19.9.14

Austin Osman Spare: The Occult Life of London's Legendary Artist


This biography was especially refreshing. I had known very little about Austin Osman Spare and this biography was detailed and thorough. I also appreciated the steady and consistent style that Phil Baker, the book's author, had while writing.  The foreword by Alan Moore set an excellent context of the relevancy of Spare in art history. Spare was at the very beginnings of many art movements, however just too far out for most people - but most perfect for me. 

My favorite portion of the biography was the chapter titled, Eighteen: An Owl With The Wings Of A Bat.  Mostly because of this amazing portion of the chapter, which I'll just quote word for word because it was that odd: 

"Up in Islington, magical feuding had broken out between two occult groups.  One was Grant's Nu-Isis Lodge, and the other was a coven headed by Gerald Gardner.  Gardner believed Grant had poached a talented medium of his, Clanda, an unstable young woman who had entered Gardner's coven hoping to become a Priestess of the Moon, but become disappointed with her progress and defected to the NU Isis Lodge. 
Gardner then went to Spare for a talisman "to restore stolen property." Spare had no idea that this was to be used, in effect, against his friend Grant. The talisman Spare drew was apparently "a sort of amphibious owl with the wings of a bat and the talons of an eagle."
Islington was a very run-down district in the Fifties, somewhat off the beaten track, and the house where the Lodge was meeting had mouldering walls, overgrown paths, and windows that were never cleaned.  It was not lived in, but maintained by the alchemist entirely for magical purposes.  The idea of an alchemist in Fifties Islington already seems to belong in a slightly parallel universe, and Grant's confabulatory webs present him as a character who indulged in necrophilic rituals and on one occasion nearly died after drinking liquid gold.  He was nevertheless a real man, David Curwen - the furrier of Melcombe Street - and he later published a pseudonymous textbook on old-style alchemy. 
At the Lodge meeting Clanda lay on a massive altar between two heavy candlesticks, which were the only source of light in the room. "Four violet-cowled figures (members of the Lodge) flitted to and fro; the air was thick with incense, mingled with the must of corruption which the old house exhaled."
Clanda lay upon the altar, waiting to become possessed by Black Isis, but things went badly wrong. The temperature in the room dropped, and Clanda imagined a great bird had crashed into the room, taking her out into the night sky and away.  She saw the snow-covered rooftops below, as in a flying dream, until the bird began to lose height over a wharf-like structure. She struggled in terror, and suddenly found herself back on the altar."

What one can take away from this biography was that Austin Osman Spare was an extraordinary man who shared in many diverse experiences that were unlike nearly any other person of his period. Whether that lent to his unpopularity in mainstream culture - or to his success as a godfather of the occult can't be said and maybe is entirely irrelevant.  I'd highly recommend this biography for those who enjoy stepping into the lives of those with far stranger ties - a great book for spooky Halloween. Also, I'm dressing up as a Priestess of the Moon this year. 

Joan Crawford, pencil and watercolour, 1933 (private collection)

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