Austin Osman Spare

Sex in Art

Clifford Bax

Ideas and People, 1936

The Daily Mail announced, when I was a youth, that the son of a policeman had succeeded, at the age of seventeen, in having a picture hung on the line at the Royal Academy exhibition. Moreover, I had seen a number of Austin Spare's extraordinary drawings, — bulky women with stag's heads or hairy Mousterians or queer amalgams of primitive magic and primitive sexuality. And I had greatly admired the power and the distinction of his draughtsmanship

When we met at a Lyons teashop I recognised at once what an odd and charming person he is. I lied his brawny build and the thick tough strength of his hair. I noticed that he was pallid, and wondered if the air and the food of The Borough were good for him. I noticed and liked his pale eyes which were always honest and often humorous. I realised at once that he was a shrewd though unworldly fellow who knew many aspects of London life which I had known only by hearsay

At the teashop we planned our quarterly, deciding that it should be called The Golden Hind. We ought, in 1922, to have realised that quarterly magazines of art and literature belonged to the age of silk hats, hansom-cabs, drawing rooms and permanent marriages. It is only in the United States that men are not held in thrall by the past. We Europeans — and the Asiatics, too — have always some difficulty in realising that the world does move. Spare and I did not understand that a passion for speed and for machinery had cured society of its taste for art and literature. And Spare, making things worse, innocently filled our first number with so many backviews of massive nude females that Chapman and Hall, our publishers, blushed simultaneously, while Mr. Heffer (the Cambridge bookseller) gave one glance at The Golden Hind, snorted and sent our traveller packing. The irreverent instantly renamed our quarterly The Golden Behind.

Nevertheless, I am glad that we launched it because the duties of co-editorship brought Austin Spare quite frequently from his tenement-flat in The Borough to a thin and tower-like house in St. Petersburgh Place whither I had recently moved. Now, a man may change his place of abode without much annoying his friends; but if he also decides to change his mode of life, they will find him hard to forgive. And that is what I had done. Having lived for eight years in a studio, cooking my breakfast while I had my bath, and feeding for the most part upon tinned food, and resenting any occasion upon which I should have to wear evening-dress, what did I now do but rent an elegant house, employ a butler and change every night into a dinner-suit? And as though all this were not sufficiently disconcerting, I had the inconsiderateness to grow (with how much trepidation) a moustache and a small beard. People do not like us to change. They deplore these minute revolutions in the life of anyone whom they know well: but I had realised that a bohemian existence in only one suit of clothes may well be enough when a man is thirty but that when he approaching forty it may become a little ridiculous.

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.

In the kindness of his heart he had made for me a radio-set, and he came to lunch one day with the purpose of fixing up an aerial on the roof of my empty garage; and because we both liked him so much I invited a guest — Mrs. Norah Rowan-Hamilton — who had been one of Spare's earliest friends and one of mine too.

"If you are fond of animals" he remarked at lunch, "don't come to live in The Borough. The other day some kids threw a cat from a top window to the stone yard below. I had it poisoned." Norah and I, brought up in a kindlier world preserved our British phlegm, "I hate brutality" he went on, "and what with wife-beating and cat-booting, it's all around you in The Borough. I've got a white tabby now — a stray — but she has an ugly wound on her mouth. As a matter of fact, only a few yards from my place there's a little court which everyone there calls 'Catkiller's Alley'. If you go there you quite often see a cat slinking about with no fur on."

"No fur?" cried Norah. "What do you mean?"

"Oh," said Spare, perhaps pitying our innocence, "the men pull the fur off, give the cat a clout on the head, and don't wait to see if they've finished her off or not."

Norah said "Don't you ever interfere?" and then added, with imagination, "I suppose it's too dangerous?"

"Dangerous?" laughed Spare. "There's no danger. All those chaps are cowards. Of course, it's easy enough to be philosophical, to leave life as it is: but we're human beings first and philosophers afterwards. Now and again I do take a hand. The other morning I was in bed when the milk-boy arrived. I heard a howl, and I knew what was happening: so I jumped out of bed and of course I found the boy booting the white tabby. Didn't I just give him a hiding!"

Then, recollecting his philosophy, he observed "Perhaps it is all of no use. What happens down here doesn't correspond with what's happening in the Real World. When I saved the tabby I may have killed four archangels; and it may have been God who was using that boy."

Becoming more involved within the folds of metaphysics, he expounded a theory that a man's conditions are caused by his subconscious desires. The subconscious mind, being all-wise (he told us), wills the environment that shall strengthen the weak places of the soul: and he commented with a smile, "I suppose my own subconscious desire is to be poor! Whatever you really want, you can get. The want rises first in the conscious mind, but you have to make the subconscious desire it too. And you can do this by inventing a symbol of the thing you want, - wealth, a woman, fame or a country cottage, it's all alike. The symbol drops down into the subconscious. You have to forget all about it. In fact, you must play at hide-and-seek with yourself. And while you're wanting that particular thing or person, you must resolutely starve all your lesser desires. By doing that, you make the whole self, conscious and subconscious, flow toward you main object. And you'll obtain it."

When lunch was over, he climbed on to the roof of my garage and, not forseeing what would subsequently happen to Gustav Holst, fixed the aerial to a telephone-pole: and just before he went back to The Borough, he gave me a piece of advice which at present I have not needed to apply. "When you find yourself mixed up" he warned me "in a scrap outside a public-house, hit the other fellow first: you can count on it, he's got two or three pals in the crowd: and then, — do a bunk as quickly as you can." After he had gone I told Mrs. Rowan-Hamilton how Spare had once been converted by the Salvation Army in the Waterloo Road. "I was tight one evening," he had told me, "and when I came to, I found a hymn-book in my hand and I was singing at the top of my voice." The hardness of his life had made him canny in some ways, but he had probably never realised that his work troubled many of those who might have become purchasers. They must have been puzzled by his peculiar form of occultism and they were certainly abashed by the savage sexuality of his early designs. No wonder! Men and women may be animals, but there is now so elaborate a pattern of thought or convention upon the surface of their minds that they are embarrassed if an artist requires them to look into the dark backward and abysm of consciousness. The popularity of Jurgen shows that Park Avenue, Mayfair and Fleet Street can relish sexuality in a book if it is oblique and whispering. Spare shouted his proclamation with the full power of his lungs. And indeed there is danger in too much refinement or too much intellectuality. To lose touch with our basic sexuality must be as unwholesome as it is to lose touch with the soil. There are said to be American women so atrophied in their sex-instinct that they wish to be impregnated through a syringe; and it may have been excessive mentalisation which caused Gauguin to revitalise his instincts in Tahiti. Spare so frequently drew the monsters of the subconscious mind that the world's general understanding of psycho-analysis ought to increase his reputation. People can now look at strange and dreadful dreams which would once have seemed to them without significance and merely abominable: and Spare as an artist has so much power that in old age he may become even rich.

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