Austin Osman Spare

Austin Osman Spare

1886 - 1956

Born 1886 in London; Died 1956 in London

Painter, draughtsman, writer, occultist and magician.

Austin Osman Spare left school aged 13 to become an apprentice at Powell's, an arts and crafts stained-glass manufacturer. After exciting interest from a number of Powell’s customers, Spare was recommended for a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. In 1904 Spare became the youngest person to exhibit at the Royal Academy, giving him much attention from the press. While attending the Royal College of Art, Spare became dissatisfied with its teaching methods and was disciplined for improper behaviour. Spare left the RCA in 1905, failing to complete the course. Among his contemporaries was future suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960).

Although heavily influenced by Symbolism and the Art Nouveau style, Spare's work stands alone in that it explores the darker regions of the human unconscious. He relied on techniques such as automatic-drawing and automatic-writing, sometimes working in complete darkness, in order to access his subconscious. Spare believed that the potential of the unconscious far outweighed the weaknesses of conscious thought. Early examples of his work hold similarities to that of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) but, as a departure, focus instead on disturbing images of grotesques and sexualised human forms, figures Spare claimed to have unearthed from his unconscious desires. Alongside images of witches and satyrs, Spare incorporated magical symbols into his art, creating his very own alphabet of sigils. Such unconventional and spiritual imagery appealed only to members of a particular avant-garde and intellectual scene, including the occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and writer Marc-André Raffalovich (1864-1934). While associating himself within such spiritualist circles, in 1913 Spare produced, and self published, a book entitled The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love), a book which he also graphically illustrated. Spare's first publication was Earth Inferno (1905) and he contributed to a number of magazine publications.

During the First World War Spare was commissioned as an Official War Artist and produced studies of the Royal Army Medical Corps. However, after the successes of his youth, the immediate post-war and interwar period offered Spare little opportunity as he struggled to make an impact on the London art scene. Exhibitions at Alex, Reid and Lefevre Gallery in 1929 were deemed unsuccessful although, with the arrival of the Surrealist movement during the mid 1930s, Spare's work did receive a momentary boost of attention. Living in poverty and in desperate needs, Spare sold and exhibited works from his own council flat. During WWII and his final years, Spare lived in relative obscurity and was made homeless during the Blitz, living in dire conditions thereafter. Until his death, Spare continued to exhibit in unconventional locations, including a number of Southwark pubs. One instance was at the Temple Bar in 1949, an exhibition which apparently earned him 250 guineas. Spare had a lifelong connection with the borough of Southwark. In May 1904 Spare held his first public exhibition in the foyer of the Newington Public Library on Walworth Road and, during the 1930s, he completed a series of pastel drawings depicting many Southwark locals.

Despite his work being controversial and appealing to so few persons, Spare was a truly exceptional draughtsman. His highly skilled-hand and mastery of line was unrivalled by many of his contemporaries and is most evident in his nude female studies. In addition to Beardsley, throughout his life he was likened to many other esteemed artist including Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. Spare never matched the successes or reputations of these artists. Over recent decades Spare has been the focus of academic and biographical research, although he remains an isolated and little understood figure of twentieth century British art.

Spare was the subject of a major Cuming Museum exhibition in 2010 titled 'Austin Osman Spare: Fallen Visionary'. He is also represented by a number of public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museums and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

(Benjamin Angwin - September 2014)