Austin Osman Spare was an English artist and occultist born in 1886. After beginning to draw at the age of twelve, Spare quickly became recognized and awarded for his art. He was recommended for a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, and in 1903, being only seventeen, he won the silver medal at the National Competition of Schools of Art. Spare’s artistic influences – Charles Ricketts, Edmund Sullivan, George Frederick Watts and Aubrey Beardsley – led him to focus on clear lines, which contrasted the College’s emphasis on shading. He rebelled artistically as well as philosophically. Rejecting Christianity, Spare became interested in western esotericism. He began learning about Theosophy, specifically through Helena Blatvatzky’s book Isis Unveiled, then later the work of occultists Cornelius Agrippa and Eliphas Levi. During his college years, in 1905, Spare wrote and illustrated his first grimoire, or textbook of magic, called Earth Inferno. The premise for this book was extrapolated from Blatvatzky’s idea that Earth is already Hell. That same year, Spare exhibited a drawing known as ‘The Resurrection of Zoroaster.’ It portrayed beaked serpents swirling around Zoroaster, the Persian philosopher who founded Zoroastrianism, an ancient dualistic monotheist religion.
One year later, Spare published his first political cartoon, a satire on the use of Chinese wage slave laborers in British South Africa, which appeared in the pages of The Morning Leader newspaper. During this same time, he was working diligently on A Book of Satyrs, which included nine satirical illustrations ridiculing the Church and politics. In 1907, Spare created his most infamous piece, ‘Portrait of the Artist.’ This black and white self-portrait was later purchased by Jimmy Page.
Spare went on to illustrate for other writers and exhibit his work in galleries and pubs. His work caught the attention of Aleister Crowley, who believed it was a message from the Divine. Spare submitted several drawings for publication in Crowley’s The Equinox, receiving an expensive ritual robe as payment. Soon after, he was invited to join Crowley’s Thelemite magical order, the A∴A∴ or Argenteum Astrum. Spare remained involved in the A∴A∴ from 1907-1912, but never became a full member. He disagreed with Crowley’s emphasis on hierarchy and became critical of ceremonial magic.
In 1913, Spare self-published The Book of Pleasure (Self Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy, where he examined the human being and the unconscious mind. This work contained Spare’s first introduction to sigils; a method by which the words of a stated intent are reduced into an abstract design. A notable piece from this book is ‘Ascension of the Ego from Ecstasy to Ecstasy’.
In 1921, The Focus of Life was published, which further explored Spare’s mystical ideas. He worked on a few art journal magazines and in 1924 began experimenting with automatic drawing and writing, where both are freed from rational control as a means of expressing the unconscious. This is something that the surrealist adopted as well in the early 1930’s, leading some to call Spare’s work proto-surrealist. The work of Austin Osman Spare continues to be influential to artists and occultists to this day, especially regarding sigils in the realm of chaos magic.