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What I discovered in a Fitzrovia pub after I won the EuroLottery…

I won the EuroLottery two days ago.

The prize was £2.90.

Winning the Lottery is relevant to something that happened last night.

The famous Austin Osman Spare in 1904

I had never heard of Austin Osman Spare until last night. He is one of those boy geniuses who had a wonderful future behind him.

Is it better to be famous when you are young, then drift into obscurity? Or to be unknown, get acknowledged late in life and then die famous?

Born in 1886, Austin Osman Spare was, by 1904, being called a “boy genius”, allegedly the youngest ever artist exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. He was, says his new biographer Phil Baker, “hit by fame and then hit by obscurity”.

In 1908, the Art Journal wrote: “Can there be anyone in London interested in Art who has not heard of Austin Osman Spare?”

“This,” said Phil Baker last night,”becomes ironic as the century continues, when you’d really be very hard-pressed to find anyone who had heard of him.”

Phil Baker’s 2011 biography of Spare

Phil said this last night during a Sohemian Society meeting in the upstairs room of the Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia – a pub where Austin Osman Spare regularly drank, 1950-1955, forgotten by the art world.

He died in obscurity in 1956, though he merited an obituary in The Times which said that “for most of his life he did not mix in what are called ‘artistic circles’. Not Chelsea, Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury or Hampstead claimed him, but for years a little flat ‘in the south suburbs by the Elephant’ far removed from the coteries, deep-set in the ordinary life of the people.”

He was a draughtsman, painter, surrealist and occultist.

Spare’s drawing “Ascension of the Ego from Ecstasy to Ecstasy” (1913)

In the 1930s, impoverished, Spare was selling ‘Surrealist Horse Racing Forecast Cards’ for five shillings via a small ad in the Exchange and Mart paper.

“The reason he hit on this in 1936,” explained Phil Baker last night, “was because Britain had just had a big Surrealist exhibition. When he first started doing these cards, they were called Obeah cards – Obeah being a kind of African magic.

They were kind of like Voodoo cards. They are an artwork based on gambling, which is quite a rare combination and the only similar thing I can think of is Marcel Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond in 1924.

“Marcel Duchamp came up with a roulette system and said that, in future, he was going to draw or sketch on chance. So his roulette system was going to be his artwork. And it’s oddly fitting for Spare, I think, because of Duchamp’s remarks on the Lottery of Posterity.

“Duchamp said that all artists are actually gamblers – Artists throughout history are like the gamblers of Monte Carlo and this blind lottery allows some to succeed and ruins others. Posterity is a real bitch. It cheats some, re-instates others and reserves the right to change her mind every fifty years.

Spare’s “Portrait of the Artist” (1907) – now owned by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page

“Spare’s career had another peculiar turn around this time, when Adolf Hitler tried to commission a portrait from him. Spare refused and briefly became a hero in the local papers. I think maybe there was an approach made to him by someone at the German Embassy who had seen a picture of Spare looking a bit like Hitler because, for a time, he had a ‘Charlie Chaplin’ moustache a bit like Hitler’s. Spare later did create a picture merging his own features with Hitler’s which, in art historical terms, was unusual at the time.

“He also supposedly photographed himself as Christ on the Cross. If he really did do that, then the photos don’t survive. But this is a very odd art practice for someone in that period.”

There is also an artwork in which Spare seems to have drawn himself as a woman; the picture was later owned by author E.M.Forster.

“Art historically,” said Phil Baker last night, “this is completely unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. This idea of an artist doing himself as other people waits for… I think Cindy Sherman is the person who’s really made it famous more recently.

“And there’s a Japanese artist called Yasumasa Morimura who’s done himself as a Pre-Raphaelite woman and as Hitler and as Chairman Mao.

“This alone, you would think, might give Austin Osman Spare a bigger place in Art history. Instead, he’s completely vanished. He’s chiefly remembered as an occultist, which begins by him being seduced by an elderly witch in Kennington when he was a child.”

But that’s another story about an interesting man.

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Filed under Art, Culture, Fate, Occult, Surreal