Austin Osman Spare

Haydn Mackey: Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare.
The Mansion House Exhibition, 5 July 1952.
On the left is Haydn Mackey & Arnold Mason R.A.

There has just died here in London an artist who, though little known to the vast general public, has long been deemed by artists to be one of the most remarkable draughtsmen of his time. I am referring to Austin Osman Spare, who at the age of sixty-seven years departs this world, leaving behind the evidence and influence of his great achievements.

Great achievements, whether we regard the superlative craftsmanship of his drawings and pastel paintings; the insight apparent in his writings; the profundity of his speculative incursions in psychology, magic, the occult and automatic suggestion, or regard only one such aspect of this many-sided-artist.

To in any way adequately describe the work of the artist Spare to an audience unfamiliar with some examples of it, is an insuperable problem, for he falls into none of the well-known categories. His normal way of life was that of a visionary obviously impervious to any worldly deficiencies of his material existence; completely indifferent to all the usual urges of pelf or profit; (money was but the necessary ‘tram-ticket’ that entitled him to conveyance from halt to halt in penurious journeys of travail); content with the most modest existence in circumstances of frequently material discomfort and to any but Spare, quite inadequate equipment for the purposes in view. Had he been otherwise, a very large income as a portraitist was ever within his reach, but he avoided or ignored all such commissions; that he might paint only that to which his vision urged him; and for which he only asked the most ridiculously modest prices.

Spare first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the early age of sixteen. Later he had exhibitions in Bond Street and the galleries of the wealthy; but in still later years he abandoned showing work in any conditions but those of his own devising. And this brings us to Spare’s early environment and the later choice of neighbourhood in which to live and which was to supply him with the models and inspiration of much of his work.

He was born, the son of a city policeman, in the City of London, at the end of the 1880s, when the solemn pomp and stilted circumstance of the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign became pregnant with revolutionary expressions in the Arts and was thus doomed to lose its middle-class reputation in the ‘naughty nineties’. Sham Gothic mediaevalism, hack Renaissance idioms, or decayed Romanticism, were to be ousted by a cynical, vicious, and decadent reaction to the respectabilities of the conventional, but pharasaical, Arts of a lingering Puritanism.

The grotesque and jewelled decadence of the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley opposed the anaemic religeosity of the Burne-Jones cult; the preciosity of the painter Whistler and the writer Oscar Wilde and the affected Pagan elegance of their satelites, the ‘Aesthetes’, opposed the Academic; and the manner of the Baroque swirls and blobs of intricate ornament appearing in the sculpture designs of Alfred Gilbert, heralded the rise of “L’Art Nouveau”; that fashion which grew like a scandal, and swept like a plague, through the studios of all Western Europe, in the opening years of the 20th Century.

Such was the Art atmosphere which greeted Spare, with his precocious talents, at a most impressionable and tender age. It had its effect in influencing his early work; but with his timely maturity he rapidly developed and outlived it, to evolve an original, individual and distinct expression; firmly based on the great historic traditions of Western European drawing; and the best examples of his figure-drawing are unsurpassed by any draughtsman of our period. In the sincerity, profundity, the dexterity of his drawing he immediately became conspicuous; and it is this quality, amongst all his many qualities, that most triumphantly justifies all the strange productions of his adventurous, rambling and eternally questing spirit.

And strange indeed was much of his work; for he was early in touch with the esoteric thought of the period, visionary, occult, magic, with which he somehow seemed to bring a precise, stark, and awful significance to the drawing of the most natural object that appeared in his design. Like all truly imaginative work, there was no reliance on a mere vagueness of statement for unknowable mysteries, but rather on an excessive reality given to the incredible. A definition of form, a sharpness of focus, a semblance of textures, that produced the crisp shock of sudden and unpredicted vision; a hidden world suddenly revealed in the glare of a powerful search-light. In the verity of his visionary productions we find him of the company of Blake and Fuseli and their circle; but far superior to any of them in the mastery of representational craft. The English “Pre-Raphaelites” have been suggested as an influence, in view of Spare’s meticulous detail; but I cannot accept that view. He is much more akin to Dürer, in the engravings; and Holbein in the drawing. What is most apparent and of the very essence of Spare’s work is the all pervading unity of arrangement, of tone, of texture, that is quite alien to the Pre-Rapahelite practice.

