Austin Osman Spare (31 December 1886 - 15 May 1956) was an English artist who developed idiosyncratic magical techniques including automatic writing, automatic drawing and sigilization based on his theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self. His artistic work is characterized by skilled draughtsmanship exhibiting a complete mastery of the use of the line, and often employs monstrous or fantastic magical and sexual imagery.
According to his mother Spare first began to show signs of his talent (and of his well known lack of interest in selling his work) at the age of four:
"All day long he would have a pencil in his hand, drawing anything that was placed before him - his parents, his sisters, or brothers. Nothing seemed to come amiss and we made up our minds that if it was at all possible he should be allowed to follow what was evidently his vocation. Of course it has been expensive to buy his board and paints, and all else that he requires, for, curiously enough, he can never be persuaded to sell any of his work. He is even averse to showing it to any one.
Spare's parents enrolled him in evening classes at Lambeth Art School in 1899, where he developed his skills under the guidance of Phillip Connard. At 14, he won a county council scholarship for ₤10 and one of his drawings was selected for inclusion in the British Art Section of the Paris International Exhibition. At fifteen he left school and began to work designing posters (briefly, at Causton's, producers of posters and other kinds of commercial art) and stained glass (at James Powell & Sons, Whitefriars Street). A promising stained glass design led to his being recommended for a free scholarship at the The Royal College of Art, where he subsequently began formal study. His designs for stained glass undertaken for fellow employee Thomas Cowell are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Shortly thereafter, his father pressured him to send two drawings to the Royal Academy for consideration, with the result that one, an allegorical drawing was accepted. At the age of only sixteen or seventeen, Spare had his work exhibited by the Royal Academy, creating something of a sensation. At this young age he was already deeply involved in the development of his esoteric ideas. In a 1904 article he is quoted as saying, regarding religion:
"I have practically none. I go anywhere. This life is but a reasonable development. All faiths are to me the same. I go to the Church in which I was born - the Established - but without the slightest faith. In fact, I am devising a religion of my own which embodies my conception of what we were, are, and shall be in the future.
In October of 1907 Spare had his first major exhibition at Bruton Gallery in London's West End. The content of this exhibition was striking, arcane and grotesque, causing controversy. These elements appealed to avant-garde London intellectuals, and perhaps brought him to the attention of Aleister Crowley, the infamous English mountaineer, magician and poet. However they met, the two men certainly knew each other. Their interaction appears to have begun some time around 1907 or 1908, as a copy of the 1907 edition of A Book of Satyrs with an inscription (dated 1908) from Spare to Crowley is said to exist in a private collection. The two also engaged in written correspondence. Spare almost certainly became a 'probationer' in the order "A∴A∴" or Argenteum Astrum (Latin for "Silver Star"), founded by Crowley and George Cecil Jones. Spare also contributed four small drawings to Crowley's periodical publication The Equinox, and a photograph exists which shows a young Spare with his hands at the sides of his face in the same pose which Crowley himself adopted in the famous 1910 photo with book, robe and hat.
Whatever the nature of the relationship between Crowley and Spare it appears to have been short-lived, and a passage in Spare's The Book of Pleasure leaves no doubt that he did not hold a favorable view of ceremonial magic or magicians:
"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.
Spare married the actress and dancer Eily Gertrude Shaw on the 4th of September 1911. The two had met some years before. Whatever influence she may have had upon Spare's work the marriage was short-lived, though never formally dissolved. The two separated around 1918-19. One known work of Spare's, inscribed, signed and dated as "Portrait of the Artist & His Wife March 26th 1912 AOS" is known. It shows the head of Spare executed in colored chalks and pencil. To one side, executed with only a few ghostly lines, we see the face of a woman with fine features, her head turned down and to the side, her eyes closed.
The Book of Pleasure, published by Spare himself in autumn of 1913, most likely with the assistance of private patrons, is the most complete exposition of his esoteric ideas. "Conceived initially as a pictorial allegory the book quickly evolved into a much deeper work, drawing inspiration from Taoism and Buddhism, but primarily from his experiences as an artist.
In 1917, during World War I, Spare was conscripted into the British army, serving as a medical orderly of the Royal Army Medical Corps in London hospitals, and was commissioned as an official War Artist in 1919. In this capacity he visited the battlefields of France to record the work of the R.A.M.C. Spare himself recalled, "When the war broke out, I joined the Army. When I left the Forces, the world was a very different place. Lots of things had changed. I found it very difficult to keep going on with what I had been doing. That pushed me into the abstract world - and there I have more or less remained.
