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Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist

By Phil Baker

Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist

Tags: Austin Osman Spare, Biography

Started reading:
April 2011
Finished reading:
April 2011


Rating: 10

Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist
Phil Baker, Strange Attractor 2011, Hbk, £25.
Foreword by Alan Moore

Efforts to rescue Austin Osman Spare from obscurity have proceeded apace over the last decade or so. There’s been a plethora of exhibitions, catalogues and books devoted to the analysis of his art and contributions to contemporary occultism. Phil Baker’s new biography fills a welcome gap in the development of “Spare Studies” by shedding some welcome light not only on Spare the artist and occultist, but on his life and the social milieu of his age. Strange Attractor have produced a marvellous book in all respects – the presentation of Spare’s illustrations, the colour plates & the typography quickly leave the reader in no doubt that this is a superb effort, and well worth the asking price; a perfect complement to Phil Baker’s easily and accessible prose style, which whilst vividly evoking the atmosphere of Spare’s London and the unwinding of the tangled threads of his story, never feels laboured or ponderously analytical. Phil Baker deserves our applause for taking on Spare, and as Alan Moore says so eloquently in his introduction:

“….shines a light upon the artist and the individual that is at once sufficiently bright to illuminate the foggier and more occluded corners of Spare’s life, whilst at the same time being soft enough to never quite dispell or scare away the ragged phantoms that surround Spare like a robe of ectoplasm..”

The Spare that emerges here is quite a different figure from the “occulted” Spare – the romanticised reclusive glimpsed through the fictive arcanums of Kenneth Grant and other primarily occult-oriented treatments.. He is, as Baker remarks, both ahead – and behind – his “time”. Ably steering a course through the maze of mythologies which have accrued around Spare (some from his own tendency to self-mythologise), Phil Baker has unearthed an amazing wealth of biographical detail, such as the fact that Spare was interviewed by the Edwardian boys’ paper Chums, or that he hung out with Cafe Royale regulars such as Andre Raffalovich and John Gray; that E.M. Forster owned an album of Spare erotica, or that some of his friends considered him to be a repressed homosexual. Some of Baker’s presentation may be perturbing for those who have worked hard to slot Spare into the contemporary occultism’s self-image. Baker at times demolishes or at the very least provides a different perspective on Spare’s mythos, showing for example that Spare was more influenced by Theosophy, Spiritualism and Buddhism than he was by the Golden Dawn or Crowley, and his psychology owes much more to Frederick Myers than to Freud or Jung. There are a few eye-openers along the way, such as Spare’s brief marriage, and the possibility that he had some kind of fling with Crowley. There are also quite funny moments, such as Spare writing to Kenneth Grant and asking him for a definition of apparently unfamiliar terms such as “Qlipoth” or “Besz-Mass”.

Spare comes across as a warm-hearted and deeply social person, whose relationship with his early degree of stardom was at times quite conflicted – it was not the simple matter of Spare turning his back on society in the way that it is often represented to be. In a way, he reminds me of another early hero of mine – Syd Barrett, who also found the pressures of sudden stardom difficult. Spare at times seems to be happy in his self-imposed exile; at other times yearning for the bright lights of his earlier success.

I cannot reccomend “Austin Osman Spare” too highly. Phil Baker has done a wonderful job of bringing the complexities and contradictions of Spare’s life to the fore, and in making the London of Spare’s time come to life vividly and richly. Hopefully this book will encourage a reassessment of Spare which is long overdue, both in terms of his place in British art and his influence on occultism. – Phil Hine