In November 1984 art dealer James Birch put on a show of work by Austin Osman Spare at his gallery in Fulham, London. The introduction to the catalogue went like this:
Some see Spare's paintings as the work of an advanced occultist (reputedly a member of "The Golden Dawn') others see the work of a superb draughtsman, an unashamed Cockney artist who went back to Southwark and painted the ordinary people- whelk-girls, barrow boys, spivs and tramps. Certainly his life divides neatly into two periods. By the age of fourteen, possibly inspired by Beardsley and Ricketts, he was producing work of a high technical order. A fellow student at the Royal College described Spare as 'a fair creature resembling a Greek god, curly-haired, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts and taking drugs.'
At his first one-man show in 1914 he was showing 'psychic' drawings later developed into his 'automatic' drawings. In the 1920s Spare was at the height of his powers, intensely active,producing books, magazines, objects and becoming briefly the darling of Mayfair. He appears to have reacted against the false values of his patrons and admirers in the Smart Set. His book The Anathema of Zos: A Sermon to the Hypocrites- a work of 'automatic writing' excoriates the self- pity and smugness of the mid-1920s. He was seen as a degenerate and crank; little bothered by this Spare headed back to South London, seldom to be seen again in the purlieus of Bond Street. He found peace and obscurity among the lower classes- the whores and sneak-thieves, many of whom he used as models.
His portraits from this latter period of his life show that he was still primarily a visionary. Even in straightforward works like his portrait of a Southwark tramp, something shines out beyond the technique. Spare said that 'the portrait of a person should be more like them than they are themselves...seldom complimentary.'
Spare kept open house in his Kennington flat. Often surrounded by models young and old, he would receive critics and buyers, showing them his latest pictures in the living room, bedroom and kitchen. Spare liked to meet the people who wanted to buy his work, rather than have his pictures sold in a gallery in an impersonal way. Thus he carried on for years selling works for trifling sums, sometimes reduced to decorating radio sets and even mending them. Spare wrote that he had turned his back on fame, money and comfort '...and continued unmolested my quests into the unknown realms, my natural stoicism supporting me in times of want.'
After his injury in World War II when he temporarily lost the use of both arms, Spare's memory was also affected. It was not until 1946 in a cramped basement in Briton that he began to paint again. His 1947 exhibition in Westbourne Grove attracted many people and sold well. The paintings of this last period were some of his finest and most innovative. By the time he died in 1956 he had created an impressive range of work showing throughout a singularity of vision. The original idea of the automatic drawings of' living beyond thought in courageous originality' never left him. Comparisons with Durer, Goya, Rops and Hokusai although well meant and occasionally illuminating miss the point. Spare was unique- nothing but himself.
The private view was well attended and the cheap wine flowed. At one point a fight broke out but was fairly quickly quelled, a few girls screamed, voices were raised.
Some of the paintings had been donated by an old artist (Fiddes Watt) who had known Spare and were for sale. The son, who felt they should be his eventually, objected quite forcefully and attacked the owner of the pictures and James. Frank Letchford who was there (old friend of AOS) remarked 'something weird always happens with Spare.' For more info see our sister site Bookride which also has info on a 1950s Spare show.