Born in 1886 in Smithfield, Spare’s precocious talent for drawing was noticed at an early age by his policeman father. The boy was unusually good and his father encouraged him.
In 1894, the family moved south of the river to Kennington Park Gardens. After leaving school, aged 13, Spare enrolled in evening classes at Lambeth School of Art where he began to win awards in recognition of his talent. At the same time, he started an apprenticeship at Whitefriars Glass before moving on to Caustons printers in Clapham, and it wouldn’t be long before he began his career as an illustrator and artist in his own right.
In 1904, aged just 17, he got his first big break with an exhibition at the Newington Public Library on Walworth Road. This was quickly followed by a second when his proud father sent two of his works to the Royal Academy. They accepted one of the pieces and Austin became the Academy’s youngest ever exhibitor.
This could have been his passport to artistic fame and success. The newspapers loved the idea of this unusual youth and hailed him as a young genius. Spare himself appears to have cultivated a suitable public persona to match and a wild haired ‘artistic’ appearance. Whether this was intentional or not, he began a long career of courting the press and was always able to supply journalists with a good quote, even in his darker days. But Spare claimed to reject the conventional art world and was already exploring the fantastical fringes of his imagination.
His best ‘conventional’ talent was as a figurative artist and draughtsman. His surviving portraits, especially those done during his time as a war artist during the First World War, are finely done and often moving.
However, he much preferred to follow what he saw as the road-less-travelled. He developed his own coded language, signs and symbols based on the ancient mystical world, paganism, death cults and magic. His abstract, dream-like style was full of hidden meaning and he explored ‘automatic drawing’ whereby he created his work in a trance-like state. His art mapped a journey through his own mind and internal landscape long before it became an acceptable part of being an artist.
His abstract, dream-like style was full of hidden meaning
Unsurprisingly, his work wasn’t to everyone’s taste and he refused to pander to the ordinary art-buying market. As a consequence, Spare began to lose his fame almost as fast as he’d found it.
Undeterred by his increasing obscurity, he started to throw his energy into putting on his own exhibitions and publishing self-illustrated books, mixing art, myth and philosophy based on his vision (and visions). He became acquainted with the occultist, Aleister Crowley, but eventually rejected both the man and his ideas to pursue his own, unique Spare view of the world.
In 1936, after years of moving around South London, he settled at 56a Walworth Road; creating a studio above the loading bay of Woolworths. He drew portraits of his neighbours and also taught many of them art in his evening drawing classes at the studio. His local portraits remain some of his most fresh and engaging work. He hung his art in pubs such as the Temple Bar on Walworth Road and believed that art should be available to people cheaply.
The studio suffered a direct hit during the Blitz of 1941. Spare was injured, which led to temporary paralysis of his hands. But his mind also suffered a blow. He became depressed and, having lost his home and studio and seen his neighbourhood flattened by bombs, he hit a low point. After a period of desperation he got a basement room in Brixton and, although battered and penniless, he put on a stoic face and began to work again. His visitors all reported that he remained a charismatic man, with real presence, charm, humour and self-assurance – something he’d only lost temporarily, during the war.
Curious art world contacts began to venture to the run-down area he now called home, to encourage him to publish and exhibit once more. In 1953 he was getting ready for his new show at the White Bear in Kennington and things were looking up. However, due to a mix up over publicity, it flopped. He was disappointed and started to give interviews wherever he could to drum up business, including for BBC radio in 1955. His talk of magic proved controversial and complaints poured in from the listeners. This new notoriety might have revived his fortunes but in May 1956 Spare died after a burst appendix and other ailments had taken their toll.
His art has rarely been exhibited since, yet he is widely collected and his work retains a somewhat underground appeal, fuelled by the interest of famous rock stars, performers and artists.
The Atlantis bookshop (near the British Museum) occasionally shows his work and the Morley Gallery has also put on exhibitions. In 2010, Southwark’s Cuming Museum used a number of pieces from its own collection as the basis for a show. The art curator at the time, Chris Jordan, assisted by guest curator, Stephen Pochin and the Cuming team, designed the exhibition, featuring 80 works mostly from private collectors. With television coverage presented by graphic novelist, Alan Moore it went on to become the museum’s most popular show to date.
Now the council has created a new street, named in his honour, from a series of refurbished railway arches. Spare Street is the new permanent home of local arts organisation Hotel Elephant. He would have approved – both of the practicality and of the fact that his name would echo around his beloved Elephant and Castle once more.