By 1927 Spare had certainly taken a public stance indicating disgust with contemporary society. Perhaps the time he spent documenting images of the horrors of war, followed by a period of financial instability and failing ventures, combined with often hostile reviews of his work and ideas led to this state of affairs. Whatever the cause, Spare's loathing was clearly expressed in his work Anathema of Zos - Sermon To The Hypocrites, which was published in that year. It was to be his last published book.
"Dogs, devouring your own vomit! Cursed are ye all! Throwbacks, adulterers, sycophants, corpse devourers, pilferers and medicine swallowers! Think ye Heaven is an infirmary?
Hannen Swaffer, the British journalist, reports that in 1936 Spare wilfully rejected a chance for international fame. He relates that a member of the German Embassy, buying one of Spare's self-portraits, sent it to Hitler. According to Swaffer, the Fuehrer was so impressed (according to this account because the eyes and the moustache were somewhat like his own) that he invited Spare to go to Germany to paint him. Spare, instead, made a copy of it, which came into Swaffer's possession. Swaffer indicates that written at the top of the portrait is the reply that Spare "sent to the man who wanted to master Europe and dominate mankind". Swaffer reports the reply read as follows: “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 ever animal.” This story is not the most incredible of the accounts which were (and are) in circulation regarding Spare. A number of anecdotes concerning Spare and his life have been recorded, many which include descriptions of magical occurrences, accurate divination or foreknowledge, and sorcerous manifestations. It should be said that whatever opinion one may hold regarding the truth of these tales, they are entirely in keeping with claims Spare himself is known to have made.
In 1941, fire and high explosive totally obliterated Spare's studio flat, depriving him of his home, his health and his equipment. For three years he struggled to regain the use of his arms until finally, in 1946, in a cramped basement in Brixton, he began to make pictures again, surrounded by stray cats. At the time he had no bed and worked in an old army shirt and tattered jacket. Yet he still charged only an average of £5 per picture. Clifford Bax, a friend of Spare's and a one-time collaborator recalled:
"Spare knew the taste of life as it is for people to whom a penny and a ha'penny are very different coins, and he lived in a high bleak barrack-like tenement block, among men and women in whose life elegance and the arts had no place, and surrounded by their washing and their cats. He said to me once 'Don't put 'esquire' on your letters. We've only one other esquire in my block, and they think we're giving ourselves airs.' His attractive simplicity came out, too, when he said 'If you are ever passing my place, do drop in'; for it is seldom that anybody happens to be passing The Borough unless he lives there.
Spare was quoted as saying, “I have had a hard life, but I blame nobody but myself. I am responsible for my own misfortunes. I am rather apt to butt at a brick wall at times, and find, in the end, I cannot do any good about it. I cannot change things, so I give it my best.” He died in London on 15 May 1956, at the age of 69.
Spare was regarded as an artist of considerable talent and good prospects, but his style was apparently controversial. Critical reaction to his work in period ranged from baffled but impressed, to patronizing and dismissive. An anonymous review of The Book of Satyrs published in December 1909, which must have appeared around the time of Spare's 23rd birthday, is by turns condescending and grudgingly respectful, "Mr. Spare's work is evidently that of young man of talent." However, "What is more important is the personality lying behind these various influences. And here we must credit Mr. Spare with a considerable fund of fancy and invention, although the activities of his mind still find vent through somewhat tortuous channels. Like most young men he seems to take himself somewhat too seriously". Our critic ends his review with the observation that Spare's "drawing is often more shapeless and confused than we trust it will be when he has assimilated better the excellent influences upon which he has formed his style.
Two years later another anonymous review (this time of The Starlit Mire, for which Spare provided ten drawings) suggests, "When Mr. Spare was first heard of six or seven years ago he was hailed in some quarters as the new Beardsley, and as the work of a young man of seventeen his drawings had a certain amount of vigour and originality. But the years have not dealt kindly with Mr. Spare, and he must not be content with producing in his majority what passed muster in his nonage. However, his designs are not inappropriate for the crude paradoxes that form the text of this book. It is far easier to imitate an epigram than to invent one.
In a 1914 review of The Book of Pleasure, the critic (again anonymous) seems resigned to bewilderment, "It is impossible for me to regard Mr. Spare's drawings otherwise than as diagrams of ideas which I have quite failed to unravel; I can only regret that a good draughtsman limits the scope of his appeal".
From October 1922 to July 1924 Spare edited, jointly with Clifford Bax, the quarterly, Golden Hind for Chapman and Hall publishers. This was a short-lived project, but during its brief career it reproduced impressive figure drawing and lithographs by Spare and others. In 1925 Spare, Alan Odle, John Austen, and Harry Clarke showed together at the St George's Gallery, and in 1930 at the Godfrey Philips Galleries. The 1930 show was the last West End show Spare would have for 17 years.
