The left hand path – William Blake and Austin Osman Spare

On May 15, 1956, Austin Osman Spare passed away in obscurity in London. Spare was an artist and occultist, born at Snowhill in 1886 and the son of a London policeman. His early success as an artist (exhibiting at the Royal Academy at 16) led to artistic and editorial contributions to Form: A Quarterly of the Arts (1916-7 and 1921-2) as well as The Golden Hind (1922-4). He worked as an official war artist during the First World War, but was always intrigued by more idiosyncratic occult practices, publishing his own books such as The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love) (1909-13) and The Focus of Life: The Mutterings of Aâos (1921).

Spare is often referred to as one of the originators of Chaos magic and, during the late twentieth century, was influential on artists such as Genesis P. Orridge and the occult avant-garde group Coil. There was a time when I found myself rather obsessed with Spare’s art and writing, particularly as it appears so close to Blake’s in some respects (though very far from it in others), but it was unfortunate that Spare’s art didn’t really develop throughout his life. By the 1950s, he continued to remain something of the decadent Edwardian artist he had started out as – meanwhile Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and many other artistic movements had passed him by, only touching his work occasionally.

Nonetheless, as a self-publishing artist based in London and interested in esoteric themes, the similarities between Spare and Blake were noted during Spare’s lifetime, as in a review of a solo exhibition in 1927 which remarked that although the later artist did not directly imitate Blake, the viewer “might be reminded of Blake’s extremely matter-of-fact provisions of pictorial machinery for the promptings of an unconscious mind at least as rich as his own.” Spare’s own comments on Blake were ambivalent, however, and although he claimed to have lived before as an Englishman who had been born around 1750, “he vehemently denied any suggestions that he might have been William Blake, whose work he greatly admired and with which his own has sometimes been compared.” (Cited in Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, p.16)

Spare’s earliest art was influenced as much by decadence and art nouveau, particuarly the work of Aubrey Beardsley, as much as by Blake, and he was drawn to esoteric movements and figures such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. Crowley observed, in typical pompous manner, that “[my] disciple has learnt much from The Book of the Law; for the rest he has drawn from The Book of Lies and William Blake, also Nietzsche and the Tao Teh King.” (Cited in Grant, p.8)

Probably the strongest connection between Spare and Blake lies in the former’s creation of a personal mythology, which he sometimes referred to as “witchcraft”, that saw godhead as an emanation of inner psychic energy expressed in art. The Focus of Life in particular seems to draw a great deal from The Four Zoas (which had been made available to Spare via W. B. Yeats’s edition of Blake’s poetry), and which begins:

True wisdom cannot be expressed by articulate sounds…
Confined within the limits of rationalism; no guess has yet answered.
O Zos, thou art fallen into the involuntary accident of birth and rebirth into the incarnating ideas of women. (Spare, The Focus of Life, p.7)

There are important differences between Spare and Blake, not least the fact that the former saw his spiritual ideas as a product of witchcraft and occult practices, while the latter believed that Christianity was the basis of his visions. Likewise, whereas Blake’s later poetry seeks annihilation of the self, Spare is always concerned to find fulfilment of that self. While some of these differences were fundamental, however, and recognised as such by Spare, others were more apparent and superficial (both artists rejected conventional notions of selfhood, for example), and certainly Spare’s understanding of Blake was much more profound – and hence much more ambivalent – than Crowley’s.

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