Until a few years ago, the name of Austin Osman Spare was so thoroughly forgotten that all but the most well-informed students of English art would look blank at the mention of his name, or accuse one of having made him up. But times have changed, and in the last decade or so, Spare has become a name to conjure with. (Quite literally, since much of the Spare revival has been led by practitioners of the occult.) The private view of a Spare retrospective in the West End a few years ago spilled out onto the streets, attracting a motley crowd of connoisseurs, rock musicians and dabblers in the Mysteries; and, thanks to a feature on the BBC’s Culture Show, a similar show in south London last year was even more of a crowd-puller. The time is over-ripe for a proper biography of this curious figure, and it is a pleasure to report that Phil Baker’s study is a first-rate performance, scrupulously researched, judicious and refreshingly sane.
At one point, Baker notes that the life of a poor, solitary man such as Spare presents a challenge for any biographer, since it is much richer in adventures of the mind than the body. A fair point, though Spare’s life was hardly lacking in incident; he told