The following is excerpted from Austin Osman Spare: The Occult Life of London’s Legendary Artist by Phil Baker, published by North Atlantic Books. It is the definitive biography of the controversial occultist and artist, an enfant terrible of the Edwardian art world whose work was both hailed as genius and decried as immoral decadence.
Among the people who read about Spare in the Leader, some time after the Archer show, was an attractive and recently married young woman named Steffi Grant. She was modelling for the artist Herbert Budd, a tutor at St. Martin’s School of Art, and she mentioned the ar- ticle. It turned out that Budd had been at the Royal College with Spare, and he remembered him: “a god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe,” he said, “a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd.” This description fascinated Steffi, more than the tramp-like figure surrounded by cats in the Leader, and she wrote to him care of the magazine.
In due course she arrived at Spare’s basement, one day in the spring of 1949, and was “literally speechless” when he opened the door. Here was an old man, decrepit and bent, wearing clothes he must have slept in, and she noticed there was a tremor to his hands. “D’you know,” said Steffi, “I imagined you to look like a Greek god!”
He smiled sweetly, without a trace of offence or irritation, passed his hand across his face in a gesture I later found to be very characteristic of him, and merely said “that was a long time ago…”
Spare showed her his work, stacked around the little basement, and she noticed it fell into groups. There were pastel portraits of local people; ‘sidereal’ distortions of faces; more formal masks, like old Mexican art (Spare was interested in pre-Columbian art, along with North Ameri- can Haida tribal art), some of them with odd magical lettering; and then there were strange astral landscapes, which she liked best of all, “lit by baleful moons and suns, and peopled by strange creatures.”
She bought a couple of pieces as birthday presents for her husband, Kenneth, who was almost twenty-five. He already knew something of Spare – he owned a copy of The Book of Pleasure – and he would soon know much more. Born in Warwick Gardens, Ilford, the son of a bank clerk, Kenneth Grant was a rather strange young man. He was ab- sorbed in occultism in general and the more esoteric side of Hinduism in particular, and he had joined the Army during the War, not long before the D-Day landings and the battle to re-take Europe, hoping to get a quiet posting to India so he could study yoga.
In the event, the Army decided they could dispense with his ser- vices. It would be unfair to speculate on why Grant left the Army, although he would have provided a challenging subject for the trick- cyclist, as psychiatrists were known in the Forces. Discharged from the Army, Kenneth took the audacious step of writing to the now elderly Aleister Crowley, whose Magick in Theory and Practice he had found on the Charing Cross Road at the age of fifteen. In due course he became apprenticed to Crowley as a student and all-round factotum (“Being wa- tery and Luna,” said Crowley, “the bulk of the help asked of you would be Washing Up, the perfect preliminary Lustration in your initiation…”).
Crowley was very keen that young Kenneth should come to stay with him at the boarding house where he lodged in Hastings, claim- ing it would be good for him to get away from the “foul London and Ilford atmosphere,” and for a while he did. Grant went on to become an authority on Crowley’s work, although some people in the field find his views unorthodox. Even more influential than the time spent as tea boy to the Beast, however, was Grant’s reading of visionary and pulp fiction by writers such as Arthur Machen, Sax Rohmer, and particu- larly HP Lovecraft: Grant developed an unusual and darkly mystical take on Lovecraft, which was that his tales of monstrously trans-aeonic and intergalactic entities, such as Cthulhu the squid god, were in fact essentially true, unknown to Lovecraft himself. These writers would eventually shape Grant’s own depiction of Spare.
Steffi took Kenneth to meet Spare, and they all got on like the prover- bial house on fire. Spare talked about the architecture of London and how it was being criminally destroyed by the London County Coun- cil, who were demolishing beautiful old buildings to make room for their ugly, soulless blocks of flats. Spare seems to have deferred to his new friends socially because, while he and Letchford drank tea out of chipped and tannin-stained old mugs, for Steffi and Ken he produced a special tea set of blue porcelain with a butterfly motif.
