Austin Osman Spare: Stealing the Fire from Heaven.
Edited and compiled by AR Naylor.
Published by I-H-O: Thame, Oxfordshire, UK. 2002. 237 pp Paperback. List Price £19.99UK $39.95US
The style of this book will be familiar to anyone who has seen the recent output by IHO: a sepiatone cover, implying antiquity, but using modern printing techniques and well-chosen fonts to produce an object that is a pleasure to view and reasonably affordable. Although 20 quid for a paperback is a bit painful (even more so for those in the USA, forty dollars, presumably plus some postage; ouch!).
Spare seems to be still in the throes of a somewhat leisurely but sustained period of high interest, from occultists, artists, musicians and liminal thinkers in general, and so this is one of many recent books to choose from. But what of the content? Some of that within the pages is certainly available elsewhere, either in other books, in Spare’s Arts magazines such as Form and the Golden Hind (the originals from 85-ish years ago being now much sought after- Ben Fernee’s Caduceus Books site has very occasional copies for sale or on the internet. So is the book worth buying?
If you are serious about Spare, then a resounding yes! Even if you have ¾ of the material from the internet already it will not be this beautifully printed, and this is important when dealing with AOS’s drawings; a lot of the internet material is scanned at a low-ish resolution, and it is really only from seeing a good print, or lovingly ogling an original, that via the detail one can appreciate the genius of the man as an artist. The drawings SING.
Naylor’s work is far from a whitewashed and adoring hymn to AOS though. The main section of original text describes some intensive detective work he has done, the relative brevity of which in the book belies the professional and intensive level of research required to reach his conclusions: which are: Spare was a bit of a cheat, basically. It seems hard to deny the weight and variety of compelling evidence presented, that AOS was an enthusiastic recycler of his drawings for whoever wanted to pay for them (and I have seen evidence of this elsewhere; drawings used in a magazine which were then passed off as original commissioned art for another book of poems). Naylor has also found that Spare used a variety of pseudonyms in his publications, and under several of them he produced artworks, especially illuminated letters, which were simply stolen from mediaeval woodcuts. He also had some of his first-world war pictures banned by the authorities, not for any controversial depictions, but simply because the medical scenes he was commissioned to recreate were so inaccurate as to be nonsensical. Naylor speculates that this plagiarism, his possible pro-German (or at least not pro-British) leanings, inaccuracy and a general reputation for lying may have been the true-er reasons for his reversion to life as an artistic recluse; for which he has been praised among occult circles for his seemingly almost Buddhist non-attachment to wealth and fame, it may be more likely that no-one else in the arts field could risk their own reputations in working with him. I have read (elsewhere in privately-held letters) that he was also notoriously unreliable in turning up at all for any kind of meeting if there were any pubs in the A-B line between his home and the proposed meeting place (which was itself usually a pub).
It’s not all bleak though, or a Picasso/El Mir situation- It doesn’t mean that if you think you own an AOS original drawing or painting you need to get it checked out. The fraud and plagiarism alleged here is only related to printed works, not his individual artistry. What is rather touching amidst this gloom, and interesting too, regards two drawings by AOS which seem to be appreciative caricatures of his mother and father, as Leonine and really quite cuddly creatures. The artist is credited as Phillip Newton, a pseudonym of AOS, since his father was Phillip Newton Spare. And regardless of these negative probabilities presented herein, AOS’s work with sigils (especially) is in large part responsible for giving birth to Chaos magick; it would be somehow fitting if the whole edifice were built on fakery- very post-Modern! But it still works…… heh, heh…..
Naylor gives many pages of excellent pictures, including those which were NOT by Spare but claimed as his (or by one of his pseudonyms), and towards the end are reproductions of the short book/pamphlet ‘Automatic Drawing’, by Spare and Carter, The Grotesque’ by Edmund Sullivan (in places a very Lovecraftian piece of written imagery, incidentally), some lovely poems by Yeats and ‘12 poems’ by JC Squire, (all illustrated by Spare).
So; it’s “another book on Spare” - and there’s a biography due out soon, and there are of course many other books, especially Chaos-related ones, which have something or other by or about the man in them, not forgetting that he figures heavily in most of the immense output of Kenneth Grant (especially the weighty and encyclopaedic ‘Zos Speaks’). Naylor’s book is one of the better efforts, intelligently-written, prepared to be challenging rather than just hagiographic, beautifully-presented and a useful addition to the shelves of any real AOS-phile. And a good one for any students of typography, too.
NB/ The reviewer has not been paid or given any other inducements to review this book, which he purchased as a normal bookseller’s customer.
The book can be found at Amazon, or for those in the UK, especially, via Ben Fernee’s Caduceus Books or and while you’re there take a look at his online occult art gallery, the result of a lot of work, and well worth half an hour’s browsing.
In addition to selling selected new titles Ben also has an unrivalled and ever-changing selection of secondhand occult books for sale by mail order.