AUSTIN OSMAN SPARE
Painter, engraver, imaginary artist and illustrator.
Austin Osman Spare wrote and illustrated his first book at the age of seventeen, giving ample evidence of his extraordinary talents. A very gifted artist, Spare demonstrated such consummate skill in his draughtmanship that in his prime many of his contemporaries compared his work favourably to that of Durer.
Spare was a truly eccentric figure in almost every respect and produced during his lifetime a stunning collection of line illustrations and paintings, all displaying aspects of the grotesque themes that obsessed him. The occult and black magic, satyrs, and the haunted human condition all represent recurring images in his work.
Spare's father was a policeman in the Smithfield district of London and fully expected his son to follow the same career. The young Austin spurned the idea and instead followed his own bent toward art.
In the early 1920s Spare took up residence in the Borough, in Southwark, just south of London Bridge. He lived behind St George’s Church - the topography of the area had hardly changed since Dickens had described it in the pages of Little Dorrit. Though the Marshalsea prison for debtors had been demolished, the area was grim, poverty-stricken and workingclass, the haunt of numerous petty criminals. Spare himself constantly suffered from petty thieving bottles of milk, razor blades, and other small articles but nonetheless the area suited him perfectly and he said that he preferred to be ‘a swine with swine’.
An artist called Grace Rogers, who worked with Spare on the magazine The Golden Hind, made a number of notes on Spare which she never published but bequeathed to her daughter, Margot Sharman. The short but dramatic, impressionistic sketches include an account of Spare in his Southwark den which brings the man vividly before us:
Coming through the entrance to the asphalt yard hung with clothes-lines, past gargantuan dustbins of garbage and over-run with children clattering the lids. Climbing the stairs to the second landing, Brad Thaw and 1 came to the door, number 52; the bell was rung, and almost immediately the dingy Nottingham lace curtain was abruptly pulled aside and two eyes, beneath a mass of tousled, dirty hair, literally glared through the glass, resenting the intrusion. Spare opened the door and we were led into one of the two rooms he called the studio, a small overcrowded place mostly occupied by a double divan bed which served as a table, a model’s throne and work-bench for making wireless sets by which he seemed to make a precarious living . . .
The walls of the studio were hung with a variety of pictures, many of them of blowsy women of middleage, a few heads of chocolate-box beauty, slightly distorted and done in coloured chalk. Spare brought out a large portfolio, neatly kept and well-preserved from surrounding chaos and dirt grotesque and arabesque designs, rather obscene in nature but exquisite in execution; a master of the calligraphic style and with the lively sensitive touch of the school of Beardsley; he frequently talked of him and knew his sister Mabel intimately in his earlier days.
We were certainly fascinated . . . with his pencil drawings - those devilish and tormented figures reminiscent of Doré’s Inferno. On glancing up and towards a black cabinet with a sateen curtain drawn across a corner of the next room, was another satanic mystery which seemed to portend more obscurities; Spare hinted at Black Mass which appeared ‘very small beer’ compared with the reputed orgies of Beckford [Byron?] and Newstead Abbey, although a skull reposed on the mantelpiece beneath another mystery shrouded in a green curtain. We were told we would be overwhelmed by some appalling disaster if we approached too near!
By this time it was growing dark and after giving Spare twopence for the gas meter we left for the Underground station.
Grace Rogers, in some further unpublished reminiscences of Spare, wrote of a meeting they had in Shepherds Bush at the Lyons Cafe. Spare was always a highly noticeable figure and Grace Rogers wrote
you would not consider him “one of a crowd” but a unique specimen . . . with his husky cockney voice, the shock of dusty matted hair, and an avidness in the grey-blue eyes which met yours with an unconscious challenge. Deep lines furrowed his cheeks from nostril to chin; his hands with sensitive fingers were grimed with dirt of a thousand years and his nails [were] receptacles for soot.
It was at this meeting that Spare told her
My belief is that the dream life is the only real life in the dream world we tap the subconscious and get the unadulterated truth, not the tissue of lies as in the conscious world. The conscious self is a divided self; badly have we mixed reality with the dream.
Spare dabbled in Spiritualism and claimed that some of his drawings were ‘automatic’, a term referring to the mediumistic belief that artistic energy from outside the person was the creator of the drawings rather than the artist himself. He was supposed to have acted as a medium for Beardsley, Durer and even Rembrandt. Spare produced many designs for a book of automatic drawings, although this was not printed until well after his death.
Spare was regarded by his friends as not only highly eccentric but close to madness. For his artistic models he used tramps and women off the street and chose his subjects to reflect the most ugly side of nature. The Borough provided plenty of material for his pen, and Grace Rogers preserved some observations he made upon three women he encountered there:
She was so well developed physically that she was waiting to pounce. She had a sexual urge but as yet there was no ready response. But I am certain she is the kind of woman who will pounce one day when she finds the right kind of man.
Out of breath, panting with desire like a dog on a leash straining at the chain; a swollen neck, a blowzy face, protruding eyes as if stifling under her over-repressed emotion. My reaction to that is that if I had the right complex I should respond to the smell and be on her like a dog -that delightful sweet fragrance would make its appeal.
Now when I saw her first, she seemed to come towards me and I felt as if I were melting to butter. Life’s real tragedies are not all dramatic. Now, to me, this girl’s life is a tragedy. She lives next door. Yet, when I saw her first she was courting and she had all the charm of a healthy girl of eighteen, in the flush of adolescence, when good looks seem to descend upon the most commonplace. Probably she had the average girl’s attitude to the man of her choice and the usual dreams of the formation of a home to care about; just human and simple.
He was a mere overgrown lad of nineteen who lived only to indulge the worst, thinking of himself, utterly selfish, whose idea of marriage was to enable him to chuck his job and lie in bed of a morning while she went to work At the end of nine months she had a child and it nearly killed her. She is an utter wreck physically, a haggard faced woman with an undersized infant and living in the same house with a quarrelsome stepmother, and she has to work to keep the bloody lot, with nothing to look forward to but a long life of dreary toil.
To return, when she came towards me first I seemed to see in her the symbolic woman of all time I seem to have seen her a million times before.
Now look at that girl there who waddles like a swan. My thoughts of her, well, I question if she has thoughts of love, and the library must be her only hope of salvation. Jazz, men, all must be closed doors to her.
I wonder what her thoughts of love are, for honestly I think no man could fall in love with her. Only I, who have deliberately stamped on the aesthetic idea of love, might find in her some sort of sex mate.
For my opinion is that such women as this have as fine thoughts on the matter of love as anyone and must suffer from much mental repression. That girl’s life is a tragedy.
Grace Rogers’ connection with Spare obviously meant a great deal to her, and the unpublished notes on these pages may have been the beginnings of a memoir which she did not live to finish. As a friend of Spare she had the opportunity to observe him at odd moments in characteristic behaviour; these little sketches have far more vividness than the anecdotes written by hagiographic strangers. Her little details are frequently the most telling; for example, she tells us:
Like Simeon Soloman before him, Spare drew portraits of satyrs in pubs for 6d a sketch and was regarded as an attraction at the time.
It is a great pity that her Spare notes were never completed. Spare himself declined in popularity after the Second World War, and went through a period of almost total neglect. He is only now being re-discovered as a new generation learn to appreciate his unique, macabre but beautifully crafted work.
© The Goth, December 1991, Vol. 6.
General Allegory, A Book of Satyrs, 1907
Anathema of Zos