As well as appreciating “one of the greatest living draughtsmen” Ken and Steffi enjoyed Spare’s extravagant and far-fetched stories and his uneducated speech – Ken captured it in his diary, with Spare saying “’len o’clock” for eleven, and telling them he knew “all them symbols” – and generally found him to be a terrific character, if sometimes a bit
“mental”, as Grant puts it.
The three of them, often with other members of the Grants’ extended circle such as the alcoholic writer John Gawsworth, ‘King of Redonda’, would go out drinking regularly in pubs. Spare had no telephone, but with several deliveries of post every day, as there were in Forties London, they could make their arrangements for the evening by postcard.
Pubs often had pianists, and the ‘Harry Lime Theme,’ from the 1949 film The Third Man, was extremely popular, played over and over again: “it seemed the signature tune of Spare at that period,” says Steffi Grant, “and hearing it now fills me with nostalgia.”
Spare would sometimes come up into the West End – the Grants liked the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia, or the quieter Shelley’s and Old White Goat, both in Mayfair – or they would go South of the river to the pubs on his stamping ground around the Elephant and Cas- tle, including the Alfred’s Head, the Waggon and Horses, and the Elephant and Castle itself. Spare was a great drinker of ordinary beer, but his favourite drink, when he could get it, was Imperial Russian Stout.
As he got to know the Grants a new Spare emerged; Spare the ageing satyr. “She’s the dirtiest bitch I know,” Spare said of one of his models, the local grocer’s wife; “likes my work ‘cause she thinks it’s dirty.” It seemed many of Spare’s models were ‘goers,’ and ‘well up for it’; having said he’d like to “do her” nude, one of them misunderstood, “Suddenly stripped, threw herself on his sofa, opened her legs and got him on the job at once!!” A charlady, too, had sat on his couch and instantly lifted up her skirt, “expecting it.” Old women in general were a pretty lascivious bunch: women of eighty loved pornography, he said, and he’d met a woman of seventy-eight with a virgin’s body, “so tight that it was impossible to fuck her from the front”.
Like a lot of things, sex was better in the old days, according to Spare: “a wank used to be less than a penny and you could very often have a ‘bunk up’ for nothing”. He’d had a lot of experi- ence: before he was even sixteen he had been living with an older woman and made her pregnant; “it was due only to a fatally pre – mature birth that he avoided the consequences.” Then there was the Welsh maid; and the dwarf; and the hermaphrodite. He’d been married twice (and prosecuted for adultery by a millionaire hus- band, defended by the famous barrister Norman Birkett, and won) but apart from that he told them about the “hundreds of women he has ridden”.
Just occasionally, though – like his stories about fleeing from the unhygienic prostitutes – his tales had a sadder and more anxious qual- ity, including a dreamlike episode involving a blind girl who was in love with him:
A blind girl hunted for him everywhere – happened to men- tion him to man helping her across road; he knew Spare – and so they re-met, but he would have no love of the sort she sought. A tragic story…
Grant had asked Spare for a self-portrait of himself when young, and a couple of days later it arrived in the post: it came in the form of a picture of an erect penis, entitled “Self-portrait at 18 years” (the same piece of writing paper has a hideous drawing of a “bearded lady”; to all intents and purposes a Roman-looking man with a jutting forehead, broken nose, breasts and a vagina). Spare had recently been meditat- ing on his penis in a semi-lighted room, he said, for magical purposes, while he imagined a girl “tongueing it, like.”
Writing to them both, he mentioned an experiment he had once carried out on this penis of his. It was, he told them modestly, only a “large average” in size, but
…as pure magical experiment – I desired a really “grandiose one”. It happened in a very short time. It was such a ‘mighty organ’ that no woman I knew was large enough… rather de- feated itself! Simply could not get it in anyone – many famous old whores (for them large vents) at the Elephant remember. It took me over three days to find out how to reduce… And by the way, it takes three days to grow and I can have repro- duced this act whenever I so wish. Which proves not only psycho-somatic interaction as abstract but as concrete. [sic; Spare’s emphasis]
Spare also made a surprising discovery about Ovaltine: it was an aph- rodisiac. He discovered this, reports Grant, when he found it induced erotic or ‘“wet dreams’ in himself, even when at a low ebb of health.”
