12 September 2007

Austin Osman Spare. Earth Inferno. 1905.

"Life is haunted- I see the faces of the so-called dead everywhere...etched and glyptographed on things." A. O. Spare 1887-1956

Austin Osman Spare. EARTH INFERNO. London: Co-operative Printing Society, 1905.

Current Selling Prices
$1250-$2000 /£650-£1000

Artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare's first book written at the age of 18 with drawings somewhat in the style of Beardsley but with a power all of their own. A very large book in printed brown paper wraps; 17.75″ x 13.5″ with a few copies in vellum and some in green boards. 265 signed copies in all. The vellum copies were supposed to have a colour print in them but no copies ever have it and presumably it wasn't inserted. A glorious vellum copy turned up 12 years back at Sotheby's with an original watercolour bound in (made £1500.)

In the mid 1980s I walked into the bookshop of an old pal of AOS and bought about a dozen Spares. It was the Bohemia bookshop on St. Leonards, mostly military books, run by a great character named Frank Letchford. He impressed me by knowing a lot about rock music, unusual in those days among septuagenarians. He had known Spare and also Henry Miller. In fact I bought a Spare portrait of Miller which thereafter seemed to spend its life in auction. It was done from a photo. Soon after with art connoisseur and boulevardier James Birch I put on a show of Spares' work at his gallery in Fulham. At the time James had Nico (Velvet Underground) staying in his spare bedroom. Every one seemed to be dressed in black. Boho days. I wrote the intro in the catalogue and it went like this:
"Some see Spare's paintings as the work of an advanced occultist (reputedly a member of "The Golden Dawn') others see the work of a superb draughtsman, an unashamed Cockney artist who went back to Southwark and painted the ordinary people- whelk-girls, barrow boys, spivs and tramps. Certainly his life divides neatly into two periods. By the age of fourteen, possibly inspired by Beardsley and Ricketts, he was producing work of a high technical order. A fellow student at the Royal College described Spare as 'a fair creature resembling a Greek god, curly-haired, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts and taking drugs.' At his first one-man show in 1914 he was showing 'psychic' drawings later developed into his 'automatic' drawings. In the 1920s Spare was at the height of his powers, intensely active, producing books, magazines, objects and becoming briefly the darling of Mayfair. He appears to have reacted against the false values of his patrons and admirers in the Smart Set. His book 'The Anathema of Zos: A Sermon to the Hypocrites'- a work of 'automatic writing' excoriates the self- pity and smugness of the mid-1920s. He was seen as a degenerate and crank; little bothered by this Spare headed back to South London, seldom to be seen again in the purlieus of Bond Street. He found peace and obscurity among the lower classes- the whores and sneak-thieves, many of whom he used as models.

His portraits from this latter period of his life show that he was still primarily a visionary. Even in straightforward works like his portrait of a Southwark tramp, something shines out beyond the technique. Spare said that 'the portrait of a person should be more like them than they are themselves...seldom complimentary.'

Spare kept open house in his Kennington flat. Often surrounded by models young and old, he would receive critics and buyers, showing them his latest pictures in the living room, bedroom and kitchen. Spare liked to meet the people who wanted to buy his work, rather than have his pictures sold in a gallery in an impersonal way. Thus he carried on for years selling works for trifling sums, sometimes reduced to decorating radio sets and even mending them. Spare wrote that he had turned his back on fame, money and comfort '...and continued unmolested my quests into the unknown realms, my natural stoicism supporting me in times of want.'

After his injury in World War II when he temporarily lost the use of both arms, Spare's memory was also affected. It was not until 1946 in a cramped basement in Briton that he began to paint again. His 1947 exhibition in Westbourne Grove attracted many people and sold well. The paintings of this last period were some of his finest and most innovative. By the time he died in 1956 he had created an impressive range of work showing throughout a singularity of vision. The original idea of the automatic drawings of' living beyond thought in courageous originality' never left him. Comparisons with Durer, Goya, Rops and Hokusai although well meant and occasionally illuminating miss the point. Spare was unique- nothing but himself.
The private view was well attended and the cheap wine flowed. At one point a fight broke out but was fairly quickly quelled, a few girls screamed, voices were raised. Some of the paintings had been donated by an old cove who had known Spare and were for sale. The son, who felt they should be his eventually, objected quite forcefully and attacked myself and James. In dealing with older owners, even with books, there are often problematic offspring in the background but it seldom leads to fisticuffs. However these day unless the books are demonstrably valuable, they are not coveted -in fact they are a nuisance.

VALUE? No copies for sale at present, auction records show copies making £500 twenty years ago. The market has not moved on vastly but a decent, clean copy would now fetch about £1000. They can turn up in truly lousy condition and being large and thin they can get bent. Although Spare now has a large fan base they are not generally the 'loadsamoney' crowd. Many good facsimiles have been produced. The excellent publishing company Fulgur has reproduced many of Spare's works and some are now out of print and eagerly sought after. Ebay sees much trading in Spare drawings ,books and art. It is worth remembering that Spare was prolific and there are many works of his art around --the very finest of his paintings can top £3000. He is not Lucian Freud when it comes to value but you get a lot more for your money. Above is a superior later work in his 'sidereal' style.[ W/Q * ]


Anonymous said...

Did I understand correctly that you were physically attacked during the sale? Wow! I did not realise that book selling can be such a dangerous endeavour.

Bookride said...

Thanks --as I recall it was more of push and shove than bloody noses or broken bones: bookselling is, however, less tranquil than many people think - but seldom dangerous...so far. N

Anonymous said...

Had to suppress a chuckle at your "problematic offspring". They should know better than to get between a book-monger and his next acquisition.