Discord in the Garden of Janus
Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare
© Keith Richmond & The Beskin Press, 1999
All rights reserved
First published in Austin Osman Spare: Artist – Occultist – Sensualist, Beskin Press, 1999.
It is by no means uncommon to find students of the occult speaking of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare in a way that suggests a close relationship between the two. Such an inference is hardly surprising as it is well known that Spare contributed drawings to a volume in Crowley’s Equinox series and was enrolled as a Probationer in his magical fraternity, the A.’. A.’. Yet considerable uncertainty remains as to the real character of their relationship, and the amount, if any, of mutual influence.
To a large extent this uncertainty is due to a simple lack of information. When researching the matter some ten years ago whilst preparing an introduction to a new edition of Spare’s The Focus of Life, I was surprised at just how little could be found concerning the relationship between the two men (1). At the time I assumed this absence was merely accidental, for though Crowley generated an enormous paper trail, this was scattered and haphazard, and it is well known that Spare was almost wilful in his refusal to keep records (2).
In the intervening years a considerable amount of new information concerning Spare has come to light which reveals, amongst other things, that the lack of relevant material is at least in part the consequence of the complete repudiation of Crowley by Spare. In conversation with Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Spare let it be known that he detested Crowley, and despite their entreaties refused to discuss their acquaintance other than to offer a few anecdotes which depicted Crowley as a ridiculous buffoon (3). Even the causes for this rift remain obscure, for although it has long been assumed that Spare and Crowley went their separate ways after falling out over occult matters — the vehemence with which Spare abjured Crowley hints at a deeper cause.
Unfortunately even those few recollections of Crowley which Spare did divulge cannot be fully trusted, for a comparison with the scant surviving contemporary documentation suggests that the vagaries of memory and the extent of the subsequent acrimony have coloured them heavily. In particular they appear to consistently understate the extent of the relationship (specifically downplaying Spare’s role in it) and thereby serve only to cloud an already shadowy view. Whilst Crowley does not seem to have reciprocated Spare’s rancour, he nonetheless had surprisingly little to say about Spare, who does not rate so much as a passing mention in his voluminous Confessions.
Thus a murky pall conceals much of the detail of the interaction between Crowley and Spare, even obscuring such a basic issue as the circumstances in which the two first met. It seems likely, however, that one of the few anecdotes concerning Crowley which Spare related to Kenneth Grant could have been a description of their first encounter. Spare had told Grant how, when still a youth, he had been in attendance at an exhibition of his works when Crowley had swept in, and announced himself to be ‘Vicegerent of God upon Earth’ (4). Spare allegedly responded to this by telling Crowley that he looked ‘more like an Italian ponce out of work,’ at which the presumably somewhat deflated Crowley explained that what he had meant was that he voiced in his poetry what Spare did in artworks (in other words that they were both messengers of the divine) (5).
From this inauspicious meeting a friendship developed: hardly surprising as they had much in common. Both men were well known in the Bohemian end of London’s artistic circles: Crowley as a poet, adventurer, and general enfant terrible, and Spare as a budding young artist whose potential brilliance was only slightly diminished by what some critics took to be a rather juvenile fascination with the perverse and bizarre. Then of course, there was their shared interest in things esoteric.
By his own account Spare had been introduced to the occult at an early age by a mysterious elderly woman called Mrs. Paterson, and he clearly maintained a strong interest in the subject (6). In 1905 he had published his extraordinary first book, Earth Inferno, and, two years later, A Book of Satyrs, both of which works exhibited strong occult influences. Curiously, it seems that even at this early stage Spare was already refining the system of talismanic or sigil magic which was to become his esoteric trade-mark, for several of the plates in A Book of Satyrs show objects which appear to be inscribed with his unique letter-based sigils (7).
Crowley had also had an early interest in the occult, although his real initiation into the subject came with his membership of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, arguably the most influential magical body of modern times. Organised along semi-masonic lines (though it admitted both men and women), the Golden Dawn’s teachings were a clever synthesis of practices and theories gleaned from areas as divers as ancient Egyptian religion, ceremonial magic, the complex occult system of the John Dee, the Kabbalah and yoga, all interpreted through a type of psychology of symbols not dissimilar to that later expounded by Carl Jung. The Golden Dawn disintegrated into factions in 1900, a breakdown in which Crowley can reasonably be said to have played more than his fair share.
In 1904, Crowley had ‘received’ The Book of the Law, a document which cast Crowley as the prophet of a new Aeon. This new Aeon was destined to be one of force and fire, ruled by the god Horus; its defining word would be Thelema, the Greek for ‘Will,’ and those who acknowledged it were therefore to be called ‘Thelemites.’ The core philosophy of The Book of the Law was encapsulated in the phrase ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,’ an injunction that each should seek and act upon his or her own ‘True Will,’ their ultimate, innermost desire in harmony with the Universe. The phrase had a corollary in ‘Love is the Law, love under will,’ which emphasised the Dionysian, erotically charged nature of the New Aeon.
Crowley supposedly refused to entertain the part laid out for him in The Book of the Law until a sort of epiphany in June of 1909, but he continued his other occult pursuits with vigour. In 1907 he completed his performance of ‘The Sacred Magic of Abra Melin,’ and founded in name, though not in practice, his own occult Order, the A.’. A.’. (Argentum Astrum – Silver Star). In the latter half of that same year, and the first half of 1908, Crowley received a number of other ‘inspired writings,’ which, along with The Book of the Law, were later to become core texts of the A.. A..
It was probably around this time, that Crowley and Spare first met. If the story of Crowley’s visit to an exhibition of Spare’s is not apocryphal, then it may well have been in late October or early November of 1907, for this was when Spare had his first major exhibition, held at the Bruton Galleries in London (8).
