Austin Osman Spare

Boy artist at the R.A.


How he was discovered by Sir W. Richmond.

Story of his struggles.

The youngest artist in the present exhibition of the Royal Academy is Austin Spare, a boy of seventeen the son of a policeman who has just retired from the force after twenty-five years service. It was chiefly owing to pressure on the part of his father that he unearthed two drawings that had been packed away, almost forgotten, and sent them in, with the result that one, an allegorical plate, was accepted.

When last night a representative of, “The Daily Chronicle” called at his home in Kennington the boy was out, but it was not long before he returned, and away up in his third storey bed room which served also as his studio, told the tale of his struggles and ambitions. All round the walls are examples of his handiwork, drawings in chalk, in cheap colours, sketches and scraps in all sorts of out-of-the-way places.

Two palettes are thrown under the wash-hand stand, the easel is propped up in a corner and at night one holds up a paraffin lamp wherewith to look at it all. There are studies all the way down the stairs and he is at present engaged upon a portrait of his father, which is said to be life-like.

The first glimmerings of his vocation, says the mother, came when he was but 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.”

Very interesting was the boys story of his life as he told it whilst displaying scores of drawings. “The first school I went to,” he said, “was St. Sepulchre’s, Snow-hill. That was merely elementary. Next I went to St. Agnes’s, at Kennington-park, where I first began to draw from the cards with which, of course, you are familiar. But they really taught me very little there except scripture, and it was not until I went to the Lambeth Evening Art School under Mr. Macady that I made any progress.

Won a county scholarship.

“There at the age of fourteen, I won a County Council Scholarship for £10 and one of my drawings was selected for inclusion in the British Art Section at the Paris International Exhibition. That took me to South Kensington. But, in the meantime, I must tell you that when I was fifteen I left school, and went to work. For nine months I designed posters for Causton’s at 5s. a week, and then went to Powell’s. There some glass that I had been designing in my dinner hour came under the notice of Sir William Richmond and Mr. Jackson, R.A. and they recommended me for a free scholarship at the South Kensington Art School. Ever since I have been hard at work, not only at the school in the day time, but here in my room at night, with the result that at sixteen I had won the silver medal in the National Competition and also the £10 Scholarship. Some of my drawings are at present in the British Art Section at the St. Louis Exhibition, and I have had some in Paris, where they awarded me a diploma.”

Such are the chronological facts. The rest has to be gleaned from an inspection of the boy’s work. This, for example, full of weird allegory. Where did he get the idea from?

"That is a study for some illustrations of Omar," he tells you. "I am passionately fond of that beautiful poem of his, for, with the exception of a copy of Homer I got hold of some time ago, it formed almost the whole of my literary education. I have read it sixteen times, and I am going through it again at night, in bed, marking the passages which are suitable for illustration.

"Ah, don't look at that," hiding away a frieze evidently designed for a nursery. I did that in a kid's competition. Now here is some of my earlier work." And he carefully showed some of the more finished sketches, talking the while of his earlier work with the air of an old artist. Some of these are indeed full of a wonderful strength that strongly suggests the influence of Watts. Indeed, he confesses himself a profound admirer of the master, whom he has followed closely in the allegorical style, for which apparently, he is destined, though there is much again to suggest the grotesque vagueries of Syme. As a matter of fact, he honestly deplores the day he ever saw South Kensington. At Lambeth they allowed him to draw from the life, "but as soon as I went there they put me back" — with a sigh "and made me draw hands and feet and things like that."

Hopes to be P.R.A.

However, he has a career marked out for himself. He is to be President of the Royal Academy. For the present he has set a path for himself the travelling scholarship — "I want to paint portraits, you know." There is nothing romantic about his work. His conception of men and things are weird in the extreme. His figures have faces that suggest nightmares and all the terrors of the Inferno. He might have been born to illustrate the "Divine Comedy." The explanation is not far to seek. Hear this boy of seventeen on religion. "I have practically none. I go anywhere. This life is but a reasonable develop-ment. 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."

And this curious religion is an important factor in the youth's personality. He is writing it out and illustrating with glaring terrible plates, the whole to be contained between two covers of wood emblazoned with symbols, the one called "Power" — an elephant head with human arms outstretched on either side, and the other some crowning deity, apparently after the manner of the Egyptian Isis. "Where did I get the idea from? How should I know? It comes to me by inspiration, and I write it down as I receive it." And he turned over page after page of the doctrine which was written around and about strange creatures with the beaks of birds and the feet of men. One would hardly therefore expect to find anything of the Scriptures, and there is nothing. Most of his pictures represent men struggling along over desert wastes, such as the "Pilgrim," or the "Waggoner" lying prone beside a broken wheel. Others of his studies are "Pride," a youth looking into a mirror, and there is much taken from the pages of Omar about men who are "given to drink."

Of the great names in art he knows but little. Watts has the complete mastery of him. For the rest: "I never copy other people. I prefer to take my subjects from my own imagination and to draw them according to my ideas of what they should be. Romance? I know nothing of it."

According to his mother games have no interest for him, and he never cares to mix up with other boys."

As for the future, that is apparently unsettled. The lad's father, now that his active days are over, wished to take a quiet place in the country. But his mother says that they must remain in town if he is to go on with his studies. "I don't know what to do with him. Some times I think I shall take him away from it altogether. It is expensive and we are not rich. But I can hardly do that."

The Daily Chronicle, Tuesday, 3 May 1904

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