Arts: Friend of the Great Beast

Like Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare was obsessed with sex and magic. But unlike Crowley, he was also an accomplished artist.

The reputation of Austin Osman Spare, one of the oddest characters in 20th century British art, is being rehabilitated by a new exhibition in London's Clerkenwell. Spare was an accomplished draughtsman, a child prodigy and the youngest artist of his time to exhibit at the Royal Academy. He was also deeply interested in magic and became a friend - and then almost as inevitably an enemy - of Aleister Crowley, the notorious occult practitioner. Some of his most exquisite work was produced in trance states in pitch darkness. In his life he was a Bohemian and after early success turned his back on fashionable London to pursue his art and magic in a Brixton basement. He even turned down the chance to become Hitler's court painter.

The current exhibition is co- curated by the eminent occultists Geraldine Beskin and John Bonner and follows a similar exhibition they organised at the Morley Gallery in 1986. Clerkenwell, with its peculiar psychogeography, is an appropriate location to show Spare's work. He was born nearby in 1886 in Snowhill, Smithfield, the son of a policeman. The Knights Hospitallers of St John are based around the corner and there is a Masonic Lodge opposite. John Bonner is currently the head of the Shemesh Lodge of the neo-Masonic Ordo Templi Orientis in Hastings, in the Sussex Downs' cult-belt. One of his predecessors was Aleister Crowley, the self-styled "Great Beast 666".

Bonner last year curated an exhibition of Crowley's art. Now, he and Beskin hope to rescue Spare, a much better artist, from his current obscurity. "We wanted to show magicians that Spare was an incredibly fine artist, and wanted the art collectors to see something of Spare's driving force, his motivation," explains Beskin.

In his childhood, Spare became close to an elderly fortune-teller called Mrs Paterson, who claimed descent from a line of Salem witches. Mrs Paterson inspired his interest in magic and also a sexual fascination with older women which he never lost. He claimed he had witnessed her transformed by magic into a desirable young woman.

The family moved to south London where Spare studied art. He became known to his family as "a weird one" and was apt to draw his visions all over the walls at home. His father took some of his drawings to the Royal Academy where they were immediately accepted and exhibited in the 1904 Summer Exhibition. The following year Spare, aged 19, was hailed a genius by John Singer Sargent.

Spare first met Aleister Crowley in 1907 at an exhibition of Spare's work. Crowley swept in, announcing himself as the "Vice-regent of God upon Earth".

"You look more like an Italian ponce out of work," came Spare's rejoinder, puncturing the Beast's hyperbole. Crowley hastily explained that he had meant that he expressed in poetry what Spare did in images: that they were both messengers of the divine. A friendship was formed and Spare joined Crowley's occult group, the Brotherhood of the Silver Star, Argenteum Astrum. He took his Probationer's Oath in 1909, adopting the magical name "YIHOVEAUM" (following the Kabbalists' alphabet mysticism) and observed their credo, "Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law".

Unlike Crowley, who was an energetic user of cocaine and heroin, Spare's drug intake was only that of any self-respecting late Victorian. "He was not some kind of dissolute drug addict," blinks John Bonner. "Spare was more of a pub man. He liked milk stout, fruitcake and large quantities of tea."

Spare did share Crowley's above-average libido, however. He said that he found the grotesque ennobling and fed his magic powers. His sexual tastes were as eclectic in his art. After impregnating a woman much older than himself in an affair, Spare embarked on a series of sexual adventures with a violent Welsh maid, an unprepossessing dwarf woman and an hermaphrodite.

Crowley, initially delighted with his protoge, became annoyed at Spare's lack of hard work on ritual initiation. Spare, for his part, found Crowley's theatrical approach to the occult, silly. Crowley was a "smells and bells" magician (perhaps the first High Church Satanist), while Spare preferred his sorcery served plain.

One anecdote, Spare later used to tell about Crowley, described him tipping a plate of food over his own head while dining at the Cafe Royal and another of him parading down Regent Street in his magical robes under the illusion that they rendered him invisible.

Eventually a vicious enmity ensued. The occult author Kenneth Grant, who had introduced the two men, always refused to discuss what had finally caused the breach. In any event, by 1912 they had gone their separate ways. Spare's career as an artist nonetheless flourished. During the First World War he was appointed an official war artist. After the war he lived a rather glamorous life. He married a Gaiety Girl and became sufficently wealthy enough to publish several magazines featuring work by the great names of his age, including George Bernard Shaw. All of them soon folded.

His paintings throughout his life were done in a variety of eclectic styles. Some are reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, others are Oriental, in some there are hints of Max Ernst's innerscapes and Kokoschka's colour. What, however, unites all his work is the quality of the draughtsmanship for which he was renowned. "It never fails," says Beskin, even when he is working in a trance state."

Magic is another constant theme and many paintings have ritual functions, albeit indecipherable to the uninitiated. Spare's trademark was to use what he called "sigils". Spare began with magical words, reducing them to their elements, then reducing them again, distilling their essence until they just became a symbol. "Then he threw it away and forgot about it, and that's when the magic worked," explains Beskin.

By 1925 he was fed up with his life in fashionable circles. He published a work called The Anathema of Zos, a Philippic against London's art world, then packed his bags and moved to Brixton. Spare now lived austerely in a basement flat, his palette dictated more by Woolworths' stocks than anything else. He famously once lived for six months on pounds 7. Gully Jimson, Joyce Cary's amoral and egocentric artist in his novel, The Horses Mouth (1944) was partly inspired by Spare and his new way of life in Brixton. In his mystical seclusion, Spare's artistry never faded - it was invigorated. He became a great people-watcher and drew fine portraits of carters, layabouts, hucksters, thieves, pimps and tarts in stunning detail on anything he could lay his hands on - including tea chests.

Spare could be choosy about commissions, even turning down Adolf Hitler. In 1936 one of Hitler's aides at the German Embassy in London bought a self-portrait by Spare, which he thought bore a striking resemblance to the Fuhrer. When Hitler saw it, he agreed and invited Spare to Berlin to paint his portrait. Spare turned him down, replying: "Only from negations can I wholesomely conceive you. For I know of no courage sufficient to stomach your aspirations and ultimates. If you are superman, let me be for ever animal."

He subsequently painted Esoteric Brotherhood (1938), a brilliant self- portrait of himself again showing a marked resemblance to Hitler, making a sign of horned fingers. This fertility symbol signifies strength, the goat and his astrological sign, Capricorn. It might also be argued that it is giving two fingers to Hitler.

During the Second World War Spare's basement was bombed and he was trapped in the debris for three days. When his temporarily disabled arms and fingers regained their skill, Spare found himself drawing pictures in different styles, of different periods, and signing them with a variety dates - both pre-war and post-war. He died in 1956.

Despite several attempts to re-introduce Spare to the mainstream West End art world, he has not yet escaped from the occult groups who venerate his memory. Though he has an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, he doesn't yet feature in standard books on British art of the 20th century. This exhibition may help change that.

Austin Osman Spare: Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green. London EC1 until 22 August

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