What is certain is that the two knew each other – and apparently quite well – by 1908. This is affirmed by a copy of the 1907 edition of A Book of Satyrs which Spare had inscribed to Crowley, and dated 1908 (9). The inscription itself is so nebulous that it tells us nothing of the relationship — it could have been penned for the best of friends or the most casual of acquaintances — however a minute annotation which Spare has made on one of the plates within seem far more telling. The plate ‘General Allegory,’ is dominated by a self-portrait of Spare, at whose feet are two canisters from which flames issue, the one to Spare’s left being inscribed with the initials ‘AOS’ and the date ’06-07.’ In Crowley’s copy Spare has added the initials ‘A.C.’ and the year ‘1908’ to the canister on the right.
In the absence of further information it would be unwise to speculate too much on the meaning of this additional inscription, other than perhaps than to suggest that it does seem indicative of some considerable intimacy between the two.
At this point the trail of links between Spare and Crowley goes cold for a time: Crowley was again travelling abroad in the latter half of the year, and quite possibly the two simply slipped out of touch. Late in December 1908 Crowley returned to London. His marriage to Rose Kelly had by then truly disintegrated, and aside from attending to the ongoing problems this created he largely devoted himself to the preparation of text for his forthcoming Equinox series. A bi-annual publication, each issue of The Equinox was to contain over 400 pages of poetry, fiction, plays, book reviews, and magical texts, most of which were authored, or at least edited, by Crowley.
Parallel with the publication of The Equinox Crowley intended to at last establish the A.’. A.’. as a functioning body. The journal itself was announced as being ‘The Official Organ of the A.. A…’ and was obviously intended to also serve as a recruiting tool for that organisation. Thus the Editorial of the first number included a romanticised account of the Order, including an invitation to those ‘desirous of entering into communication with the A.. A..’ (presumably with an eye to joining it) to contact the ‘Chancellor of the Order,’ at the offices of The Equinox in London.
The first number of The Equinox appeared late in March 1909, and it seems likely that it was around this time (if not earlier) that the young Austin Osman Spare — then not long into his twenty-second year — and Crowley again made contact. They were certainly in regular communication by late April, for one of the few surviving letters from Spare to Crowley dates from early May, and is clearly a part of an ongoing correspondence (10).
The letter is written in tones of some intimacy: Spare addresses Crowley as ‘My dear Aleister,’ and it has a looseness and informality which suggests considerable familiarity. In it Spare thanked Crowley for sending him a copy of his recently-written poem ‘The Garden of Janus’ (11). Curiously the letter reveals that Spare had already decided to join the A.’. A.’. for he then mentioned the planned purchase of a [Probationer’s] robe, which he could not afford, but which Crowley had offered to pay for in exchange for artwork — presumably that which was published in the next issue of The Equinox (12). Spare then commented cryptically ‘About that other matter — to be certain — we must wait till we meet ….’ and launched into an impenetrable deliberation of some occult matter which they have obviously previously discussed (13).
In a subsequent letter to Crowley, Spare announced that he had ‘chosen a magick name,’ that is ‘YIHOVEAUM’ (14). Not long after, on July 10, 1909, Austin Osman Spare took the Oath of a Probationer in the A.. A.., in the presence of Aleister Crowley. He thereby pledged himself:
To prosecute the Great Work: which is, to obtain a scientific knowledge of the nature and powers of my own being. May the A.’. A.’. crown the work, lend me of its wisdom in the work, enable me to understand the work! Reverence, duty, sympathy, devotion, assiduity, trust, do I bring to the A.. A.., and in one year from this date may I be admitted to the knowledge and conversation of the A.. A..! (15)
Spare signed the printed pledge form containing this oath with his newly adopted magical name ‘YIHOVEAUM:’ apparently a compound word of his own invention which combined the Tetragrammaton (the sacred Hebrew God-name YHWH) and AUM, the Sanskrit syllable which symbolises spiritual power or the absolute manifested within (16). In this he was following the custom of taking a motto as a new ‘magical identity’ that had started in the Golden Dawn, of which the A.’. A.’. was a direct descendant.
The A.’. A.’. was a far smaller organisation than the Golden Dawn had been and Spare may well have been surprised if he were told that he was only the seventh person to join it (17). Indeed when the first number of The Equinox came out in March 1909, the Order had only three ‘signed up’ members: Crowley himself and his acolytes J. F. C. Fuller, and Victor B. Neuburg (18).
Writing to Kenneth Grant in 1952, Spare down-played the significance of his association with the A.. A.., suggesting that his involvement was purely honorary, and implying that it was undertaken at Crowley’s instigation.
Shove me down as an hon: member in any manner you like. A.C. did that for me into the old A.’. A.’. He told me he wished to form a large group (of such as myself — interested) of famous folk in the Arts. I introduced him to some — but he burnt his boats by absurd behaviour …. (19)
Spare’s assertion that his membership was essentially honorary seems to be flatly contradicted by the evidence of the letters mentioned above. These clearly demonstrate that his decision to join the Order was not a spur of the moment thing, but a considered decision planned over a period of months, during which he was also involved in complex discussions of magical matters with Crowley. Similarly, there is no evidence that either he or Crowley intended his involvement to be ‘honorary,’ and what little there is suggests quite the contrary (20). Indeed there is nothing to indicate that Crowley had any interest in having ‘honorary members’ in the A.. A..; there was certainly no provision for them as such, and even the tasks assigned to a lowly Probationer demanded considerable time and commitment (21).
It seems that for some time after this Crowley and Spare were often in each others company as a result of which Spare met and became friends with a number of others in Crowley’s circle including Victor Neuburg, George Raffalovich, Augustus John, and Everard Feilding (22). Neuburg and Raffalovich in particular became long-standing friends, and Neuberg went on to write two poems about Spare, which were included in a book of his verse published by The Equinox in 1910 (23).
Some of the few anecdotes concerning Crowley which Spare later recounted to Grant; one of Crowley tipping a plate of food over his own head whilst dining at the Café Royal, and another of him parading down Regent Street in his magical robes (apparently under the illusion that he was invisible) almost certainly date from this period (24). When Spare related these incidents to Grant some forty years later it was in tones of unrestrained disgust, but there is no way of knowing what he made of Crowley’s eccentric and exhibitionist behaviour at the time.
