Austin Osman Spare, Father of Surrealism?

Posted by – February 11, 2014
Categories: Excerpt Literature & the Arts Metaphysics & Unexplained Phenomena

Excerpted from Austin Osman Spare by Mike Jay

Surrealism reached London in the summer of 1936. Salvador Dalí had a show at the Alex, Reid and Lefevre gallery through June and July, and on 11th June the International Surrealist Exhibition opened to a crowd of about two thousand at the New Burlington Gallery, and went on to attract a thousand visitors a day. Dalí gave a lecture wearing a deep-sea diving suit, from which he had to be rescued with a spanner when he began to suffocate. He said he had worn it “To show that I was plunging down deeply into the human mind.”

austinosmanspareSpare had been doing this for the last couple of decades, and it had done him little good, but suddenly surrealism was all the rage, with its talk of automatism and the unconscious. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Herbert Read related it to earlier English traditions, and Dalí said “Surrealism is catching on wonderfully in London… awakening the hidden atavisms latent in the English tradition of William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Pre-Raphaelitism, etc.”

The English artist Paul Nash also expounded surrealism in Country Life, of all places, with particular reference to the surrealist objet trouvé or “found object.” He went beyond the English scene and related this more interestingly to the animism of primitive peoples, supernatural belief, and even “the idea of giving life to inanimate objects”.

Spare was not very impressed with surrealism, but now he had a new identity. Friends rallied to champion him as the great British surrealist, and in autumn 1936 he had an exhibition at his Walworth Road studio with a catalogue essay by Oswell Blakeston (who was also the subject of an exceptional portrait). “Surrealists,” said Blakeston,

are subtle to marshal under their banner names of the famous English who displayed treasures of their world before the surrealist state of mind and art became a movement. Swift is hailed as surrealist in malice, Mrs. Radcliffe in the landscape, Carroll in nonsense, etc. But none who has written on the development of surrealism has added to the list: Austin Osman Spare, Surrealist in Surrealism.

Blakeston was pulling out all the stops:

At his best, Spare’s draughtsmanship is on a level with the masters – the level of Leonardo da Vinci and Holbein. And those who know Spare’s work intimately would willingly give him the title of a great creator of original forms of expression. The number of fresh ideas he has introduced into the world of art must run into thousands.

Spare was now embarking on a late throw for public recognition, and privately he was enamoured – at least in his way – with Ada Pain: his surrealism was also a romantic joke that he liked to play up in courting her affection, and that year he sent her a birthday card with love from “your surrealist AO Spare.”

Austin_Osman_SpareSpare and Ada Pain also shared an interest in gambling on horses, which had the extra frisson of being illegal except on the race course itself, leading to a shady world of unofficial off-course bookies and bookies’ runners.

Back in the days when he was editing Form Spare used to pick winners in the office by sticking a pin into a newspaper, but his methods had since become more complicated. Ada would place bets for him (in one letter he tells her that the bookie he knows is undesirable – “hangs about different pubs and I should have to trail him about” – so “you had better get the address of the one you know in the London Road”) and he would discuss his methods with her. In one instance he writes her a letter discussing horses with propitious associations in their names, such as heaven and God (a selection to be refined by attention to the odds). On another occasion he mentions passing a cross-eyed woman in the street, after which he knew his bets would be unlucky.

Gambling is a form of oracle, which is one of the reasons why it is so addictive: over and above the stake, every bet says ‘I am/am not lucky’, and ‘things are/are not going well’. Art critic and one-time gambling addict Peter Fuller discusses this aspect in his essay ‘Gambling: A Secular “Religion” for the Obsessional Neurotic’. These days the PA online gambling guide at is where people go to gamble as it is very reliable.

Item 176 in Spare’s 1936 exhibition catalogue is an oddity: it is a set of “OBEAH CARDS for forecasting race results”, available at three guineas, hand drawn, or five shillings printed. The word “Obeah” (a West African and Caribbean magic) is seemingly used here just to mean supernatural, but it wasn’t long before these cards were re-christened into one of his most peculiar works, his “Surrealist Racing Forecast Cards”.

