Austin Osman Spare (1888–1956) is an English magician who expressed his occult vision in strange and sometimes frightening art. Austin Osman Spare’s talent for art was widely acknowledged and even called genius. He could have pursued a conventional artist’s career but instead chose to devote himself to creating images of Demons and spirits raised up from deep levels of consciousness.
Spare was born on December 31, 1888, in London; his father was a City of London policeman. He left school at age 13 and worked for a time in a stained glass factory. He obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in Kensington and enjoyed success as an artist by 1909.
The seeds for Spare’s occult life were sewn early in childhood. Alienated from his mother, he gravitated toward a mysterious old woman named Mrs. Paterson. She claimed to be a hereditary witch descended from a line of Salem witches who escaped execution during the witch trials in 1692—an unlikely claim, considering that the Salem incident was perpetrated by hysterical children.
The young Spare referred to her as his “witch-mother.” Later, he said that she possessed great skill in divination and had the ability to materialize her thoughts. Mrs. Paterson taught Spare how to visualize and evoke spirits and elementals and how to reify, or interpret, his dream imagery. Information was transmitted in dreams with the help of Mrs. Paterson’s Familiar, Black Eagle.
She also initiated Spare in a witches’ Sabbat, which he described as taking place in another dimension, where cities were constructed of an unearthly geometry. Spare said he attended such sabbats several times. Under further tutelage of Mrs. Paterson, Spare developed his own system of Magic, based heavily on will and sex—his own sex drive was quite intense—and the works of Aleister Crowley.
When Mrs. Paterson died, Black Eagle was passed to Spare. For practitioners of the Left Hand Path, Black Eagle is seen as a “vampyre spirit” of the dream or astral plane. Black Eagle can be summoned by ritual involving intense concentration of will, desire, and belief. It manifests in different forms, including bestial and Demonic. Spare believed that the power of will is capable of fulfilling any deeply held desire.
The formula, simpler than ceremonial magic, was in his unpublished grimoire, “The Book of the Living Word of Zos.” The formula called for creating sigils, or talismans, in an “alphabet of desire.” The desire is written down in full. Repeating letters are crossed out, and the remaining letters are combined into a sigil like a sort of monogram. The sigil is impressed upon the subconscious by staring at it. The original desire is then let go so that the “god within” can work undisturbed toward the desired end.
According to one story, Spare once told a friend he would conjure freshly cut roses to fall from the air. His magic involved creating some symbolic drawings, which he waved in the air while repeating “roses.” He got results, but they were unexpected. The plumbing in the room overhead burst, and Spare and his friend were dowsed by sewage.
In his art, Spare is best known for his atavisms, the reifying of primal forces from previous existences, drawn from the deepest layers of the human mind. This, too, was a product of his education from Mrs. Paterson. According to another story, one of his atavisms caused the suicide of one witness and the insanity of another. Despite his ability to paint the spirits and images he saw, Spare was occasionally at a loss for words to describe some of his more bizarre experiences.
Some of his visions put him into a place that he was able only to describe as “spaces beyond space.”
In 1956, the English Witch Gerald B. Gardner (see Witchcraft) contacted Spare for his help in a magical war with Kenneth Grant. Gardner believed that Grant was stealing his witches for his own New Isis Lodge, and he decided to launch a magical attack on him and reclaim his witches. In particular, Gardner wanted back a selfproclaimed “water-witch” named Clanda. It was the last year of Spare’s life, and by then he was living in dire poverty and obscurity, eking out a living by painting portraits in local pubs.
Using his “alphabet of desire,” Spare created a talisman for Gardner that would “restore lost property to its rightful place,” which Spare himself described as “a sort of amphibious owl with the wings of a bat and talons of an eagle.” Gardner did not give Spare specific information as to the exact nature of the “lost property”; he knew that Spare and Grant were on friendly terms.
During a Black Isis rite at the New Isis Temple, Clanda experienced the apparent negative effects of the talisman. Her role was to lie passively on the altar. Instead, she sat up, sweating and with a hypnotized and glazed look in her eyes. She behaved as though in the grip of terror, convulsing and shuddering. Later, she described what she experienced: the appearance of a huge bird that gripped her in its talons and carried her off into the night. She struggled and broke free, falling back onto the altar.
The attending magicians saw none of this, but they did hear what sounded like the talons of a large bird scrabbling against the wind, and they felt a cold wind rush about the room. Physical talon marks were found on the window frame, and the windowsill was covered with a strange, gelatinous substance that seemed to breathe on its own. A strong odor of the sea permeated the temple for days.
As for Clanda, she failed to return to Gardner. Instead, she moved to New Zealand, where she drowned. Some of Spare’s work appears in two quarterly art review magazines he edited, Form and Golden Hind. He wrote three books that were published: The Book of Pleasure (Self-love), the Psychology of Ecstasy (1913) and The Focus of Life (1921), both of which dealt with his magic system, and A Book of Automatic Drawing, published posthumously in 1972. The Book of Ugly Ecstasy (1996) includes Spare’s drawing of Demonic beings and automata he discovered on the astral plane, formed by astral semen and stored sexual energy.
Spare spent most of his life as a recluse, living in poverty in London. He was remote and detached, preferring the company of his cats to that of human beings. He is considered a source of modern chaos magic.
- Cavendish, Richard, and Brian Innes, eds. Man, Myth and Magic. Rev. ed. North Bellmore, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
- Ford, Michael W. Luciferian Witchcraft. Lulu.com, 2005. Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 3rd ed. New York: Facts On File, 2008.
- King, Francis. Megatherion: The Magickal World of Aleister Crowley. London: Creation Books, 2004.