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Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956)

Austin Osman Spare
image © from The Encyclopeadia of the Unexplained, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p.226

Often considered the grandfather of Chaos Magick, Austin Spare was born on December 30th 1886 at Snowhill, London, the son of a City of London policeman. When he left school, at the age of thirteen, he served an apprenticeship in a stained-glass factory, and in the evenings attended the Lambeth School of Art, South London. This enabled him to obtain a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, Kensington, where he began to study in earnest..  Even at this young age, he was astonishingly talented.  One of his drawings was surreptitiously sent by his father to the Royal Academy, where it was accepted and exhibited.  His pictures were imemdiately popular in the Art world. The painter John Singer Sargent hailed Spare a genius, and G. F. Watts declared that Spare had 'already done enough to justify his fame'.

Spare did not get on with his mother, and at an early age he formed a close friendship with a strange old lady who claimed to be a witch. Spare knew her simply as Mrs Paterson, and he described her as his second mother or, more appositely, as his witch-mother. She claimed to be descended from a line of Salem witches.  She taught Spare not only how to visualize and reify dream imagery, but also how to evoke spirits and elementals to visible appearance.   Although Spare could, and often did, produce conventional works of art of great genuis, he preferred to used his artistic talents to represent occult and spirit beings.  His work has been compared with that of Aubrey Beardsley (a member of the Golden Dawn) and Sidney Sime.

Mrs Paterson initiated Spare into the mysteries of the witches' sabbath, which he claimed to have attended with her on several occasions. It took place, he said, not on this earth but in extra-spatial dimensions, of "spaces outside space", into which he was suddenly and abruptly precipitated. On his return to physical consciousness, even with his artistic imagination he was unable to depict his experiences.  He interpreted this as a vuision of the "geometry of the future", fantastic cities constructed of lines and angles that bore no semblance to anything earthly.  Actually there is more of a parallel here with H. P. Lovecraft's description of the city of Cthulu as haveing a geometry that was nightmarish, that didn't make sense.  Clearly what is being described here is not a physical (or any sort of science fiction future) but an "astral" topology.  While the underlying principles of topology - of shape and form - are certainly archetypal, as in the celestial spheres of  Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Anthroposophy - the experiences of Spare and of Lovecraft indicate that certain other worlds and realities may be defined by totally different topologies, ones totally disorientating and uncanny to the waking human consciousness.

Spare published his first book in 1905 entitled Earth Inferno; a book of drawings depicting human figures in grotesque postures and contained some of the semi-human spirit forms, as well as some commentaries into the workings of the human mind and his spiritual leanings.

In 1908 Spare opened an exhibition at the Bruton gallery in in London, and not long thereafter came to the attention of Aleister Crowley who was 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 A.:A.: (Argentum Astrum), the Order of the Silver Star which Crowley founded and which he joined in 1910, and where he learned Golden Dawn type ceremonial magic. 

Spare however had a different approach to Crowley, and began to form his own ideas concerning the practice of magic. In 1913 Spare published external linkThe Book of Pleasure (Self-love), subtitled  The Psychology of Ecstasy, in which he expressed the substance of his occult researches. In this, considered one of his most important works, he explains how occult powers may be invoked from ancient strata of the subconscious mind; a technique he called the Formula of Atavistic Resurgence.  He describes the so-called  external link"death posture" (link, link, link) 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.

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 to Egypt where he was fascinated by the animal-headed gods and magical religions of Ancient Egypt. Spare co-edited two quarterly reviews of the Arts, the magazines Form, 1916, and from October 1922 to July 1924, with Clifford Bax, the quarterly, The Golden Hind. Both magazines contain some of his finest work.

In 1921 he published external link The Focus of Life, which developed his magickal philosophy.
It is said that his books should be read in conjunction with the viewing of his art as it is difficult to tell where his magick ends and his art begins.

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.

In 1947 Spare met with Kenneth Grant, and Gerald Gardner in the early 1950ís. At this time he began work on a definitive Grimore and system of magick called the external link Zos-Kia Cultus wedded the practices of witchcraft to his individualized, and was to contain the accumulation of his magical secrets.

Although he fascinated all who met him, Spare remained a recluse. He worked from a small basement flat in Brixton, and the last 30 years of his life were spent in the decaying back streets of South London.  A solitary individual, he greatly enjoyed the companionship of cats.


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printed references References and Links links on the Web

printed book Kenneth Grant, 1974 "Austin Osman Spare", pp.225-227, in Richard Cavendish, ed., The Encyclopeadia of the Unexplained, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

printed book Kenneth Grant, 1972, "Austin Osman Spare and the Zos Kia Cultus", ch.11 of The Magickal Revival

printed bookFrancis King, 1975, Magic - the Western Tradition, Art and Imagination series, ed. Jill Purce, Thames and Hudson, London

Web Site Austin Osman Spare - includes online writings by A. O. Spare, material about him, and examples of his art work

Web Site Austin Osman Spare - short bio, and of more interest free articles and online books, as well as info on genealogy, bibliography

Web Site Austin Osman Spare - bio, online articles, bibliography, gallery, and more. Fulgur Limited Publishers has published quite a few AOS books over the years, including his last unpublished writings (Zos Speaks!) and most recently a facsimile of Kenneth Grant's Images and Oracles. New material is being added, and the site will eventually include bibliographies, maps of Spare's London, audio interviews with folks who knew AOS, and more.

Web Page Austin Osman Spare - biography, by George Knowles. Includes a short intro to Chaos Magic

Wikipedia Austin Osman Spare - Wikipedia page

Web Site Chaos Matrix - Austin Osman Spare - A collection of writings by and on Spare. Includes links to his artwork.

Web Page A.O. Spare, fortune telling and the Tarot - essay on Spare's unique method of reading the Tarot in Zos Speaks!

Web Page Austin O. Spare - short biography that emphasises the artistic rather than occult side of Spare's work


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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 8 March 2000, links checked 27 December 2010