The cards were numbered from 25 to 50 and each one bore an identical face drawn in Spare’s ‘automatic’ style of looping or flame-like calligraphy, including a wing, a subsidiary face and a couple of animaloid heads. They came in a small brown manila envelope stamped ‘SURREALIST Racing Forecast Cards: Read instructions carefully.’ These instructions had a further instruction within, marked “After memorising the portion in pencil please obliterate.” No copies of this portion seem to survive, if it was ever there.

The use of the cards is obscure, although they may be related to Spare’s earlier Arena of Anon, the divinatory card system advertised at the back of The Focus of Life (Arena, in the days of hand-written copy for printers, is very possibly a misprint or misunderstanding of Arcana). It is likely that Spare saw the cards themselves as entities or familiars. Dennis Bardens helped him to sell them with a charmingly reasonable small advert in the Exchange and Mart, and according to Bardens they were “a roaring success”.

gamblingcardsSpare’s Surrealist Racing Forecast Cards are an artwork based on gambling; a rare combination. In that sense their only real comparison in the art history canon – conceptual, slightly jokey, but supposedly practical – has to be Marcel Duchamp’s roulette system. In the early 1920s Duchamp became interested in “the secret truth of numbers”, culminating in a plan for a roulette system where “one neither wins nor loses”. In 1924 he launched a bond for investors in his roulette scheme; the celebrated Monte Carlo Bond. Thirty of these were issued at five hundred francs apiece, and promised investors an annual dividend of twenty percent. Each bond featured a photograph of Duchamp against a roulette wheel, with his soapy hair pulled up to make two horns on his head, to represent Hermes, and they were signed by Duchamp and his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. The roulette system failed, but the bonds have nevertheless proved to be a very sound investment.

Spare may never have heard of Marcel Duchamp, but in the end they were both gamblers in the same lottery, the lottery of artistic posterity. In the words of Duchamp,

Artists throughout history are like the gamblers of Monte Carlo, and this blind lottery allows some to succeed and ruins others. In my opinion, neither the winners nor the losers are worth worrying about. Everything happens through pure luck. Posterity is a real bitch who cheats some, reinstates others (El Greco) and reserves the right to change her mind every fifty years.

Fate dealt Spare a wild card for posterity around 1936, when Adolf Hitler apparently contacted him to ask for a portrait. It seems a member of the German Embassy staff bought a portrait by Spare and sent it to Hitler as a present. Hitler was sufficiently impressed, so the story goes, to offer to fly Spare to Berlin to paint his portrait, but Spare refused. In response to Hitler’s request he wrote “Only from negations can I wholesomely conceive you. For I know of no courage sufficient to stomach your aspirations and ultimates. If you are superman let me be forever animal.” It is far from clear if this reply was ever sent, or even composed before the War.

This story has been told a number of times and the details vary, but there does seem to be something behind it. The picture the Embassy man bought was either a portrait, a self-portrait of Spare, or a self-portrait of Spare “as” Hitler, merging their features: “a marvellous dual likeness in one face.” Spare did have a small moustache at the time. Whatever the original picture was, Spare did do a later portrait of himself looking like Hitler, with his “reply” written on the picture, and it was at one time owned by Hannen Swaffer.

Wary, resolute and defiant, Spare’s self portrait has a neurotic, ‘put upon’ look about the eyes that chimes with Hitler himself, at least in Orwell’s unexpected description of him with his “pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under innumerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ Crucified.”

Spare also attempted to photograph himself naked as Christ on the cross, or so he told a friend: “He set up the camera and flood lights and jumped into position, but the magnesium exploded in his face and singed off his eyebrows.” Perhaps it did. But whether Spare depicted himself as Hitler and Christ, or simply as Hitler, this kind of posing as others is almost without parallel at the time, oddly anticipating the work of the American artist Cindy Sherman; a definite winner in the art lottery.

