Austin Osman Spare

An extract from

Adventures with Inspiration

Hannen Swaffer

I met a remarkable artist, known to the world for his mastery of technique, who, openly, confessed for publication that many of his drawings, which were exhibited publicly at the St. George’s Hall, were merely automatic, that he was the power or medium through which they were made. Who or what the communicating being or force was he did not know. This was Austin O. Spare, who sprang into fame as a boy of sixteen, and who, for some years, an exile from the comfortable life that he formerly enjoyed, had been existing in a slum, cultivating the occult, “developing the subconscious,” perfecting a new technique.

I sat with him in his poverty-stricken room in a tenement house in a South London slum. There was just a rough bed, wireless apparatus scattered around on the floor, a book or two and his drawings.

Before the war, he lived in Mayfair; now his home is in a slum, among London’s roughest characters.

“I have been almost starving for six months,” he told me, “and then I was taken ill. I would not use a charm to cure myself. If you remove one evil you induce another.”

He talks of the occult as frankly as that, saying, for instance, how, trying to master unseen forces, he has sought to produce rain.

Spare’s father was a City policeman. He was born in Smithfield in 1888, and, at the age of fourteen, entered a stained-glass factory in Kennington, spending his evenings at the Lambeth School of Art. When sixteen he won a scholarship at the Royal College of Arts. Soon after, his father found one of his pen-and-ink drawings, which, unknown to the boy, he sent to the Royal Academy. It was hung, with the result that the young artist was hailed as a genius.

Some of Spare’s “automatic drawings,” done in pencil, remind me of the work of Doré; others are rather like the later work of Aubrey Beardsley. The draughtsmanship, however, is, to my mind, more brilliant than any of which Beardsley or Doré was capable.

Spare’s subjects are widely divergent. They pass from the noblest inspiration to the most evil. Some transport to a high spiritual ecstasy, inducing belief in a high human destiny. Others are despairing in their revelation of human nature wedlocked to the animal world. In some, spirituality breathes among the forms of satyrs.

All these drawings, says Mr. Spare, are super-normal. He does not dogmatise about the method. He is experimenting . . .

“In some cases the ideas are the result of my inward psychical experiences,” Mr. Spare told me, “things I have not necessarily seen, or outwardly experienced. In others, the drawings are automatic, started with no idea as to what form they shall take, and completed without conscious direction.

“Indeed, sometimes, when I have been drawing while in a sort of dream, I have awakened to find that it has been dark for a long time. I have been drawing perhaps for hours, in the darkness, the most delicate work that I could not see.

“On other occasions I have gone to bed and fallen asleep, lost in the mesh of some vivid dream.

Suddenly I have awakened to find myself, not in bed but in a chair, rapidly drawing away in the darkness something of which I have never been conscious.”

On some occasions, in order to do automatic drawings, Mr. Spare stares into a mirror and induces self-hypnotism. In a hypnotic state, he sometimes goes on working for hours, awakening to find that he has covered pages and pages full of the most beautiful work. He cannot always control it. There are periods, sometimes for months at a time, he says, when, receiving no promptings from outside, he cannot work at all. At others he is unable to stop working.

“Although it was my strong wish to do some more drawings for next week’s exhibition,” he told me, when I saw him, “my pencil did not move for three months. On another occasion I worked on in a dream-state for twenty-four hours, finishing a book of fifty pages.

“Unknown to themselves, I believe many artists are inspired by outside forces, or that they work through their subconscious mind. The development of these powers will open up a new world.

“I believe that Hamlet was the result of a psychical experience of Shakespeare’s, which found expression in the act form he had adopted; otherwise you cannot explain him.

“All significant art, I believe, comes from that source. It is inspiration, revelation, spiritual truth, which men express in the different ways they have developed.

“I am now trying to perfect a technique of automatic drawing, so that the best can be brought out in me. If we study the subconscious, we have much to learn.

“Prophecy and revelation are as possible today as they ever were. They can operate, if only you induce the conditions. What the conditions are we must discover.

“The prophets and the seers were hermits. Because of circumstances I have lived for months a hermit’s life. Poverty has made me live alone. It has been partly choice, partly compulsion. The result has been psychic development.”

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