Spare had some formal training at the Lambeth School of Art and at the Royal College of Art; and brief as was his stay at the Royal College, he has become something of a legend amongst R.C.A. students; and many are the artists who have acquired examples of his work. The only mention I ever heard him make of his R.C.A. experience was when he told me that during his period there he had to appear for some small rebellion and with a fellow student (Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, a famous suffragette daughter of that most famous Suffragette, Mrs Pankhurst), before the Board of Education in Whitehall. The most impressive memory he retained of that interview was of a group of very solemn old gentlement gathered at one end of the longest table he’d ever conceived as possible, even in a dream. An enormous table that stretched in a vast perspective from the end at which, meek and lowly, he and his fellow delinquent stood. The effect of that huge table was all that he seemed to regard as of any significant interest. What decisions were arrived at, affecting his conduct, career or prospects, on that solemn occasion I never learnt from him. The whole incident, apart from the colossal table, had long been dismissed from his mind.

I first came across work by Spare nearly half a century ago; but only came into contact with his extraordinary personality at the close of the first world war. And though I have seen much of him and his work since he still appears in my memory as the impression he made on me at that first meeting. — A pair of appraising eyes set in a pale face; surmounted by a great shock of dun-coloured hair. Too intent on his dedication to be other than careless of mundane appearances or circumstances, he was a slim figure with loose but enegetic gait. He was aloof and shy with strangers, especially those who might be deemed to have some social or conventional importance. This, combined with the constant urge of his work, made him something of a recluse. He had a satirical humour, but appeared incapable of personal malice or jealousy or greed. In common with most of those dedicated beings whose persistant and controlling activity is creative work, the essential solitude to such individual endeavour invariably appears to an observer as an uneventful life and lacking in incident. But the work shows the adventures, the excitements survived, the travelling done in that strangest of all the unexplored countries of the mind by such courageous pioneers as was Austin Osman Spare as he mapped his territories of sensation, desire and creative will.

Whilst the greater mass of his work consists of figure drawings and compositions of occult, ‘psychic’ and dream phantasies, he also published various books of drawings, as Earth: Inferno, and A Book of Satyrs; also certain occult and symbolic drawings and writings, such as The Book of Pleasure and The Focus of Life. He also edited with the poet and ‘super-tramp’ W.H. Davies, a sumptuous publication Form, and with Mr Clifford Bax, a quarterly, The Golden Hind; to each of which he was a principal contributor. He also produced a few etchings and lithographs. Mainly he worked in pen, pencil or pastel, but rarely turning to other media.

Spare’s automatic or psychic drawings may appear as undisciplined and abstruce; as all such drawings, of their very nature, must appear to be; as also is the case with much of his esoteric writings. But there can be no shadow of doubt regarding the technical mastery of his expression in the figures and the various accessories; animal, vegetable or mineral; mythical or mundane, which ornament and crowd so many of his compositions. He was an exceedingly rapid worker, frequently producing a picture with no more than a couple of hours work; and rhythmic ornament grew from his hand seemingly without conscious effort.

For his nudes he seldom employed professional models, declaring that they were too mannered by art-school practice; and for his portrait drawings, he found his types in the streets of his neighbourhood — the historic but unfashionable Borough of Southwark where for the greater part he had lived and worked. It is a poor overcrowded neighbourhood south of the river and sheltering a most characteristically ‘Cockney’ population; costers and barrow-boys, bruisers and barmen, hucksters and higglers and their women folk, all in their appropriate settings of tenement dwellings; of street markets, and ‘gin-palaces’. In these portrait pastels he developed a realism that, whilst still a vital portrait, was yet something more. A searching commentary on type; a meticulous localisation of the individual in the type; a history and a prophecy read from, and into, the forms and features of a head. A collection of these pastel portraits should be publicly owned as a national treasure; and housed in one of the London Galleries (as a native of the City, surely the City Guild Hall Art Gallery would be a most appropriate place), as being of such an importance to the age and nation as are, to France, the pre-Revolutionary portraits by that great 18th Century pastelist, Quentin de la Tour. The Windsor collection of Holbein drawings deal faithfully with personalities at Henry VIII’s Court; Spare’s pastels deal equally faithfully with a vastly different, hitherto slighted, but less narrow strata, of our ever-changing urban communities. As human records of human beings, such works are profitable to human understanding. In this ‘Age of the Common Man’ the portraiture of an elite is not the only record worthy of preservation.

