In 1907, the artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare published his second volume of illustrations, A Book of Satyrs—or rather satires. Spare believed the word “satire” was derived from the Greek “satyr” as this was how “satire” had been once written in English hence his use of the word. As his biographer Phil Baker noted:
Spare liked the old spelling because the word evoked the goat-legged animal men, suggestive of lust, who pranced their way through the work of Beardsley and the 1890’s in general, overlapping with the era’s neo-pagan cult of Pan.
Spare was the teenage wunderkind whose work had been prominently exhibited in the British Section of the St. Louis Exposition and at the Paris International Exhibition in 1903. This led to some critics hailing Spare as “a genius” and describing him as the major hope for British art. A Book of Satyrs consisted of a series of “satirical pictures”—“The Church,” “Existence,” “Quakery,” “Intemperance,” “Fashion,” “The Connoisseur,” “Politics,” “The Beauty Doctor,” and “Officialism,”—framed by three other drawings—“Introduction,” “Advertisement and the Stock Size,” and “General Allegory.” The book allowed Spare to showcase his talent as he broke away from the influence of artists like Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Ricketts, and George Frederic Watts to forge his very own distinctive style of illustration. As Baker also notes:
Spare’s career was dogged by comparisons to Beardsley, and some of his earlier black and white work does have a Beardsleyish air, but the drawings of A Book of Satyrs is very different: Beardsley’s pictures are relatively easy to copy, because the genius has already gone into simplified design, whereas copying the obsessional penwork in A Book of Satyrs would be so much work as hardly worth the trouble.
The drawings were a critique of Victorian/Edwardian values—where money and power were all. The illustrations also marked Spare’s growing interest in spiritualism and the occult as writer Paul Newman notes:
Spare’s existence was a claustrophobic tunnel of self-exploration. And he did not think of the satyrs and spirits he drew as fantasies but as records of those he encountered in his daily life. “These beings,” a critic wrote, “live…in their horned horror in the drab streets south of London Bridge. The ribaldry and coarse revelry of the slums is due to the influence of these beings of the Borderland, [Spare] believes.”
Not long after the publication of A Book of Satyrs, Spare had an exhibition of work at the Bruton Gallery, 13 Bruton Street in London’s West End. Here he met Aleister Crowley, who introduced himself as the “Viceregent of God upon Earth.” Crowley pronounced Spare as a kindred spirit who (like Crowley) was a “messenger fo the divine.” It was the start of a brief but intense relationship (most probably sexual) that led Spare further into the world of the occult. Yet, as his involvement with the occult grew, his success as an artist faltered.
Recently, a friend sent me a present of a limited edition set of Spare’s illustrations for A Book of Satyrs that was published as a series of thirteen postcards—including the illustration “Pleasure” from the second edition—which I thought I’d share with you. A copy of the whole book can be viewed here.
‘The Beauty Doctor.’
‘Advertisement and the Stock Size.’
Thanks to M. Jacob.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The occult art of Austin Osman Spare