Austin Osman Spare was an artist, philosopher and occult magician. His interest in the occult was sparked at the age of seven when he was befriended by a mysterious old woman, Mrs Patterson, whom he referred to as his 'Witch-mother'. Patterson initiated Spare into witchcraft during a Sabbath meeting and gave him his craft name 'Zos'. Sabbaths were night gatherings for witches held on special occasions which took place in remote and quiet places such as forests or abandoned churches. More significantly in terms of his painting, Patterson taught Spare how to visualise and realise dream imagery.
Leaving school at thirteen, Spare served an apprenticeship in a stained glass factory in order to attend evening classes at the Lambeth School of Art. From here he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, Kensington. During his teenage years Spare's fascination with the occult steadily grew, heavily influencing his painting which was often produced in self-induced trances which he claimed were controlled by intrusive occult intelligences working through him. In 1904 Spare exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time and his picture generated a storm of publicity. Fellow artist John Singer Sargent is recorded as hailing Spare a genius. The following year Spare published his first book of drawings 'Earth Inferno' which included grotesque figures, some of which portrayed semi-human spirit forms.
The present drawing was executed the following year in 1906. Spare portrays himself, pinching his nose while shying away from the repellent odour of the multi-headed dragon or hydra beast which is writhing and clinging to his arm. The meaning is unclear, but the image is unsettling, unexplained and nightmarish.
In October 1907 Spare exhibited his black and white drawings at London's Bruton Gallery where this present drawing may well have been included. Spare's drawings resembled those of Aubrey Beardsley, but were full of grotesque, sexualised human figures and magical symbols. His controversial subject matter propelled him into the eye of London's avant-garde set and sparked the interest of the intellectual dandys of the time. It also brought Spare to the attention of Aleister Crowley whose sect 'Argentium Astrum', an occult society known as the 'Order of the Silver Star', he became a member of, albeit briefly.
In the late 1970s there was a revival of interest in Crowley and his practices, which lead to the formation of the 'Illuminates of Thanateros' and the practice of what is known as 'Chaos Magic'.
A self-portrait from 1937 by Austin Osman Spare is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.