If a story related by the sculptor Laurence Bradshaw to Spare’s friend Frank Letchford is to be believed Spare may not have viewed Crowley’s performances with quite such antipathy when they actually happened, for his own contemporary antics were hardly noteable for their good-taste or maturity. Bradshaw described a practical joke Spare played on Crowley, which took advantage of the latters’s alleged enthusiam for aphrodisiacs:
Austin baked some little cakes of dog-dirt and horse dung, suitably coated with sugar and presented them at afternoon tea to the master saying : “From an old Tang recipe’. Aleister munched impassively. Spare, crestfallen, blurted out the truth but Crowley retained his bland expression and said “I guessed as much!’ (25)
Childish jokes aside, there is no doubt that Crowley was greatly taken with his new protege, whose pictures he hung alongside drawings by Beardsley on the wall of the Victoria Street flat which served as both his London residence and the office of The Equinox (26). He also clearly did his best to further the young man’s career by recommending him to friends and acquaintances such as the publisher and author Holbrook Jackson, to whom Crowley wrote that in terms of illustration, Spare ‘would do you as well or better than [Sidney] Sime (27).’ Of course Crowley also published some of Spare’s work himself; when the second number of rolled off the presses late in September of 1909 it contained two drawings and two diagrams by Spare — presumably the ‘work’ for which Crowley was to pay him by purchase of the robe (28). Interestingly, that number of The Equinox also included a poem by Crowley, ‘Priestess of Panormita,’ which he was later to identify as referring to Spare (29).
In mid-October Spare proudly sent a copy of the deluxe edition of that number of The Equinox, along with a letter detailing his contributions to it, to his patron Pickford Waller (30). In that same letter he wrote that ‘the next number will have a coloured plate by me,’ although this was never to eventuate, and as far as is known, his contributions to Volume I, Number 2, were the only illustrations of his to appear in The Equinox series (31).
Whether this meant that Spare and Crowley had already gone their separate ways or whether it merely indicates that the notoriously unreliable Spare had failed to produce the artwork is unknown, for at this stage the scant documentary evidence effectively peters out (32). Crowley dedicated a poem to Spare in his anthology The Winged Beetle, published in 1910, but the trail then ceases until late in December 1912, when Crowley gave himself the task of reviewing the progress — or otherwise — of those who had signed up as Probationers in the A.. A.(33). His method was simply to go through the completed oath-forms, making a brief note as to what had become of the particular Probationer on the verso of each. When he came to Spare’s form, he simply wrote: ‘An artist, can’t understand organisation or would have passed.’
The implication was of course that Spare had failed his tests, rather than (as Spare was later to suggest) that he had never been a real member of the Order and had left Crowley’s circle in disgust at the Beast’s antics. Sadly, just where the truth lies will probably never be known. It does, however, seem that whatever ill-feeling Spare had developed towards Crowley was not reciprocated. Nine months later, when contemplating the material he proposed to include in the final number of the first series of The Equinox, Crowley dashed off a brief note inviting Spare to contribute:
If you have any illustrations that you think would do for No. 10 of The Equinox please let me see them this week. I should like to have something of yours in our last number (34).
As far as is known, Spare did not reply: at least no illustration of his was published. In hindsight this is hardly surprising, for it is clear that by this time he had come to thoroughly loathe Crowley. The extent of this ill-feeling was revealed just two months later when Spare published his own major magical work The Book of Pleasure, which included a scathing attack on ceremonial Magic and its practitioners. Although fear of a libel action presumably prevented Spare from actually naming Crowley, he still managed to leave no doubt that it was the Beast at whom the most vicious of the barbs were aimed (35).
‘Others praise ceremonial Magic, and are supposed to suffer much Ecstasy! Our asylums are crowded, the stage is over-run! Is it by symbolizing we become the symbolized? Were I to crown myself King, should I be King? Rather should I be an object of disgust or pity. These Magicians, whose insincerity is their safety, are but the unemployed dandies of the Brothels. Magic is but one’s natural ability to attract without asking; ceremony what is unaffected, its doctrine the negation of theirs. I know them well and their creed of learning that teaches the fear of their own light. Vampires, they are as the very lice in attraction. Their practices prove their incapacity, they have no magic to intensify the normal, the joy of a child or healthy person, none to evoke their pleasure or wisdom from themselves. Their methods depending on a morass of the imagination and a chaos of conditions, their knowledge obtained with less decency than the hyena his food, I say they are less free and do not obtain the satisfaction of the meanest among animals. Self condemned in their disgusting fatness, their emptiness of power, without even the magic of personal charm or beauty, they are offensive in their bad taste and mongering for advertisement. The freedom of energy is not obtained by its bondage, great power not by disintegration. It is not because our energy (or mind stuff) is already over bound and divided, that we are not capable, let alone magical (36).’
The passage quoted is one of a dozen lengthy paragraphs which comprise the first chapter of The Book of Pleasure: ‘Different Religions and Doctrines as Means to Pleasure, Freedom and Power.’ In this chapter Spare appears to follow the practice (oft-used by those seeking to promulgate a new occult, religious, or philosophical system) of launching a pre-emptive assault on rival systems, before proceeding to outline his own.
Whilst Ceremonial Magic is therefore just one a number of practices and philosophies which Spare targets, there is no doubt that he reserves for it his most vicious invective. Just why he felt so vehemently about the subject is yet another mystery. If we accept (against his later protestations), that Spare had indeed been a disciple of Crowley’s, then one might explain it as the wrath of a former-convert who for whatever reason had felt his trust and good faith betrayed. Less likely is the possibility that Spare identified ceremonial Magic as the closest rival to his own system, and therefore singled it out for special attention.