A new friend arrived on the scene in 1937. Aged twenty-one and a native of Brixton, Frank Letchford was a draper’s clerk with an interest in art; he had already been putting together scrapbooks on Picasso. Modern art was related to Letchford’s larger passion for the exotic, which (in a rather English way, perhaps) he tended to follow in a mild, vicarious fashion through books and cigarette cards.

On 13th October 1937 Letchford read a piece in the Daily Herald by the once celebrated journalist HV Morton, entitled ‘H.V. MORTON FINDS A GENIUS!’ The genius was none other than Spare, “Alley artist who prefers painting to money”, and he was quoted saying “I don’t like food, I don’t want a motor car, I don’t want a house or what people call pleasure.”

Letchford was intrigued and he plucked up his courage to visit the genius, going down to the Elephant and Castle and looking for the alley. There was a pub called the Elephant, a railway bridge, and a Woolworth’s (“Nothing over Sixpence”):

The approach to the doorway lay up a cul-de-sac leading to a Woolworth’s loading bay. Pinned to the door lintel was a piece of fluttering paper with the curt command ‘Exhibition, Upstairs, turn left’… I knocked, and down the stairs tumbled an unkempt figure dressed in a crumpled suit and muffler. Austin gazed at me quizzically, turned away and belted upstairs again, two steps at a time.

Spare waved Letchford into the only piece of furniture, a horsehair armchair, and began to hold forth: “every aspect of philosophy, psychology, art, literature, architecture, sculpture, music, the occult and the shocking price of meat.” Spare told him about tapping into animal ancestry through “atavism”, explained the correct way to use French polish, and mentioned that he had met his old headmaster from Kennington Church School, who had become an alcoholic tramp.

He also told Letchford about the local underworld, including the Elephant Gang, who had recently pulled off a jewellery raid in Bond Street, and about boys he had been at school with who were now “smash-and-grab raiders, coppers narks, bookies runners, old clothes dealers, etc.” Letchford was fascinated, and in due course he would become probably Spare’s most loyal friend and our most reliable witness to his life, setting himself up as Boswell to the man he remembered as “wonderful old Austin.”

Or “wonderful old Aw-stin”, which was how Letchford and many of the other people in this book, including Spare himself, pronounced his name, rather than “Ostin”. This erroneous-sounding pronunciation should be heard less as an error and more as part of the London speech of the time, like the consistent pronunciations of “vayz” for vase, “inter-rest-in” with the stress on the third syllable, and “kayf ” for café.

Germany may have approached Spare in 1936, but around 1938 and

1939 Spare revisited the story. This time he had flown to Germany, he had painted Hitler’s portrait, and now – having somehow brought it back with him – he was going to incorporate it into an anti-Nazi artwork, perhaps even a magical one, or a work of surrealistic propaganda. ‘Hitler Posed For Anti-Nazi Poster’ said the headline in the South London Observer, a story also run by the Daily Mirror with the more circumspect addition “… claims Austin Osman Spare.”

Spare told Letchford that he had been naive until 1936, by which he seems to have meant that it was only then that he had really learned the value of publicity, and the need to promote himself as a character. Certainly his 1936, 1937 and 1938 shows at Walworth Road were all successful, helped along by catalogue essays from friends, and newspaper reports noted the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys parked among the costermongers’ barrows.

Spare had meanwhile opened the Austin Spare School of Draughtsmanship in his studio (where he was, by all accounts, a highly effective and sympathetic teacher of basic skills) and was sometimes said to have a number of ‘top people’ among his pupils; a story he may have started himself.

