately
accepted and exhibited in the 1904 Summer Exhibition. The
following year Spare, aged 19, was hailed a genius by John Singer
Spare first met Aleister Crowley in 1907 at an exhibition of
Spare's work. Crowley swept in, announcing himself as the
"Vice-regent of God upon Earth".
"You look more like an Italian ponce out of work," came Spare's
rejoinder, puncturing the Beast's hyperbole. Crowley hastily
explained that he had meant that he expressed in poetry what
Spare did in images: that they were both messengers of the
divine. A friendship was formed and Spare joined Crowley's occult
group, the Brotherhood of the Silver Star, Argenteum Astrum. He
took his Probationer's Oath in 1909, adapting the magical name
"YIHOVEAUM" (following the Kabbalists' alphabet mysticism) and
observed their credo, "Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of
Unlike Crowley, who was an energetic user of cocaine and heroin,
Spare's drug intake was only that of any self-respecting late
Victorian. "He was not some kind of dissolute drug addict,"
blinks John Bonner. "Spare was more of a pub man. He liked milk
stout, fruitcake and large quantities of tea."
Spare did share Crowley's above average libido, however. He said
that he found the grotesque ennobling and fed his magic powers.
His sexual tastes were as eclectic in his art. After impregnating
a woman much older than himself in an affair, Spare embarked on a
series of sexual adventures with a violent Welsh maid, an
unprepossessing dwarf woman and an hermaphrodite.
Crowley, initially delighted with his protoge, became annoyed at
Spare's lack of hard work on ritual initiation. Spare, for his
part, found Crowley's theatrical approach to the occult, silly.
Crowley was a "smells and bells" magician (perhaps the first High
Church Satanist), while Spare preferred his sorcery served
One anecdote, Spare later used to tell about Crowley) described
him tipping a plate of food over his own head while dining at the
Cafe Royal and another of him parading down Regent Street in his
magical robes under the illusion that they rendered him
Eventually a vicious enmity ensued. The occult author Kenneth
Grant, who had introduced the two men always refused to discuss
what had finally caused the breach. In any event, by 1912 they
had gone their separate ways. Spare's career as an artist
nonetheless flourished. During the First World War he was
appointed an official war artist. After the war he lived a rather
glamorous life. He married a Gaiety Girl and became sufficiently
wealthy enough to publish several magazines featuring work by the
great names of his age, including George Bernard Shaw. All of
them soon folded.
His paintings throughout his life were done in a variety of
eclectic styles. Some are reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, others
are Oriental, in some there are hints of Max Ernst's innerscapes
and Kokoschka's colour What, however, unites all his work is the
quality of the draughtsmanship for which he was renowned. "It
never fails," says Beskin, "even when he is working in a trance
Magic is another constant theme and many paintings have ritual
functions, albeit indecipherable to the uninitiated. Spare's
trademark was to use what he called "sigils". Spare began with
magical words, reducing them to their elements, then reducing
them again, distilling their essence until they just became a
symbol. "Then he threw it away and forgot about it, and that's
when the magic worked," explains Beskin.
By 1925 he was fed up with his life in fashionable circles. He
published a work called The Anathema of Zos, a Philippic
against London's art world, then packed his bags and moved to
Brixton. Spare now lived austerely in a basement flat, his
palette dictated more by Woolworths' stocks than anything else.
He famously once lived for six months on £7. Gully Jimson,
Joyce Cary's amoral and egocentric artist in his novel, The
Horses Mouth (1944) was partly inspired by Spare and his new
way of life in Brixton. In his mystical seclusion, Spare's
artistry never faded - it was invigorated. He became a great
people-watcher and drew fine portraits of carters, layabouts,
hucksters, thieves, pimps and tarts in stunning detail on
anything he could lay his hands on including tea chests.
Spare could be choosy about commissions, even turning down Adolf
Hitler In 1936 one of Hitler's aides at the German Embassy in
London bought a self-portrait by Spare, which he thought bore a
strikng resemblance to the Fuhrer. When Hitler saw it, he agreed
and invited Spare to Berlin to paint his portrait. Spare turned
him down, replying: "Only from negations can I wholesomely
conceive you. For I know of no courage sufficient to stomach your
aspirations and ultimates. If you are superman, let me be for
He subsequently painted Esoteric Brotherhood (1938), a
brilliant self portrait of himself again showing a marked
resemblance to Hitler, making a sign of horned fingers. This
fertility symbol signifies strength, the goat and his
astrological sign, Capricorn. It might also be argued that it is
giving two fingers to Hitler.
During the Second World War Spare's basement was bombed and he
was trapped in the debris for three days. When his temporarily
disabled arms and fingers regained their skill. Spare found
himself drawing pictures in different styles, of different
periods, and signing them with a variety (of) dates both pre-war
and post-war. He died in 1956.
Despite several attempts to re-introduce Spare to the mainstream
West End art world, he has not yet escaped from the occult groups
who venerate his memory. Though he has an entry in the Dictionary
of National Biography, he doesn't yet feature in standard books
on British art of the 20th century. This exhibition may help
Austin Osman Spare. Marx Memorial Library Clerkenwell Green
London ECI until 22 August
Source: The Independent 20/08/1999
Article written by Adrian Gatley