London’s 20th Century visionary portrait artist known for his magical, otherworldly and grotesque images. Born in 1886 and raised in a working class household, Spare received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal College of Art in Kensington and in 1904 was the youngest entrant to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. He was hailed as a genius by John Singer Sargent, and journalist and critic Hannen Swaffer compared Spare’s draughtsmanship with the likes of Dürer and Rembrandt.
Spare had an interest in the occult from an early age, claiming that at seven he first encountered a local fortune teller known as Mrs Paterson, who had a huge impact on his life. Witch Paterson claimed descent from a lineage going back to Salem, could alter her appearance dramatically at will, and initiated Austin into many of her practices, including how to project his consciousness outside of himself and see into other realms. These are portrayed in some of his works where faces meld into one another and objects appear to shape shift on the image. Spare had a lifelong interest in dimensional exploration and spent many hours devising magical formulas on how to do so. Another prominent part of Spares magical practice was his personal form of sex magic, with techniques similar to tantric disciplines. He also claimed to have many past life memories, and even identified a specific gravestone in Southwark that he insisted a previous incarnation of his lay buried.
Perhaps most iconic of Spares' works are his automatic drawings, which he would compose in the dark of night whilst in a state of trance, using only dim candlelight, claiming that spirits guided his hand. These drawings are filled with dynamic figures and faces, and in some images it is apparent that the pen remained on the page the whole time- they almost look as if they were composed of smoke. Spare also claimed that he would, on occasion, wake up next to a finished drawing at his bedside.
Many of his images are permeated with sigils, a tool used in chaos magic to attract energies or entities that are said to then do the initiates' will. Spare is credited with developing the following unique method of designing and working with sigils. The design is made by condensing a desire into as few letters or shapes as possible, until it becomes unrecognisable by the conscious mind. Then the desire is forgotten and turned into an unconscious belief, or ‘organic belief’, as Spare called it- a powerful force for enacting change.
Spare was caught in a bombing during WW2 and was paralysed on his right side for six months, during which he fell into a deep depression, being unable to work. After regaining his ability to draw, he spent his final years living in relative poverty in South London, having never received very much fame or recognition in his lifetime. Spare has been touted by legendary comic book writer Alan Moore as ‘one of the most overlooked artists in British art history’, and was immortalised in Moore's incredible Promethea comics. Reputedly, his contemporary Aleister Crowley had a great respect for Spare's magical beliefs and practices (which is no small feat). Thanks to researchers and writers such as Kenneth Grant, Spare’s drawings, writings and ideologies are finally making their way into the collective.
Spare designed a tarot deck, which Strange Attractor Press are fundraising to be able to release for the first time. Follow the link below to read more and pledge to reserve one!
words by Laura Hayes