The surrealism angle was also revived in 1938, coinciding with the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. Organised by Duchamp and featuring Salvador Dalí’s Rainy Taxi, which included a blonde mannikin crawling with live snails, it was widely mentioned in the British press. Cub reporter Hubert Nicholson was looking for a human interest feature and called on a “poet in Golders Green” (possibly Victor Neuburg) who was ill in bed. His wife, however, suggested Spare: “He’s a story,” she said, “Look at this book”

…and she showed me a book of fantastic automatic and unconscious drawings – all done before the last war.

It was a pre-surrealism; and when I learned that the artist would have nothing to do with Bond Street, but lived in Walworth Road near the Elephant and Castle, I began to see a daily-newspaper story in it. The inventor of surrealism, a Cockney, living among the fruit-barrows of the Walworth Road! There was a surrealist exhibition in Paris just then and it had had sensational publicity.

There was just one thing, she said:

“Don’t try to bait him with the idea that the publicity will do him good or anything of that sort; otherwise he’ll shut up like an oyster. Appeal to him to help you and there’s nothing he won’t do.”

Around midnight Nicholson and a friend found the alley, and banged on a door which had crowbar marks around the lock. Spare appeared, holding a lamp, and led them up several unlit staircases “into his great bare echoing rooms, which were evidently galleries as well as studios. We sat in a small circle of lamplight.”

It was midnight, and I was a stranger, but this rugged solitary artist opened up his mind to me, showed me every picture he had, told me his methods of work and the history of his development. Long before the Freudian fashion, he had based himself on the assumption that the subconscious mind and its emotional sources were the main fountains of art…

He talked very eloquently about this, and a lot of other astonishing things as well…

And how when he had a show of some hundreds of pictures, all cheapish, in these same rooms, every year, he sold out – mostly to dealers, who believed there would be posthumous fame for him (he was tickled by this grim gambling of theirs).

Spare told Nicholson that John Singer Sargent had called him a genius in his youth, but now, writes Nicholson, “his woolly hair was greying and he goggled through glasses and he had never become a big celebrity; but he seemed to have philosophic satisfactions of his own.” Nicholson had his story, which duly appeared under the memorable headline “Father of Surrealism – He’s a Cockney!” It was not a new idea – Blakeston and others had been there in 1936 – and as we have seen, Spare’s apparent resemblance to surrealism had roots of its own, chiefly in occultism and spiritualism.

Having said that, these same roots were also under surrealism; late surrealism converged with occultism, but early surrealism was already entwined with it, as in Breton’s essay ‘Enter the Mediums’ in 1922, Aragon’s ‘Enter the Succubi’ in 1925, and Breton’s ‘The Automatic Message’ (again about mediumism, and featuring Myers and Flournoy) in 1933. Surrealism, said Breton, took over “what remained of mediumistic communication once we had freed it from the insane metaphysical implications it had once entailed.”

Spare, similarly, had a largely ‘psychological’ and internal approach to spirits and mediumism, describing the passivity of the medium as the “opening out of the Ego to (what is called) any external influence” [my emphasis] and using psychological jargon in his piece on Automatic Drawing, leading up to his own credo that “Genius is obsession.” His automatic drawing was also in harmony with surrealistic automatism. Whereas a good deal of spiritualistic automatism involved fantastically laborious elaboration, suggestive of someone’s tongue sticking out with concentration (like the work of East London spiritualist Madge Gill (1882-1961), built up from closely patterned geometric detail in the manner of outsider art) Spare’s automatism is whipped up from the same kind of rapid and flowing line that Breton writes about (“What is Art Nouveau if not an attempt to generalise and adapt mediumistic drawing…?”)

Even Oswell Blakeston’s excitable description of The Book of SelfLove [sic] as “the first text-book on how to be a surrealist and why” can be related to Breton on surrealism and what Breton says “following Bleuler, has been called autism (egocentricity).” Breton elaborates by saying that surrealism is ultimately interested (like Spare in his Death Posture) only in “the conversion of the being into a jewel, internal and unseeing, with a soul which is neither of ice nor of fire.”

