Austin Osman Spare

The Times Obituary :

16th & 18th May 1956

Austin Spare, an artist of unusual gifts and attainments and of an even more unusual personality, died on May 15th 1956, in hospital in London at the age of 67.

A dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, he had that complete other-worldliness so often depicted in romantic fiction and so rarely found in real life. Money meant nothing to him. With his talents as a figure draughtsman he might easily have commanded a four-figure income in portraitive, but he elected to live quietly and humbly, rarely going out, painting what he wished to paint, and selling his works at three or four guineas each. Even in outward aspect he conformed to type - with his untidy shock of hair, small imperial, and a scarf instead of a collar. But for most of his fife he did not mix in what are called 'artistic circles'. Not Chelsea, Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury or Hampstead claimed him, but for years a little fiat 'in the south suburbs by the Elephant' far removed from the coteries, deep-set in the ordinary life of the people.

Austin Osman Spare was born in Snow Hill, near Smithfield Market, London on December 31 1886, the son of Philip Newton Spare, A City of London policeman. Leaving his elementary school at the age of 13, he took his higher education into his own hands, working not only at art but at general subjects, in particular the occult. He had some formal tuition at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He was already exhibitioning at the Royal Academy at the age of 16, but in later years ceased to send anything there. In July 1914 he had his first one-man exhibition at the Bailie Gallery, showing a number of his so-called 'psychic' drawings and some very powerful generalizations of animal nature.

Just after the 1914-1918 War Spare became friendly with John Austen and Alan Odle, figure draughtsmen differing considerably from him and from each other, but each having certain aims in common with his. From October 1922 to July 1924 Spare edited, jointly with Clifford Bax, a sumptuously produced quarterly called the Golden Hind for Chapman and Hall. It collapsed for lack of support, but during its brief career it reproduced in large scale some really superb figure drawing and lithographs by Spare and others. In 1925 Spare, Odle, Austen, and Harry Clarke showed together at the St George's Gallery, and in 1930 at the Godfrey Philips Galleries.

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, he 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 more 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.

During the last war, while on fire watching duty, he was blown up and temporarily lost the use of both arms. His memory was also affected, but in 1946 in a cramped basement in Brixton, he began to make pictures again, starting, as he said, from scratch. In 1947 an exhibition of no less than 163 of the pictures he had painted in the previous few months attracted many people to the Archer Gallery, in Westbourne Grove.

Spare's alleged 'automatic' and 'psychic' drawings tended to lack discipline, and were on the whole inferior to his 'straight' work. The last chiefly comprised nudes, which combined strength and delicacy of a high order and have a wonderful three-dimensional feeling. His minute draughtmaship may have owed something to the Pre-Raphaelite influence, though general his art was much more human and full blooded than that of the 'brethren'. Of his technical mastery then can be no manner of doubt. The collection of his drawings may yet become a cult.

The Times 18 May 1956
Mr Austin Osman Spare

Mr Donald Bowen writes:-

May I add to your appreciative obituary? I was one of Spare's comparatively few pupils before the last war, and on the outbreak of hostilities he gave me some instruction in the art of camouflage which was to prove of considerable value in the years to come. Perhaps because he lived "quietly and humbly", he was prolific and many sided. Certainly his theories on camouflage were thoroughly sound. I heard some of them repeated as original and empirical long after 1939. No doubt his experience in the 1914-1918 war provided much of the background to those theories.

Of that period of his life mention should be made of the series of drawings made by him as an official war artist and now in the Imperial War Museum. To that period also, and the immediate post-war years, belong the few copies of Form, a finely produced periodical which, for a time, he edited with W.H. Davies. The list of contributors included many eminent names but unfortunately the paper ran to only five issues. Many fine works of graphic art were reproduced in it's pages, including some of his own drawings of the figure.

Your obituary notice mentions his models. Most of them were local inhabitants. I remember leaving his flat one day with him and his saying, "That's one of my models".

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