Certainly the esoteric world-view that underpins The Book of Pleasure shares the same vocabulary of belief as the ritual or ceremonial magic of Crowley. In simple terms both systems were predicated on the idea that beneath the conscious mind there lurks a powerful, all-knowing sub-conscious which largely controls the individual’s destiny. Crowley equated this sub-conscious with the ‘Holy Guardian Angel’ — the source of the ‘true will’ — and some of his most important magical teachings involved techniques to bring the conscious mind of the student into contact with his or her ‘Holy Guardian Angel.’ Spare similarly believed that the sub-conscious was a source of great power in the individual’s life, and in essence his magical system could simply be described as the formulation of a technique which would unify the conscious and the sub-conscious in the desire to obtain a specific end, and thereby achieve it (37). As is also well known, the occult systems of both had increasingly placed importance on the role of sex in esoteric practice.
Ironically, the similarities between their systems were in some respects so strong, that in his grandiloquent fervour Spare sometimes made criticisms which might just as well be levelled at his own system. In his apparent attack on ceremonial magic practices such as ‘the assumption of the God-forms’ quoted at length above, Spare observed derisively: ‘Is it by symbolizing we become the symbolized? Were I to crown myself King, should I be King? Rather should I be an object of disgust or pity’ — apparently unaware or unconcerned that others might reasonably perceive his own system of talismanic magic as being the epitome of ‘by symbolizing we become the symbolized’ (38). Similarly it could well be argued that his carefully-crafted system of creating talismans to bring about certain ends is every bit as remote from his definition of Magic as being ‘but one’s natural ability to attract without asking’ as do the more excessive rituals of ceremonial magic which he criticises.
This is not to imply that there were not great differences between the magic of Spare and the magic of Crowley, Spare clearly felt the whole rigmarole of ceremonial magic to be just so much trumpery (39). Yet still it does not explain the impassioned invective with which he dismissed it.
Even more perplexing is the enormous personal hostility towards the ceremonial magician (Crowley) which burns through the monologue. In the passage quoted above Spare derides the magician as a lunatic (‘Our asylums are crowded, the stage is over-run!’) and an object worthy of ‘disgust or pity.’ He is described as one of a breed ‘whose insincerity is their safety,’ who ‘are but the unemployed dandies of the Brothels …. Vampires, they are as the very lice in attraction ….,’ and the diatribe continues.
What then, could have caused Spare to so thoroughly abjure both Crowley and the magical system with which Spare associated him? The answer, I suspect, can be found in the three poems of Crowley’s which I mentioned earlier in the text.
The first of these poems, ‘The Garden of Janus,’ was written in the Sahara after a landmark homosexual encounter with Victor B. Neuburg during the magical workings that produced The Vision and the Voice in 1909. Crowley sent this poem (presumably in typescript) to Spare several months before he had signed up as a Probationer with the A.. A. (40). It is a lengthy, perplexing poem, in which ‘The Garden’ — a common motif in erotic poetry — represents a strange and savage world where all is permitted and the violent, primitive energies unleashed in orgiastic excess transform the chaos. Amongst its more distinctive features are a number of savage homo-erotic images (41).
That Crowley chose to send Spare this particular poem may in itself mean nothing, although it is difficult to ignore the fact that Crowley was sexually voracious and actively bi-sexual, and Spare was by all accounts an extremely attractive young man (42). The possibility that there was some subtext to his action becomes a probability when we examine the next of the poems which link Crowley and Spare: ‘The Priestess of Panormita’ (43).This poem was written at sometime in the six month period between March and September 1909 and according to marginalia in Crowley’s own copy of the volume in which it was published, the subject was Austin Osman Spare. Crowley’s rather cryptic annotation reads:
“Refers to Austin Osman Spare consciously; but the Gods deemed otherwise, though granting the request made to the full” (44).
The poem is altogether more reflective than ‘The Garden of Janus,’ and the homosexual references, though present, are more muted. In it Crowley muses about desire, and argues that it must be satisfied, no matter what its form. He details the anguish and exhilaration of the pursuit, capture, and subsequent flight of an unwilling lover, lamenting that the seeds of destruction were present within the desire itself, but as the lust could not be denied, the outcome was unavoidable. There is an air of melancholy throughout, and a sense that the seduction was also a betrayal.
The last of the poems, ‘The Twins,’ was dedicated to Spare (45). Of the three poems, it is perhaps the most straightforward, and celebrates a relationship between two males so close that it passes from brotherhood to incest, creating a current of such power that the act of its consummation ends one world and creates another (46).
To me there seems little doubt, that these last two poems offer insight into the breakdown of the relationship between Crowley and Spare. Clearly Crowley was sexually attracted to the young artist, and perhaps against his better judgement sought to seduce him. Whether he succeeded or not is perhaps irrelevant, although the inference is that he did, possibly by persuading Spare that the union of the two magicians (brother-artists) would be an act of shattering significance. It would seem that it was, but not perhaps as expected or hoped for by Crowley, for all indications are that his actual or attempted seduction of Spare left him disappointed and disgusted, full of loathing for Crowley, and convinced that everything to do with the Beast was sham and fraud (47).
Such a scenario would explain not only the apparent swiftness and decisiveness of the schism, but also the extraordinarily personal nature of Spare’s diatribe against ‘magicians’ (that is Crowley), and his absolute repugnance for and reluctance to even so much as discuss the Beast in later life. It also gives an extra, even more bitter meaning to passages from The Book of Pleasure such as these:
Their practices prove their incapacity, they have no magic to intensify the normal, the joy of a child or healthy person, none to evoke their pleasure or wisdom from themselves.
Their methods depending on a morass of the imagination and a chaos of conditions, their knowledge obtained with less decency than the hyena his food, I say they are less free and do not obtain the satisfaction of the meanest among animals.
Self condemned in their disgusting fatness, their emptiness of power, without even the magic of personal charm or beauty, they are offensive in their bad taste and mongering for advertisement (48).
Not surprisingly, Crowley eventually acquired a copy of The Book of Pleasure for himself (49). Curiously, and it could be said, tellingly, when Crowley set down his opinions of the work, he chose to completely ignore these and the other caustic criticisms which Spare had made, merely observing that it was:
Imitated from the works of Aleister Crowley, Kwang-Tze and other adepts. Their words and thoughts are misrepresented and distorted. Spare was at the time a pupil of Fra. P. [Frater Perdurabo – Crowley] but was kept back by Him on account of his tendency to Black Magic. This tendency is seen in its development in this book. Critics will note the ignorance of the meanings of the words, e.g. “obsession incarnating.’ one also finds sentences without verbs & fine nonsense like “Neither-Neither’ stolen from J. M. Barrie’s ‘Never-Never’ (50).