So despite Spare’s main artistic affiliation – as an eccentric English Symbolist – he did anticipate surrealism in several respects, and an initially naive-sounding comparison like the Nicholson headline “Father of Surrealism – He’s a Cockney!” can be made more plausibly. Perhaps there was something in it after all.

Around 1934 Spare had launched another line in his output, with ‘straight’ portraits and character studies of local South Londoners; “spivs, higglers, tapsters, billiard-cue markers and taxi drivers” as HV Morton described them, in their flat caps and trilbies. Morton admired a nude of Spare’s old charlady, the mother of five rickety children, and other models included female shop assistants from the Woolworth’s below, where Spare also found pastel crayons. Spare’s models were often elderly; he told Frank Letchford that all his old women were over seventy, and Letchford remembered “These remarkably lively ladies would creep shyly upstairs during the course of his exhibitions to gaze with glee at themselves and their cronies lining the walls.”

Spare felt an admiration and sympathy for these women, and he remembered a washerwoman who used to walk from London Bridge to St. George’s Road and back again, about four miles in all, with a quarter hundredweight of washing on her back. Pointing out a picture of a woman aged ninety-three, he said “They patiently put up with all kinds of worry, overwork and illness, but they live long because they are wanted”; if only as “charwomen and cleaners.” He was also aware of the large number of elderly women living alone, and the fact that when they died, “surrounded by years of accumulated rubbish”, (in Letchford’s paraphrase) “the police had the odious task of digging them out of their hovels.”

Spare planned a series of old-time London newspaper sellers, already thought to be “fast disappearing”, and tramps were always welcome, like his old headmaster. Spare liked old-style tramps, and in 1939 he told Letchford that he had thought of opening a hostel for them, little knowing he would one day be in such a hostel himself.

The germ of all Spare’s Cockney portraits was already there in his youth, at the time of his 1904 interviews. “I look about for character,” he told a journalist. “That picture on the wall is the picture of a costermonger whom I came across in the streets.”

People looked different then; not just more heavily and formally dressed, but often older for their ages, and with more of that elusive thing called ‘character’ (anyone who doubts this should watch the 1964 documentary with James Mason, The London Nobody Knows, after Geoffrey Fletcher’s book, filled with a dying breed of poor Londoners who seem to be only just surviving from Spare portraits). As one of Spare’s most informed champions has written:

his compassion for the difficult lives of those who surrounded him revealed the pathos and stoicism of the British working class. His body of portraiture of ‘local types’ between 1934 and 1955 must rank as one of the most important social documents of London life on the cusp of a period of enormous change.

It was these Cockneys, more than almost any other group, who were to be swept away by the Second World War and its aftermath.

Spare and Letchford had now become great friends, and they would often go for evening walks visiting pubs in the City and Bankside districts, around Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges. Like much of London, these areas were still illuminated by gas-lamps, lit by a man who would come walking round with a long pole. They visited largely vanished pubs including the Tabard, the Cock, the Skinner’s Arms, the Hole in the Wall, the Giraffe, the World’s End, the Men of the World, the World Turned Upside Down, and the White Horse, and Spare also liked the galleried coaching inn The George on Borough High Street. At one stage he dreamed of building a house at Bankside, on a derelict patch by Cardinal Cap Alley, looking across to St. Paul’s.

The possibility of conflict with Germany was on everyone’s mind. WH Auden was sure there would be no war, having been told as much by a fortune teller, and Osbert Sitwell remembered the reassurance given out at a spiritualist séance: “I see white doves,” said the medium, “fluttering over Europe, ’undreds and ’undreds of ’em.” Spare was under no such illusions. He suddenly stopped walking as he and Letchford were going down Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London had begun, and he seemed lost in thought for a few moments. “Well, Frank,” he said at last, “wars come and go, but Art lives on for ever.”

Excerpted from Austin Osman Spare: The Occult Life of London’s Legendary Artist by Mike Jay, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2011, 2014 by Phil Baker. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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