Spare might sometimes have spoken as if his sexual life was in the past, but it was still going strong, one way or another. “Many men seek vir- gins for pleasuring,” he wrote in his persona of Zos, “whereas I am oft content with an old bitch – sound practice if you have imagination.” If you had enough imagination you could dispense with the old bitch as well, and be content with “copulating the ether” as Spare put it.
One night in the Elephant and Castle pub they were served by (in Grant’s appraisal) a “fat, ugly barmaid”. Nothing in her demeanour sug- gested that she had recently asked Spare to give her a good seeing-to, right there on the pub stairs (but he declined: “he was in a hurry and he liked her ol’ man!!”). It may have been in the same pub that he told Ken and Steffi that he’d like to have Mary, the middle-aged barmaid there (possibly the same woman), saying “she’s got a nice fat arse.”
Along with sex, Spare’s interest in magic was undergoing a consid- erable renaissance under Steffi and Ken’s influence. He explained sigils to them (and “word-symbols”, like his Alphabet of Desire) and went into more detail in one of his writings from the period, the ‘Grimoire of Zos’. As an instance of “Desire for Pleasure,” for example (a request “to realize Ideal tactually”), he gave “I desire a large-bottomed woman for social [sic] congress”; first in word symbols, then as a sigil. As an instance of “Altruistic desire” he similarly gave both forms of “I wish for the death of Stalin.”
Another example, easier to understand by sight, was an instance of “Desire for unique experience”; in this case “I desire intercourse with a vampire” (pressed for more detail on this by Ken, Spare explained that by Vampire he meant a succubus).64 Using the Alphabet of Desire it could be symbolized thus:
With the encouragement and close co-operation of the Grants, Spare went on to produce a number of manuscripts including the ‘Logomachy of Zos’ and the ‘Zoetic Grimoire of Zos’. Kenneth had a lifelong fascination with the sinister, and some of Spare’s work from this post-war period is almost stereotypically black-magical in a way that wouldn’t be too far out of place in the writings of Dennis Wheatley. The ‘Doctrine and Credo’ from the Zoetic Grimoire, for example, runs
“Fornicatus benedictus! Almighty Ashmodeus, existent of Chaos, ominous be thy name, thy kingdom come through me on earth. Lead me into all temptations of my flesh so I may trespass greatly into thy ways by my desires: for thou art all sex-seeking unity, thou mighty genitalia of creation that knoweth no satiation—grant thou my wish, for thou art all power, ecstasy and actuality. Amen!”
A small talisman arabesque of the major erotic zones is passed around and kissed by all. Then follows a short perverse com- munion, then a symposium with suggestive exhibitionism, li- bidinous stories and abreaction of sexual fantasies—developing into the real thing.
This is unusually fluent for Spare, and may be in part the work of Kenneth Grant. Spare’s verbal style is more characteristically represented by a Christmas card he sent to Letchford: annotating a self-por- trait sketch “Arabesque of a ‘thing’ in thought thinking”, he provided a sigil and translated it “(Dilemma) (antilogism) (Triadic definition)”, further explaining “Whatever is asserted (i.e. derived) of anything as a whole is linear, tautologic evidence that it is partitative of an unpredict- able multiple untotality of the thing.”
 “I’ll just say this,” Spare wrote, “of course it’s possible to have relations with Vampires etc – I have. Proof is that after the event, you accept it just the same as any real event & simply could only swear either way it did happen.” In response to Grant’s suggestion that he might mean succubi he wrote “Of course I meant ‘Succubi’ – just my loose way of writing…! I’ll have something for you re ‘dream continuum’ later… It certainly may be magically induced”.