From Decadent Aesthete to Magus…

A Note of Comparison between 

Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898) 

and the Early Work of 

Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956)


Aubrey Beardsley was a definite influence in the Early Work of Austin Osman Spare. Like the former, Spare had a great gift for communicating his creative ideas through line, and, like Beardsley, he was developing into a superb draughtsman. (In a similar fashion, after an initial phase of working with themes borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley had found his own individual stride.)

As well as the influence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the style and idiom of Japanese woodcuts, seen in Paris – flowing line and flat colour – suited Beardsley, even though he worked almost exclusively in black and white. And some of the mood of alienation and strangeness which Japanese art undoubtedly conveyed to the Western eye suited the temperament of both artists, who both felt, to varying degrees, outsiders in their culture.

Here are a pair of self-portraits by the artists when young:

young Spare


And here a pair of photographs of the young artists:


Spare looks a picture of vigour and rude health. In the words of Herbert Budd, a teacher at Martin’s School of Art, he was: “a god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed…”

Beardsley in contrast, is gaunt, painfully thin and sickly, more ‘eccentrically’ interesting-looking (in an angular and very English way) – and in his self portrait more than his photograph, already marked by the tuberculosis that would kill him, age just 25.

AB - Salome, Head

Aubrey Beardsley: Salome with the head of John the Baptist

AB - The Peacock Skirt

Aubrey Beardsley: The Peacock Skirt



Austin Osman Spare: Witches 


AOS-Sacred and Profane

Austin Osman Spare: Sacred and Profane

Decadence is very evident in the Aesthete Beardsley’s world and in his art he explored and pursued its pictorial language and grotesque, often erotic imagery drawn from mythology and his own often perverse imagination to the utmost.  And this is where you approach the dividing line between Aubrey Beardsley and Austin Spare.

A year before his death Beardsley, Aesthete, Decadent Symbolist, converted to Roman Catholicism and asked his publisher Leonard Smithers to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings.”

Smithers ignored his wishes, a stroke of luck you might say. Beardsley, partly tormented by ill-health and in spite of the great daring of his creative imagination, also the aesthetic-decadent milieu in which he lived and even thrived as an artist, still worked within a Christian mindset – however much subverted by then. Did he fear for his own soul? Did that still mean something? Or did the notion of ‘Mother Church’ in the shape of Mary, provide some kind of apotropaion against a distinctly darkening world and the horror of approaching death? He might (and probably did) hear of the Golden Dawn and other pagan revivals – he was certainly aware of a breakdown in morality (in himself, among others) – and caught the sound of ‘diabolical’ whispers around him… but he was unarmed by the energy and health the young Austin Spare had at his disposal, at least for a while, as well as magical knowledge, perhaps, and other qualities and resources.

An example of his increasing awareness, visually, can be seen here – even though the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Of a Neophyte...

Aubrey Beardsley: Of a Neophyte and how the Black Art was revealed to him by the fiend Asomuel (illustration for the Pall Mall Magazine, June 1993)

Austin Spare suffered from no such restrictions, fears or limitations. In Herbert Budd’s description of the young Spare, he also says that he “practised the black arts”, took drugs and kept himself “disdainfully apart from the crowd.” A portrayal of a young sorcerer in the making?!

In Spare’s Figure in Japanese Robes, clearly a self portrait, he borrows – as the title indicates – a feature from the Japanese woodcut idiom. But another part of the title reads: River Styx. Styx was the boundary between Earth and the Underworld – hence “stygian”, meaning dismal, murky.

Spare understood that against the dark, raging torrent that flows for all Eternity, leaving nothing unaltered, and which ceaselessly creates a past that can never be retrieved, a powerful Art and Magic was needed, if he did not want to be swallowed up. He also realized it was an incredibly rich vein to tap into. He was doing his spells, his own sex-magic, and plucking up courage. And he would cross…


Austin Osman Spare: Figure in Japanese Robes

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One Response to From Decadent Aesthete to Magus…

  1. aubrey says:

    I think in one of his letters Beardsley mentioned his attraction to the Catholic church and it seemed that in all honesty it was an artistic one. The lushness of the churches and traditions appealed to his luxurious soul.

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