‘The more Chaotic I am, the more complete I am’ –AOS
Neither truly recognized as an artist or occultist, Austin Osman Spare was more than just both; he was the grand-father of modern Chaos and Sigil Magick. Despite having received various publications around the turn of the century, he remained virtually unnoticed until the late 1960s. Born in 1886, the son of a London police officer little is known about AOS’s childhood. After he attended the Royal College of Art, Spare found his vocation as an artist and illustrator; he was celebrated as an up-and-coming young artist. Yet he was disgusted by the commercialism of the art scene, he rebelled against what he saw as his bourgeois middle-class career in the arts. He retreated from the mainstream artistic scene soon afterwards. When just barely twenty years old he began writing The Book of Pleasure (Self-love), subtitled The Psychology of Ecstasy, in which he used art and sex to explore the subconscious mind. The Book of Pleasure reeks of diabolism to such an extent that Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony (Oxford, 1933) refers to Spare as an English “satanic occultist“, and he places him in the same category as Aleister Crowley. The shadow of Crowley would haunt him long after his life ended. In 1908 Spare opened an exhibition at the Bruton gallery in London, and not long thereafter came to the attention of Aleister Crowley who was so impressed by Spare’s artwork, and commissioned Spare to create some of his drawings in the early issues of his magazine The Equinox. Spare was for a time a member of Crowley’s Argentum Astrum (The Order of the Silver Star), which Crowley founded. Spare joined the order in 1910, where he learned Golden Dawn’s ceremonial magic. Spare however, had a very different approach from Crowley, and began to form his own ideas concerning the practice of magick. In 1913 Spare published The Book of Pleasure, considered one of his most important works, in which he explained how occult powers may be invoked from ancient stratum of the subconscious mind; a technique he referred to as the Formula of Atavistic Resurgence. He describes the so-called “death posture” to contact deep layers of the unconscious. He also developed a method of using talismans by which a word or phrase (expressing one’s intention) is reduced to a simple sigil, which one then impresses on one’s subconscious. Spare’s interest in the more obscure aspects of sorcery sprang from his early friendship with an old woman; who claimed to be a descent from a line of Salem (MA) witches that had failed to be exterminated. Spare would constantly allude to her as Mrs. Paterson throughout his life, and even went as far as to call her his “second mother”.
Although he had also stayed at the home of the Rev. Robert Hugh Benson (author of The Necromancers and other occult novels) when he was seventeen, it was undoubtedly Mrs. Paterson’s influence that stimulated Spare’s innate interest in the occult, which, allied to his remarkable skill as a draughtsman enabled him to reproduce through his art the strange entities he encountered in trans-mundane spheres. He even drew several portraits of Mrs. Paterson, one of which appeared in The Focus of Life, (1921). Another drawing of her by Spare appeared in the part-work encyclopedia Man, Myth and Magic (1971), where she is shown having “exteriorized” herself in the form of a nubile girl. Spare was said to also be capable of occasionally conjuring thoughts into forms visible to the human eye, but whereas in Mrs. Paterson’s case it was an unfailing power, his power was erratic and uncertain. A story is told of one occasion in which it worked too well, as two unfortunate dabblers in the occult learned. They wanted Spare to conjure an Elemental spirit. They had claimed to have seen materialized spirits of the dead in a séance, but had never seen an Elemental sprit. Spare tried to dissuade them by explaining that such creatures were “subconscious automata inhabiting the human psyche at levels normally inaccessible to the conscious mind”, and that they almost always embodied atavistic urges and propensities. They did not take him seriously. Though it is uncertain what might have actually happened both the people concerned were said to be fundamentally changed. Within weeks, one died of no apparent cause; the other had to be committed to an insane asylum. From 1927 until his death, he virtually lived as a weird hermit in a London slum, where he sometimes held exhibitions in a local pub. People have compared his life with that of H. P. Lovecraft, both were explores of the dark areas of the human psyche, and both went almost unnoticed in their own time. While researching the occult, Spare continued his work as a public artist, with an exhibition in July 1914 at the Bailie Gallery. He joined the army in 1916 and served as an official “War Artist” during the First World War. He was posted in Egypt where he was fascinated by animal-headed gods and magical practices of Ancient Egypt. During this time Spare co-edited two quarterly reviews of the Arts, the magazines Form, 1916, and from October 1922 to July 1924, with Clifford Bax, and the quarterly, The Golden Hind. Both magazines contain what some consider some of his best work. By 1924, Spare was at the height of his artistic success, but his success as an artist began to conflict with the philosopher within. He became disenchanted with his trendy ‘jet set’ friends and the benefactors with whom he had become so popular. He excommunicated himself by writing another book entitled “The Anathema of Zos”, and flaunted their hypocrisies in their faces. He returned to South London where he lived in relative obscurity as a recluse. Little is known of his activities during this time except that he lived in a small basement flat caring little for money or fame. He was able to make a living drawing portraits of common people in the local pubs and selling them for small amounts of money. While he wasn’t publishing during this time, he continued to write and develop his philosophy, art and magic.
In his later years Spare became obsessed with sex magic and the worship of Isis and other Egyptian deities. He then integrated this into his practice of Witchcraft, as reflected in his artwork of cultural themes. His obsession with sex magic turned him to many perverse sexual activities that the society of his time could not understand. He believed that sexually repulsive acts caused certain chemical changes within the body, thus transforming the magical consciousness. At the age of fifty, Spare’s abilities to produce exquisite, fine ink and pencil drawings were deteriorating and he shifted his focus towards the more fluid medium of pastels. His three shows of 1936, 1937 and 1938 received significant press coverage, but tragically in 1941, at the height of the Blitz, Spare’s studio in the Walworth Road received a direct hit and was completely destroyed. During the Second World War he was badly injured in a bombing raid and was paralyzed down his right side. His memory was also affected. Many believed he would never draw again but within six months he had regained the use of his right arm, and was able to return to his work again, starting, as he said, from scratch. After some months as a nomad he found a home in Brixton with his childhood friend Ada Millicent Pain. Yet Spare, nearly 60 and in failing health, was about to enter one of the most productive and successful periods of his life. In 1947 Spare met with Kenneth Grant and gradually become more involved with other occultists of the time. An article by Kenneth Grant published in “Man, Myth and Magic” further delves into examples of AOS and his magickial abilities. “Spare’s ‘formula of atavistic resurgence’ was based on the use of symbolic pictures, which gave a visible form to various atavistic urges and desires deep within the mind. He met Gerald Gardner in the early 1950’s who engaged him to create sigils, magical talismans and other ritual aids. At the same time he began work on a definitive Grimoire called the ‘Zos Kia Cultus‘, this was to contain the accumulation of his magical secrets. Austin Osman Spare died on the 15th of May 1956, his work on the Grimoire unfinished.