As is well known, Crowley spent the years of the First World War in America, returning to Britain only briefly after war’s end, before travelling on to France and eventually Sicily, where he founded his famous ‘Abbey of Thelema,’ at Cefalu. With the exception of a brief period following his conscription into the R.A.M.C., Spare spent most of the war years in London, where he served as an artist for both the R.A.M.C. and the Imperial War Museum. Following the cessation of hostilities in 1919 he was sent to France to draw, before returning to England where he was finally demobilised in November of that year.
As far as can be ascertained, there was no contact of any sort between the Crowley and Spare between their pre-war association and the year 1922. Then having both tired of the relatively spartan life at the Abbey and decided that he might be able to boost flagging finances by selling some of his literary work to British publishers and editors, Crowley returned temporarily to London. once there, he set about chasing up those old friends or acquaintances whose connections with the publishing world — no matter how tenuous they were — might assist his endeavour.
It seems that amongst those upon whom he called was Austin Osman Spare, then co-editor of a literary journal called ‘Form – A Quarterly of the Arts.’ Even had he been willing, Spare would not have been in a position to help Crowley, as the January 1922 issue of ‘Form’ was fated to be its last. Perhaps as a token of old friendship, or perhaps – as cynics might suggest — as a way of getting rid of him, Spare presented Crowley with a copy of his latest book, The Focus of Life.
Published the previous year, The Focus of Life was Spare’s first major publication since The Book of Pleasure, and there was clearly a strong connection between the two books. Spare himself seems to have acknowledge this in his choice for the illustration on the title-page of The Focus of Life, which shows his magical persona Aaos, as he ‘recovers from the death-posture.’ This was the position in which Spare was shown in the frontispiece to The Book of Pleasure, and by his own account it depicted that state of ‘vacuity’ which, according to his system, the magical practitioner needed to attain in the process of effecting their magical will. From this perspective The Book of Pleasure was the magical act in its making, The Focus of Life the same act in its climax, the mature expression, perhaps, of the magical will asserted in the earlier work.
If anything The Focus of Life is even more frenetic than The Book of Pleasure, assaulting the reader with a variety of words and images in a vivid, chaotic torrent. Yet despite its strength and vigour, it is largely devoid of the malice and bitterness so vivid in the earlier book, and thus rather than again lashing viciously at rival systems Spare merely observed of them that he had ‘… realised at an early age that all systems of belief, religion and rituals; consisted alone in their original value to their creators …..’ (51) Perhaps, in the fulfilment of his own magical ideals, Spare no longer needed to brood with bitterness on past wrongs.
Possibly sweetened by what was most likely an unexpected gift, Crowley was unusually generous in the appraisal of the book which he penned on its end-paper. In his mind Spare again became ‘my Disciple,’ and whereas when annotating The Book of Pleasure he wrote of Spare having ‘Imitated’ his own works, Crowley now referred to him as having ‘learnt’ from them:
My Disciple has learnt much from The Book of the Law; for the rest he has drawn from the Book of Lies, and William Blake, also Nietzsche and the Tao Teh King (52).
He still noted that he ‘found much redundance’ in the long chapters — a criticism which is by no means unfair — although he went on to note that on second reading ‘The Book seems better and deeper than I thought at first.’ Above all though, it was the extraordinary drawings which illustrated the book that appealed to Crowley. Obviously they stirred his muse, for he went on to embellish eight of the plates with accompanying poems, as well as writing an eighteen-line dedicatory verse to Spare (53).
The brief meeting in 1922 appears to have been their last. Not long after Crowley retreated to his Abbey at Cefalu, and spent most of the twenties abroad, only returning to settle in England in the 1930s. He died in a boarding house at Hastings in 1947.
During the last years of his life Crowley received several visits from a young man with a fascination for magic named Kenneth Grant. In the course of one of their conversations, Crowley expressed what was in all probability his final opinion of Spare. Remarkably — given the thirty-odd years which had elapsed in the interim — it was little changed from that which he had penned in his copy of The Book of Pleasure. Age and nostalgia had diminished any ill-feeling, and he spoke of Spare almost as an errant son: reaffirming his regard for Spare’s art but suggesting that magically speaking Spare’s inward focus had caused him to become ‘black’ (54).
It is again to Kenneth Grant, and his wife Steffi, that we owe the few anecdotes of Spare’s concerning Crowley that we now have. The couple had first met Spare late in 1949, and went on to become good friends, and, in a sense, Spare’s magical heirs. Given their great interest in Crowley, they not surprisingly pressed Spare for reminiscences of him. The few stories which he imparted to them, and the way in which they were told, showed that the passing of the years had by no means lessened Spare’s hostility towards Crowley.
In their recently published book, Zos Speaks!, Steffi Grant observed that Spare ‘claimed to detest Crowley,’ and in a letter to her husband Kenneth, the artist spoke of Crowley’s ‘weaknesses & stupidities,’ which he felt to have been particularly unnecessary as he was ‘extremely well off then – without need of being tricky’ (55). In contrast Spare was almost at pains to point out that ‘Crowley had always been most correct, generous in money matters, and pleasant,’ yet he was still so antipathetic towards the Beast that he disliked any discussion of him taking place in the presence of his friends (56).
Like it or not the presence of the Grants and their obvious fascination with Crowley brought the Beast back to mind for Spare. It was perhaps only natural that, prolific and accomplished portraitist that he was, Spare would eventually overcome his distaste, and use the Beast as a subject. As it transpires, Spare eventually produced two portraits of Crowley, one ‘Aleister Crowley from memory (as in 1910),’ and the other ‘Crowley transcribed from a photograph’ (57). In what appears to be some ‘trickery’ on his own part, Spare dated the former portrait 1953, and the latter 1931, whereas the evidence suggests that both were actually executed in 1954 (58).
