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austin osman spare


︎Artist, Painting, Chaos Magik, Occultism, Article  
︎ Ventral Is Golden


Why would an undoubted artistic genius, considered by many at the time to be England’s finest nude portrait painter, forsake the fleshpots and salons of Upper Bohemia and the artistic elite, sell his paintings for £5 in Pubs, only to live in an ill-furnished cellar full of stray cats, just off Brixton Road in London?

Born in 1886 in South London near Smithfield Market to a working-class family, Austin Osman Spare, the son of a City of London Police Officer, would have his creative talents aided in rather unusual circumstances. Firstly, in part, by the creative, educational insights of his mother, secondly by Mrs. Paterson; a local sorceress who claimed a line of descent from the Salem Witches, and thirdly, by being able to personally evoke the spirits of dead artists such as William Blake.

Spare gained a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, and at seventeen years of age (1904) becoming the youngest entrant into their summer exhibition. However, Spare became dissatisfied with the style of teaching he was receiving, and also the subsequent press attention he gained from the renowned exhibition, thus he promptly left the Royal Academy the same year without gaining any qualifications.

It was in these following years where he would broaden his artistic research to comprise of eastern based, philosophical elements such as Taoism, proto-surrealism, and the basic teachings he learned as a child through the mysticism of Mrs. Paterson. His drawings would also eventually attract the attention of fellow occultist Aleister Crowley, who Spare ultimately disliked due to his overemphasis on hierarchical structures and organisation of ceremonial magic within his magic socieiteis.




Referring back to his early childhood meetings with the sorceress, Mrs. Paterson, Spare revealed that “she lived to be a hundred and one and used to tell my fortune when I was quite young. She never accepted money. She was so accurate and so detailed in her forecast of future events that everybody was very impressed with her. She was married to a doctor; but she had gypsy blood in her veins. Full of love and kindness towards everybody, she was like a child. She lived in a very tough neighbourhood, and the roughest characters respected her.

He would later take Mabel Beardsley, sister of the prominent art nouveau artist Aubrey, to see Mrs. Paterson for a reading. At the time, she was too kind to tell Mabel herself, but privately told Spare, that she would be dead in two years. He recounted, “she died two years later in a nursing home — of cancer, I think, although she had not been told what would happen, but was given courage and good heart. About her forthcoming illness, the old lady just said, ‘Be very careful about your health.



Mrs. Paterson (the old woman of his memories) taught Spare the art of ‘Thought Projection’. During some readings, it was said that the old woman could look into a dark corner of the room and manifest the future of her subjects. After learning this technique, Spare is said to have used it in all manner of ways, such as magically procuring a pair of slippers for naval intelligence officer and pyschic researcher, Everard Feilding, as well as conjuring a rain cloud inside his own studio. In addition, he would also use this technique to aid him on journeys through the unconscious mind. Another method called ‘automatic drawing’ (which later the Surrealists would popularise further) or ‘atavistic resurgence’, enabled Spare to draw at midnight without any light, with the pencil never leaving the page.

Being “a firm believer in reincarnation, Spare felt that each person's past lives, in a variety of human and animal forms, were retained within the subconscious. This could be tapped into, allowing one to observe and communicate with the many embodiments of the self that dwelt there. It was such inner journeys that inspired the fantastical menagerie of creatures and semi-human figures visible in so much of his art.”




“His attention also turned towards the worlds of alchemy, magic, tarot, sigils and the notion of the ‘Zos’ and the ‘Kia’, a philosophical approach, created by Spare, in order to describe respectively, the physical body and the state of in-betweenness that lay beyond it.”


Spare’s attention also turned towards the world of alchemy, magic, tarot, sigils and the notion of the ‘Zos’ and the ‘Kia’ - a philosophical approach, created by Spare in ‘The Book of Pleasure’ (1913), in order to describe respectively, the physical body and the state of in-betweenness that lay beyond it (or the ’Neither-Neither’ states of existence). Alongside this came his increasing fasciation with forming sigils and an ‘alphabet of desire’.

He described the process of sigilation as follows;
Enshrine your desire in a short sentence; write out the sentence and then put down all the individual letters of which it is composed, omitting any repetition of a letter. When the sentence has been reduced to a minimum number of letters, unite them graphically in one composite glyph which does not suggest the nature of the desire. Then— and this is of great importance—forget the desire and sink the sigil in the subconsciousness.”

Much like the Egyptian notion of the Medu-Neter, the alphabet of desire was an attempt to imbue each letter with a sensation, and each glyph without any unnecessary elements, so as not to bring about any useless interpretations.









Much of Spare’s work is highly autodidactic. From his automatic renderings of animal totems merging with the human form, channeling the spirit of William Blake whilst drawing without any light, to his fiercely modern approach to magic, and subsequent association with Chaos Magic. Much of this artists’ work has remained almost allusive to both the art world and the art education curriculum.

One final twist in the life of Austin Osman Spare came in 1936, when he wilfully rejected the chance of international fame and recognition, in favour of living with his adopted cats, working class community and prostitutes of the streets near his basement. A member of the German Embassy bought one of his self-portraits and later sent it to Adolf Hitler. Being so impressed, Hitler commissioned Spare to paint him.

Spare replied;

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 forever animal.


Further Reading ︎
Books and biography
Lost Envoy’, Book on Spare’s Tarot card designs
Book scans, The Book of Pleasure




Mark