In 1918 I found Spare in the Army, he had been placed in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and with the rank of Sergeant, was employed in making drawings for the medical history of the war. Thus was acquired a collection of somewhat perfunctionary, but technically impeccable drawings, now in the possession of the authorities. He worked in the solitude of a studio provided by the army, and the only military convention to which he had to conform was the wearing of the uniform; and I have never seen a queerer figure in a soldier’s garb. He wore the most dilapidated uniform I have seen outside a refuse dump; and it was worn in the most negligent manner conceivable. It is not surprising that on occasion he was held by the police as a rogue wearing unauthorised badges and uniform; and only released by them on a statement of his authenticity by his commanding officer.

It was in Spare’s company that I met the poet W.H. Davies (The Super-Tramp), when they together came to see me to invite me to contribute a drawing or two, to the quarterly they were jointly editing. They made an amusing pair, and when we adjourned to a local tavern for lunch, they proved most entertaining conversationalists; with much in common regarding their general outlook on life and human society; a horror of gentile pretentions; of official snobbery; of artistic cliques. But beyond that they parted; Davies, the Welshman, yearned to flee the town and tread the open roads, rest in bosky dells, muse on birdsong or the patient cattle grazing that taught their lesson; whilst Spare, the Cockney, loved the grey city of his birth, and its poorer neighbourhoods and their populace, which fed his humour, his excitement; his profound sense of man’s geocentricity in an ever menaceing circumstantial existence; of the soul in a gutter of life; and of creative desire entombed in the flesh.

I find it difficult to talk simply of Spare, the man, I think it must be so to anyone who knew him; for in his case a knowledge of the artist so heavily overshadows the simple man. He was normally so retiring; always seeming to protectively efface himself by an assimilation, both in careless attire and Cockney bearing, of the habit and vernacular of his poor neighbours and unprofessional models.

His compositions of magic or occult purpose always bore an air of antiquity. The actual drawings themselves seeming ancient and as being a timeless work rescued from a long past; and dealing with a primodial world of distant memory: the work of the universal ID of Freud’s psychological system, rather than that of a conscious will. They emphasize no deistic transcendance, but the urge of the senses; the animating dust; the universal lust, of earth-bound sensibility. A brooding inevitability, even in their eccentricities and distortions, informed all; despite the nightmareish incongruities which haunt them.

That a genuine automatism played a greater part in Spare’s work than is to be found in that of any of his contemporaries, is, I think, beyond doubt. And whatever there is to be said for ‘Surrealist’ theories, their most effective expression is to be found in his works. Spare was the first, and I think by far the most convincing ‘Surrealist’ of our times. He did not produce haphazard merely frivolous incongruities for their own sake; for that is not the main characteristics of dreams. Dreams are mainly vivid emblems serving desire or distress. And in the dreams of Spare, desire and distress were eternal and evolutionary; in atavistic resurgence; life succeeding life; self creating self; and whatever may be deemed of such ideas, they are at least presented by a compelling beauty of craftsmanship.

A really representative selection of Spare’s works should certainly, and long since, have been made and acquired for the national collections. But so far as I know, there is only a very early work in the British Museum; a couple of drawings of minor importance in the Victoria & Albert Museum; and one in the National Museum of Wales. Probably the opportunity to acquire typical works by this inspired Londoner at the extremely modest prices Spare was content to ask is now past. The Directors (as the one-time Curators are now styled!), of our public galleries do not seem to have considered the desirability of acquiring representative works by one of the most subtle, searching and profound of our draughtsmen. One who has consistently pursued throughout a lifetime of frequent perplexity and pain, the course of his obvious and curious dedication; quite irrespective of any professional or social profit. Can it really be true that all the opinions of professional contemporaries are worthless? Such of Spare’s early days, as those of G.F. Watts, C.M., John Singer Sargent, R.A., Sir Frank Bangwyn, R.A., Rickets and Shannon and a host of other distinguished artists regarding Spare’s precocity; and today of almost every traditionally competent artist familiar with his mature work? How comes it about that our galleries can afford thousands of pounds for what so many of the profession consider inferior examples of stranger contemporary artists, but could not find a fiver for a Spare during the lifetime of this professional acclaimed ‘Cockney’ artist, whose life of dedication from the cradle to the grave, was spent within a mile or two of our great London galleries and museums.

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