Spare's obituary printed in The Times of May 16th, 1956 states:
"Thereafter Spare was rarely found in the purlieus of Bond St. He would teach a little from January to June, then up to the end of October, would finish various works, and from the beginning of November to Christmas would hang his products in the living-room, bedroom, and kitchen of his flat in the Borough. There he kept open house; critics and purchasers would go down, ring the bell, be admitted, and inspect the pictures, often in the company of some of the models - working women of the neighbourhood. Spare was convinced that there was a great potential demand for pictures at 2 or 3 guineas each, and condemned the practice of asking ₤20 for "amateurish stuff'. He worked chiefly in pastel or pencil, drawing rapidly, often taking no mon than two hours over a picture. He was especially interested in delineating the old, and had various models over 70 and one as old as 93."
But Spare did not entirely disappear. During the late 30s he developed and exhibited a style of painting based on a logarithmic form of anamorphic projection which he called "siderealism". This work appears to have been well received. In 1947 he exhibited at the Archer Gallery, producing over 200 works for the show. It was a very successful show and led to something of a post-war renaissance of interest.
Public awareness of Spare seems to have declined somewhat in the 1960s before the slow but steady revival of interest in his work beginning in the mid 70s. The following passage in a discussion of an exhibit including Spare's work in the summer of 1965 suggests some critics had hoped he would disappear into obscurity forever. The critic writes that the curator of the exhibit
"has resurrected an unknown English artist named Austin Osman Spare, who imitates etchings in pen and ink in the manner of Beardsley but really harks back to the macabre German romanticism. He tortured himself before the first war and would have inspired the surrealist movement had he been discovered early enough. He has come back in time to play a belated part in the revival of taste for art nouveau.
Robert Ansell summarized Spare's artistic contributions as follows:
During his lifetime, Spare left critics unable to place his work comfortably. Ithell Colquhoun supported his claim to have been a proto-Surrealist and posthumously the critic Mario Amaya made the case for Spare as a Pop Artist. Typically, he was both of these - and neither. A superb figurative artist in the mystical tradition, Spare may be regarded as one of the last English Symbolists, following closely his great influence George Frederick Watts. The recurrent motifs of androgyny, death, masks, dreams, vampires, satyrs and religious themes, so typical of the art of the French and Belgian Symbolists, find full expression in Spare's early work, along with a desire to shock the bourgeois.
Regarding Spare's magical system, Kiaism, his terminology is unique and could not be traced back in other traditions. The introduction of original concepts like "Kia", "Ikkah", "Sikah" appear for the first time in Spare's first book Earth Inferno and remain conceptually consistent until The Focus of Life.
Beside the important influence of Kiaism on occultism in general, it represents no specific way for personal development and/or any sets of instructions but requires the person to devise his personal system of philosophy or magic.
The supreme state in Kiaism, Kia, is sketched: "The absolute freedom which being free is mighty enough to be "reality" and free at any time: therefore is not potential or manifest (except as it's instant possibility) by ideas of freedom or "means," but by the Ego being free to receive it, by being free of ideas about it and by not believing.
However, Spare continually insists in various places that Kia is undefinable and any definition makes it more obscure.
Kiaism regards Belief and Desire as the great duality. In this system, Ego is a part of Self belonging to one Being while Self encircles the whole Being. Each "human" Being wills the desire. This desire imagines a new belief and belief by means of conceptualizing new concepts forms the Ego. Spare names these conceptions, "the ramifications of belief" which form different personalities for corresponding Ego. But the mentioned will is a partial one. The Will (emphasized by capitalizing) lies in the realm of Self - pertaining to Kia.
Sacred Alphabet or Alphabet of Desire are simplified forms of sigils that could be composed for expressing a desire. The philosophical background to "Alphabet of Desire" is extensively explained in The Book of Pleasure.
The first Sigillic formula to appear in Spare's published works can be seen in his second volume A Book of Satyrs.
He designed and used a pack of cards which he called the Arena of Anon, each card bearing a magical emblem which was a variation of one of the letters of the Alphabet of Desire.
The majority of the books listed above are available as modern reprints. For a more complete listing see Clive Harper's Revised Notes Towards A Bibliography of Austin Osman Spare.
Significant titles published since Spare's death include Poems and Masks, A Book of Automatic Drawings, The Collected Works of Austin Osman Spare, Axiomata & The Witches' Sabbath, From The Inferno To Zos (3 Vol. Set), The Book of Ugly Ecstasy, and Zos Speaks.