Austin Osman Spare died on May 15, 1956, having maintained his hostility to Crowley to the end.
There was considerable irony in this, for it seems that if Spare and Crowley had only transcended their egos and enmities, they might have discovered just how much they had in common. Both were artists of considerable merit, Crowley the poet (and sometimes painter), and Spare ‘the divine draughtsman.’ Brought up in an atmosphere of considerable sexual repression, each had explored and indeed revelled in his own sexuality, and had discovered the potential of utilising sexual energies in occult practice. The study and practice of the occult arts was a focal point of each man’s lives, and curiously, each was eventually to abandon the more cumbersome apparatus of ceremonial magic in favour of a powerful, sexually charged occultism, largely of his own invention.
Perhaps the greatest irony would be if, as seems likely, the very sexual energies which played so great a part in both men’s lives and magic, also lay at the core of the destruction of their friendship.
1. The edition in question, which included the first publication of a suite of poems which Crowley wrote in response to the illustrations in The Focus of Life, was published under the title Now for Reality, (Mandrake Press Ltd., 1990).
2. I am deeply indebted to Clive Harper and William Breeze for helping me wade through the Crowley paper trail. Without their capable assistance I would surely have sunk or lost direction many times!
3. Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Zos Speaks!, Encounters with Austin Osman Spare (Fulgur, 1998), pp. 16 & 43.
4. Kenneth Grant, diary extract recording a meeting with Spare, dated October 30, 1949. Published in Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 43.
5. This story does sound suspiciously like one of those that has grown better in the retelling. Vicegerent is a relatively obscure term describing a representative or manager of worldly affairs acting on behalf of God or Christ, and thus sometimes applied to the pontiff. Spare’s witty retort (Italian-pontiff-manager, becomes ‘Italian ponce out of work’) sounds a little too much like a play based on a dictionary definition to have been spontaneous.
6. on Mrs. Paterson, see Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., pp. 95, 98, & 155, and Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, (Fulgur, 2003) pp. 9 & 10.
7. See the object depicted in the foreground of the plate ‘Existence,’ and the book in the foreground of the plate ‘General Allegory.’ A. O. Spare, in A Book of Satyrs (Co-operative Printing Society, 1907).
8. Interesting reviews etc. of the exhibition are reprinted in Robert Ansell, The Bookplate Designs of Austin Osman Spare (The Bookplate Society/Keridwen Press, 1988), pp. 2-3.
9. The rather clumsily-worded inscription reads ‘Aleister Crowley | with Austin Osman Spare | Kind Wishes 1908.’ The volume is in a Private Collection.
10. The letter is dated ’31.st [sic] 4. 09.’ but the actual date of writing is probably May 1, 1909. (Presumably Spare forgot that there are only 30 days in April, and thus wrote April 31, when the actual date would have been May 1st.) Letter, A. O. Spare to Aleister Crowley, April 31 [sic] 1909, library of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin (hereafter HRHRC).
11. It is unclear whether the intention was that Spare should illustrate the poem, or merely read it. The two had clearly discussed the poem before — either in person or by post — as Spare adds ‘I was going to write you for it.’ (Letter, A. O. Spare to Aleister Crowley, April 31 [sic] 1909, Op. cit.) The poem was published later that year in The Equinox, Vol. I, No. 2, September 1909 (pp. 93-103), the same issue in which four illustrations by Spare appeared (see below).
12. ‘I cannot afford the Robe (have nothing) & its [sic] kind of you to pay off on the work. Do you order it or I?’ Letter, A. O. Spare to Aleister Crowley, April 31 [sic] 1909, Op. cit.
13. The text follows on exactly: ‘Had a try to day …. nearly 13 – 13 = 2 — but 0 = 78 [with a drawing — possibly of a pair of scales — above ’78’] – 13 ….. which is better … all too chaotic though, so tomorrow I make a special [drawing, showing what appears to be a card lifted from a deck of cards, perhaps signifying a tarot reading] any way their [sic] will be no doubt when we meet .. Anything happening — writing tomorrow. Yrs [Signed with letter ‘A’ and sigil] An addendum underneath the signature reads ‘I did certain things to day which will help on …. [line of dots going up in text to the pair of scales above the ’78’]
14. The letter is undated, although it is headed with the word ‘Friday.’ I assume it to be subsequent to the letter already quoted, as Spare signs it with his new ‘magick’ name YIHOVEAUM, which he would presumably have used in any correspondence to Crowley which followed. Letter, A. O. Spare to Aleister Crowley, ‘Friday’ [May/June? 1909], HRHRC.
15. ‘ ‘Oath of a Probationer,’ single sided printed form, from an original document in the Yorke collection.
16. This explanation of YIHOVEAUM was first given by Kenneth Grant, in Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, p. 7.
17. Crowley was in the habit of numbering the completed oath-forms in the order in which Probationers joined (a practice which he ceased in March 1913, by which time some 56 Probationers had joined the order). The originals of these forms, along with eight others (dating from 1913-1922) were in the possession of the Turret Bookshop, London, in 1964, at which time Timothy d’Arch Smith transcribed the relevant data. All details of the forms given here are from a copy of the transcript, kindly supplied to me by d’Arch Smith. The original documents are now in the Special Collections, Pennsylvania State University Library, (State College, Pennsylvania).
18. Ibid. The fourth, fifth and sixth people to sign the Oath were K. M. Dalal (May 1), Kenneth M. Ward (May 25), Richard Noel Warren (June 17). Crowley’s friends George Raffalovich and Everard Feilding did not sign up until August 11 & 21, becoming, respectively, the tenth and eleventh to take the Oath.
19. Letter, A. O. Spare to Kenneth and Steffi Grant, dated April 22, 1952, published in Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 81. The context in which Spare wrote was that he would not be averse to being signed up as an ‘honorary member’ of the New Isis Lodge of the O.T.O. which Grant was then in the process of founding.
20. If Spare’s involvement in the Order was on an honorary basis it is hard to imagine why, at a time of obvious poverty, he needed to purchase (rather than borrow) a robe (even if Crowley did pay for it out of money owed for illustrations).
