Phil Baker: Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist

Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist by Phil Baker. Strange Attractor Press, 2011. Hardback, 334 pages, colour plates, b/w illustrations throughout text. £25.00.

Although there has been a fair amount of biographical material by Spare available over the years, this has been scattered amongst a number of sources such as Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare and Zos Speaks!, Gavin Semple’s Zos Kia, Frank Letchford’s memoir Michelangelo in a Teacup, and some reprinted articles. However, a biography has been long overdue, and Phil Baker’s book is therefore welcome.

During his early years in Edwardian London, Spare had to a large extent been seen as a ‘bright young thing’ in terms of his draughtsmanship, though the subject-matter of his drawings and paintings was considered by some to contain a substratum of dark and morbid elements. This ambiguity towards Spare is evident in extracts here presented of some of the reviews of his early exhibitions, and must have been reinforced by the publication of The Book of Pleasure in 1913. There are signs therefore that Spare’s star was already on the wane in the years immediately preceding the First World War.

Of particular interest to me in this biography was the account of Spare’s life in the 1920s and 1930s, between the wars. The decline in his fortunes after the First World War is well-chronicled here — the collapse of Spare’s publishing ventures Form and The Golden Hind, the lack of paid work and with it Spare’s increasing impoverishment, the retreat to the Borough — and with it came Spare’s increasing isolation. Although sigils are largely absent from his surviving artwork from this period, his belief in the underlying principle — that of a means of engaging with the subconscious, in order to bring about the fulfilment of a desire — remained. There is an account here on pages 138-9 of Spare speaking to Clifford Bax in the early to mid 1920s of a method by which, Spare maintained, “whatever you really want, you can get”. After outlining the principle of enshrining the desire in a symbol which “drops down into the subconscious”, thence to germinate, Spare added as an afterthought: “I suppose my own subconscious desire is to be poor!”

This preoccupation with the principles of seeding the subconscious with the wish continued, and is chronicled in this biography. The author quotes Dennis Bardens, who met Spare in the mid 1930s, and who subsequently wrote of “his technique of implanting symbols of wishes and desires into the subconscious mind” and “personally devised cryptology he kept a secret except for a few trusted friends”. There is also a remark quoted here which Spare made to a journalist for Psychic News in 1932 when showing him a panel he had painted of Egyptian deities: “I do not merely make the request and leave it at that. When I ask for a thing —which I do by placing a note in front of the panel — I deliberately make some sacrifice. I give up smoking — which is a great hardship — or something like that until the request has been granted”.

During these years Spare also produced some simple but extraordinarily beautiful anamorphic portraits, generally of film stars, based on transcriptions from publicity photographs, introducing these in his 1930 exhibition as ‘Studies in Relativity’. Often involving strange angles and planes, or juxtapositions, he termed these ‘sidereal’, later incorporating the technique into his more orthodox portraiture. He also started, a few years later, to produce a series which he called ‘Cockney Types’, intense portraits of local people. His self-portraits were always intense, but many of those executed during the 1930s increasingly so, climaxing perhaps with the pastel self-portraits of the late 1930s where the artist stares out with an almost demonic intensity. Spare became an increasingly obscure figure, and these years of privation finally crippled his health.

Spare’s averse star continued during the Second World War, when his studio was bombed during the blitz and as a consequence he lost his home, his possessions, and a great deal of his artwork. Also injured, he was unable to draw for a while. This ability gradually returned, and some of the sketchbooks which he produced during the remaining years of the War are amongst his finest work — an excellent example is ‘Adventures in Limbo’, published several years ago by Keith Richmond.

His first exhibition after the War was in 1947 at the Archer Gallery, West London, and was extremely successful, marking the beginning of something of a renaissance in his fortunes. This can be sensed in many of the pictures he drew and painted for the exhibition. Over the next few years there was a succession of exhibitions in pubs, until he returned to the Archer Gallery in 1955 for his final exhibition.

In 1949 Spare met Kenneth and Steffi Grant, and this sparked in Spare a resurgence of his interest in magic and mysticism. Kenneth Grant was particularly interested in the system of sigils which Spare had developed during the years leading up to the publication of The Book of Pleasure. Sigils are largely absent from Spare’s surviving work between the early 1920s and his meeting with the Grants. There are some notable exceptions, such as the beautiful 1929 drawing ‘Theurgy’, in which Spare sets out a summary of the stages of sigillisation from the initial desire, its expression in sigillic form, its projection into the deeper layers of consciousness, and its subsequent flowering. Spare confessed to Grant that he had by now largely forgotten the principles, and spurred on by Grant’s enthusiasm he set about reconstructing these principles. The result was not only the subsequent eruption of sigils into his artwork once more, but also the late manuscripts which the Grants published in their riveting and beautiful Zos Speaks!

It’s at this point that some of my reservations about this biography come into play. Concerning Spare’s impending meeting with the Grants, the author writes: “Soon, however, tales of Spare are going to move on to a whole new level, a level that is going to make run-down, post-war London seem like HP Lovecraft’s Arkham County. Spare is going to make another young friend, a man whose taste for confabulation matches his own.”

