The Valley of Fear, out on 20th March, compiles illustrations by a forgotten ‘great Londoner’: Austin Osman Spare.
If you’ve never heard of him, don’t worry—most people haven’t. And yet, to a small band of collectors he’s one of the jewels in the capital’s treasure house.
This little-known hero, who in his early life was fêted by the critics and gallery owners of the West End, used the method of automatic drawing 20 years before Salvador Dali and refused a request to paint Hitler’s portrait. A ‘realist’ (although it may stretch the definition a bit), who was admired for his fine line and technical ability.
However what captured everyone’s attention, fascinated some and repelled others, was the content—a daemonic vision of weird and eldritch landscapes populated by equally bizarre figures, some human, some animal some both. His work portrayed a dark sexuality with a highly seductive primal charge.
Born in 1886, within baying distance of Smithfield’s market, and later moving to Kennington, the young Austin was employed designing stained glass windows. When only 14, one of his drawings was selected by the RA for exhibition. The critics pursued him and the machinery of the art world, which sought to force its norms upon him, triggered a deep repugnance in the fledgling artist.
He fled south of the river again, like that other visionary William Blake with whom he was to be compared, to preserve the authenticity of his deeply idiosyncratic work. Moving between Lambeth and Southwark he died in a basement tenement just off Brixton Hill in 1956.
But Austin Spare was no morbid melancholic. Those who knew him describe a down to earth compassionate man with great vitality and humour. He worked like a ‘man possessed’ turning out a huge body of work, some quite literally on the back of cigarette packets.
“It’s likely Spare borrowed the title `The Valley of Fear’ from the Sherlock Holmes short story of the same name, first published in 1914. Our artist seems to have employed it as a metaphor for personal crisis.” says Robert Ansell, Director of Fulgur.
“Remember too he was completely out of step with the art world by 1924, because after WWI public taste had shifted towards more optimistic styles and subjects. He must have felt very isolated—a faded star if you like.”
Much of Spare’s work is divorced from the world around him; unashamedly so. His interior world was an overpopulated metropolis without any apparent end, self-sufficient. As Michael Staley, a collector of many years put it
"Spare's art has great beauty and diversity. More than that, though, it carries a powerful charge, adumbrating the perpetual transformation of form which springs from the dynamic heart of existence—what Spare termed the Besz-Mass."
In a world which extols style over content and deifies the superficial perhaps this is why Austin Osman Spare is becoming a focus of increasing interest.
“Darken your room, shut the door, empty your mind. You are still in great company.”
The Valley of Fear is published by Fulgur Press
By Jamie Gregory.