21. These duties were clearly outlined in a document: A.. A.. The Task of a Probationer. In addition to reserving a week one year whence for the purpose of his or her actual initiation as a Neophyte, a Probationer was required to memorise a chapter of one of Crowley’s ‘Holy Books’ (Liber LXV), study a long list of recommended books, keep a ‘magical record’ for the period of a year, and undertake any additional tasks assigned by superiors in the Order. (A..A.. The Task of a Probationer, original document, HRHRC.). If Crowley had intended the A.. A.. to be a broad-based organisation with room for casual or honorary members — along the lines of some Masonic organisations with which he was familiar — it seems inexplicable that he did not take this into account when codifying the Grade structure.
22. Neuberg, Raffalovich and Feilding all were, or became, members of the A.’. A.’. Although not a member of any of his esoteric orders Augustus John maintained a life-long acquaintance with Crowley and collected his works. He was, of course, also extremely well-known in artistic circles and the possibility remains that he met Spare this way, rather than through their mutual association with Crowley.
23. Victor B. Neuberg, The Triumph of Pan (The Equinox, 1910). Spare is both the dedicatee and the subject of the poems ‘The Artist’ (p. 90) and ‘Existence (For a Picture)’ (p. 116).
24. Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 16.
25. Frank Letchford, Michaelangelo in a Teacup (published as From the Inferno to Zos, Vol. III, First Impressions., 1996) p. 145.
26. Ethel Archer, one of Crowley’s circle at the time, described the room in the thinly veiled portrait of Crowley which appeared in her book The Hieroglyph, p. 8.
27. Letter, Aleister Crowley to Holbrook Jackson, undated but circa 1909, Yorke collection.
28. Spare’s contributions were the two drawings which appeared in ‘A Handbook of Geomancy’ (pp. 141 and 161), and the diagrams numbered 33 and 51 (pp. 275 and 283).
29. A manuscript annotation in Crowley’s hand on the first page (p. 209) of ‘The Priestess of Panormita,’ in a copy of the deluxe edition of The Equinox Vol. I, No. II, states ‘Refers to Austin Osman Spare consciously; but the Gods deemed otherwise, though granting the request made to the full.’ The volume in question is preserved in the Kenneth Anger Accession of the O. T. O. Archives. My thanks to William Breeze for drawing this to my attention and providing me with a copy of the annotation.
30. Letter, A. O. Spare to Pickford Waller, October 15, 1909. (Private collection.)
31. It is not impossible that Spare was responsible for one or more of the diagrams which appear in later numbers of The Equinox as these are mostly unsigned; however none exhibit any distinctive features which might suggest that they were his work.
32. William Wallace has made the interesting suggestion that Spare’s choice of the ‘death posture’ drawing for reproduction in The Equinox Vol. I No. I ‘may represent the commencement of a desire by Spare to remove himself from direct linkage with Crowley …..’ William Wallace, The Artist’s Books (published as From the Inferno to Zos, Vol. II, Mandrake Press Ltd., 1996) p. 417. This would seem to me to be contradicted by Spare’s stated intention to supply a colour plate for the second number of the series, but is nonetheless worthy of consideration.
33. Ian Law refers to Spare as having joined another occult society, the O.T.O., ‘with Crowley’ in 1911 in his essay on Spare published in Geraldine Beskin and John Bonner (Eds.) Austin Osman Spare 1886-1956 The Divine Draughtsman, (Beskin Press, 1987). I have been unable to find any documentation to confirm this, and as Crowley does not seem to have begun promoting the O.T.O. until after he became head of its British section on July 1, 1912, this seems unlikely.
34. Letter, Aleister Crowley to Austin Osman Spare, September 8, 1913. Yorke Collection.
35. According to the notes in the Select Bibliography of Zos Speaks!, proof sheets of The Book of Pleasure were sent to Spare’s patron Pickford Waller in October 1913 (Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 287). Presumably this would have occurred shortly before publication, so the book probably appeared around November of that year.
36. A. O. Spare, The Book of Pleasure, pp. 2-3. Gavin Semple observes (apparently on the basis of proof copies or typescript material) that this passage was added quite late in the creation of the book, and identifies it as a ‘broadside — launched directly at Crowley.’ Gavin W. Semple, Zos-Kia, (Fulgur, 1995) p. 15.
37. A. O. Spare, The Book of Pleasure, passim. Spare’s thoughts on the matter, in essence, are outlined in Clifford Bax, Ideas and People, (Lovat Dickson Ltd., 1936) pp. 38-39. A useful and detailed study of Spare’s occult thought can be found in Gavin W. Semple, Zos-Kia, passim.
38. See particularly, A. O. Spare, The Book of Pleasure, pp. 50-53. The ‘assumption of the God-form’ involves the practitioner of ceremonial magic adopting the posture in which a particular deity is normally depicted, with the belief that this combined with appropriate meditational and other observances, will lead him or her to a ‘deep’ identification with the deity (from one perspective literally becoming — temporarily — the deity concerned).
39. ‘Know all ritual, ceremony, conditions as arbitrary (you have yourself to please), a hindrance and confusion; their origin was for amusement, later for the purpose of deceiving others from knowing the truth and inducing ignorance; and as always happens their high priests were the more deceived themselves. He who deceives another — deceives himself much more. Therefore know the Charlatans by their love of rich robes, ceremony, ritual, magical retirements, absurd conditions, and other stupidity, too numerous to mention. Their entire doctrine a boastful display, a cowardice hungering for notoriety; their standard everything unnecessary, their certain failure assured. Hence it is that those with some natural ability quickly lose it by their teaching.’ A. O. Spare, The Book of Pleasure, pp. 48-49. Interestingly Crowley’s involvement with the O.T.O. was later to cause him to move away from the whole ritual apparatus in favour of a more streamlined system.