Confabulation is an interesting term with several meanings; here it seems to be used in the sense of embroidering reality, of the construction of fables. The word crops up several times in this biography, the first time in a quote from Frank Letchford concerning Spare’s difficult family relationships: “His bile rose up from conflicting family relationships during formative years leading later (by his own admission) to an inability to separate fantasy from reality.” Baker continues that “Spare had a life-long tendency to confabulation and self-mythologising, beginning with the date of his birth, which he claimed was not 30th December but the liminal, Janus-faced moment of midnight on December 31st”. Later, writing of the interest of Grant and Spare in Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’, Baker writes “At the very least it became a manifesto for creative confabulation, something at which both men were adepts”.

There are suggestions in this biography that Grant presented Spare to the world as other than he really was. On page 148, for instance, talking about Spare’s interest in transmuting the ugly into a new aesthetic, Baker adds:

It was an idea taken much further in paraphrase by his young friend Kenneth Grant (who went some way towards creating his own version of Spare)…

Elsewhere, Baker suggests that Spare somehow exaggerated his interest in mysticism and magic in order to impress the Grants. Personally I don’t accept either suggestion. Spare must have been delighted to come across people so interested in his more occult work, as quintessentialised perhaps in the systems of sigils set out in The Book of Pleasure, and he set about recovering and developing those systems. It’s clear from the success of his 1947 exhibition that Spare was already undergoing a renaissance, and subsequent contact with the Grants accelerated and enriched that process. He produced some of his best work in the 1950s, in the shape of the glorious pastels, epitomised perhaps by the ‘Contexture of Being’ series of twelve pictures in the 1955 exhibition. The Grants, with their intense interest in magic and mysticism, must have been a breath of fresh air to Spare, awakening visions which had been dormant for many years.

Whilst appreciating that this is a biography of Spare and not Grant, some of the remarks about Grant are so singularly ill-informed that one wonders why they were made. Speaking of Grant’s interest in Lovecraft, for instance, the author says:

Grant went on to become an authority on Crowley’s work, although some people in the field find his views unorthodox. Even more influential than the time spent as tea boy to the Beast, however, was Grant’s reading of visionary and pulp fiction by writers such as Arthur Machen, Sax Rohmer, and particularly HP Lovecraft: Grant developed an unusual and darkly mystical take on Lovecraft, which was that tales of monstrously trans-aeonic and inter-galactic entities entities, such as Cthulhu the squid god, were in fact essentially true, unknown to Lovecraft himself. These writers would eventually shape Grant’s own depiction of Spare.

Let’s leave aside the snide reference to Grant as “teaboy to the Beast”; Crowley’s diary entries for the time make it clear that the relationship between the two was deeper. Let’s leave aside, too, the irony of the suggestion that Grant’s views on so unorthodox a man as Crowley, whose work is so eclectic, diverse and wide-ranging, are themselves “unorthodox”. It is evident from even a cursory examination of Grant’s work that Crowley is the central influence. It is equally clear that “visionary and pulp fiction” is just one influence amongst many others, such as Buddhism, surrealism and a host of others. It is also plain that, suggestive though he found Lovecraft’s stories, he didn’t regard them as “essentially true”. Grant argued in The Magical Revival that there were suggestive analogies between Crowley’s mythology and that of Lovecraft, and that perhaps they had a common source in the archetypes of the collective unconscious; that’s a far cry from regarding the Cthulhu mythology as “essentially true”.

The basis for “Grant’s own depiction of Spare” was a relationship with Spare over several years, the typing and constructive criticism of Spare’s late manuscripts, and the immersion in Spare’s work in the years after his death. Amongst the output of Kenneth Grant concerning Spare – one of the Carfax Monographs; the chapters in The Magical Revival; Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare; Zos Speaks! — there is precious little mention of Lovecraft, and nothing whatever to suggest that Lovecraft or any other writer of fiction “shaped” Grant’s understanding, let alone depiction, of Spare.

These criticisms aside, this is a good book, written in the engaging, easy style of writing with which readers of previous work by Phil Baker will be familiar. However, bearing in mind the author’s recent biography of Dennis Wheatley, I was hoping for a substantial study, and was thus a little disappointed. It may be that Spare is a more elusive figure for the biographer; as the author remarks at one point:

Biography can only follow its subject so far, especially a character like Spare, whose real life was internal. The life of an occultist is very different from the life of a tycoon or a general, and Spare was a hidden figure whose life was lived largely on the inner planes: years later he wrote on a Christmas card “I thank the Gods that be – I see myself as no other seeth me”.

In summary, my reservations here notwithstanding, this book does provide a good introduction to Spare’s life. The dust jacket features detail from one of Spare’s gorgeous early 1930s sidereals, and a smaller detail from the same picture has been used highly effectively as a page marker. There are a number of remarkable colour plates, and plenty of black and white images interspersed amongst the text. Highly recommended.

Michael Staley

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