40. The ‘Garden of Janus’ was published later that year in The Equinox, Vol. I, No. II, September 1909 (pp. 93-103), where it appeared without dedication. Crowley republished it in his collection The Winged Beetle (Privately Printed, 1910, pp. 35-44) this time with a dedication to Victor Neuburg, his acolyte and sometime lover. In an interesting twist it transpires that — in later life at least — Spare sometimes referred to himself as ‘Janus’ with regard to his date of birth, for he could not recall whether he was born on the last day of December or on New Years day, and thus whether he was ‘Janus backward-turning, or Janus forward-facing.’ Quoted in Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival (Frederick Muller, 1972, p. 180).
41. For example stanza II: ‘So, he is gone whose giant sword shed flame / Into my bowels; my blood’s bewitched; / My brain’s afloat with ecstasy of shame. / That tearing pain is gone, enriched / by his life-spasm; ……….’
42. Of course there is always the possibility that Crowley sent the poem to Spare for illustration. If this were so it seems odd that Spare did not allude to it in his letter, and that no illustration accompanied the text in The Equinox, even though Spare supplied other work for the number.
43. The ‘The Priestess of Panormita’ was first published in The Equinox, Vol. I, No. II, September 1909 (pp. 209-216), under the pseudonym Elaine Carr. Crowley reprinted it in The Winged Beetle (pp. 47-54) where it appeared with a dedication to ‘Hilda Howard.’ I can find no trace of any person by this name connected with Crowley, and can only assume it is a joke or word-play of some kind.
44. Holograph annotation in Crowley’s hand, see footnote 29, supra.
45. Aleister Crowley, ‘The Twins,’ published in The Winged Beetle (pp. 98-101). A note in the Contents (p. viii) dedicates it ‘to A. O. Spare’.
46. Perhaps expressed most clearly in verses IX and X: (Verse IX) See, how subtly I writhe! / Strange runes and unknown sigils / I trace in the trance that thrills us. / Death! how lithe, how blithe / Are these male incestuous vigils! / Ah! this is the spasm that kills us! (Verse X) Wherefore I solemnly affirm / The twofold oneness at the term. / Asar on Asi did beget / Horus twin brother unto Set. / Now Set and Horus kiss, to call / The soul of the Unnatural / Forth from the dusk; the nature slain / Lets the Beyond be born again. (Aleister Crowley, Op. cit., p. 100).
47. Spare was well known for his heterosexual excess in his youth, but I know of no indication as to whether or not he was bi-sexual. Even had he been so, the thought or practice of a sexual relationship with Crowley must still have proved abhorrent to him. He certainly found Crowley’s sometimes effeminate posturings offensive, and later told Grant that he had once seen Crowley in Piccadilly ‘made up like a male prostitute,’ and supposedly commented inwardly, ‘My God, if I had to go to all that effort to attract ’em, I’d give up the ghost.’ Kenneth Grant, diary extract recording a meeting with Spare, dated October 30, 1949. Published in Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 43.
48. A. O. Spare, The Book of Pleasure, pp. 2-3. Gavin Semple observes (apparently on the basis of proof copies or typescript material) that this passage was added quite late in the creation of the book, and identifies it as a ‘broadside — launched directly at Crowley.’ Gavin W. Semple, Zos-Kia, p. 15.
49. It is not known how the copy came into Crowley’s hands, though it seems most unlikely that it would have been a present from Spare!
50. Aleister Crowley, annotation on the end-paper of a copy of A. O. Spare The Book of Pleasure, Rare Book Collection, State Library of New South Wales.
51. A. O. Spare, The Focus of Life (The Morland Press, 1921), p. 24.
52. Aleister Crowley, annotation on the end-paper of a copy of A. O. Spare, The Focus of Life. Yorke Collection.
53. See footnote 1, supra.
54. Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 16.
55. Ibid and Letter, A. O. Spare to Kenneth and Steffi Grant, dated April 22, 1952, Op. cit, p. 81.
56. Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., p. 16.
57. The portrait ‘Aleister Crowley from memory (as in 1910),’ is reproduced in Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival (Frederick Muller, 1972, facing p. 85). The portrait ‘Crowley transcribed from a photograph’ is reproduced in A. O. Spare, Now for Reality (p. 12), and Geraldine Beskin and John Bonner (Eds.) The Divine Draughtsman, (No. 4 of the Monochrome Plates).
58. The portrait, a charcoal sketch, is taken directly from the photograph which serves as a frontispiece to The Equinox Vol. I, No. X (September 1913). In August 1954 Spare had written to Grant asking him to provide him with a photograph of Crowley (and a copy of his signature) on which he could base a portrait as he had a prospective purchaser, and at any rate would be happy to include one of the Beast in his next show. Grant obliged, supplying him with the afore-mentioned frontis from The Equinox. A few days later, Spare returned the portrait, noting that it was ‘not helpful for my purpose — did better one from memory.’ on November 10th of that year, Grant wrote that he had seen a portrait of Crowley by Spare ‘drawn from memory (1910, I think) last year’ which a friend had just purchased from George Sims, a bookseller acquaintance of Spares! Then, in February 1955, Grant made mention of meeting ‘the man who had bought your ‘bald-headed Crowley’ – again from Sims – and of showing him the photograph (presumably from The Equinox) from which Spare did it. The only possible explanation for this peculiar chronology of events (and the seemingly spurious dates on the portraits) would be that in August 1954 Spare realised that there was a potential market for a couple of Crowley portraits, but perhaps thinking that they would be of lesser value if he just whipped them up to order, backdated them; one by a year, and the other by over two decades! Letters etc. published in Kenneth and Steffi Grant, Op cit., pp. 87, 113, & 132.
This essay reproduced with permission from Austin Osman Spare: Artist – Occultist – Sensualist, (The Beskin Press, London, 1999), a collection of essays on Spare’s life, art and magic which was produced to coincide with the the exhibition of Spare’s art that was held in London, in August 1999. The volume includes reproductions of 54 of Spare’s artworks, with sixteen pages in colour, as well as essays by Michael Staley, Sunny Shah, Marcus Jungkurth, Roy Curtis-Bramwell, and the late John Balance & Frank Letchford.
Copies are available for purchase in the UK from: