A rare work by controversial English artist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) has been discovered on the back of an unassuming watercolour. The hidden painting, which bears a secret portrait of the artist in the bottom left-hand corner, was found by the current owner, when he decided to reframe a watercolour that had hung on his wall for many years. It will now be offered at auction, in a sale of Antiques & Collectibles at Mellors & Kirk
auctioneers on 9th & 10th December, 2020, where it is estimated to fetch £2,000-£3,000.
Speaking about the discovery Nigel Kirk, of Mellors & Kirk, said: We are thrilled that a work by Spare has been discovered after all this time. Much of what Spare produced was disturbing, which probably is the reason why this particular work only came to light when the vendor decided to re-frame a watercolour by an amateur artist of little merit (and no connection to Spare) that they had bought years before. We are delighted to offer it for auction, where it can hopefully be displayed publicly, rather than hidden away.
Austin Osman Spare, born in Smithfield in 1886, the son of a policeman, was an enfant terrible on the Edwardian art scene. He was a draughtsman, painter, illustrator and occultist, whose works often sparked controversy due to their sexually explicit and often frightening other-worldly, or grotesque depictions, which challenged both the scientific beliefs and rules of decency of Edwardian society.
He won a scholarship at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington at an early age and trained as a draughtsman. He also achieved significant press attention for being the youngest entrant at the 1904 Royal Academy summer exhibition. Spare was declared an official war artist in the First World War, but following this became reclusive, working inconspicuously in a series of studios across London, occasionally holding sales of his paintings, during what would now be described as an 'open studio' event. His work was prolific, as well as pioneering, for example he experimented with automatic drawing, years before the Surrealists.
His range of styles was extraordinary, as a draughtsman his drawing captured those around him accurately and uncompromisingly, so much so that he was compared to Dürer, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. His carefully finished pastel portraits were juxtaposed with works that saw figures emerging from scrawled calligraphy. Spare held exhibitions of his work at the St. George's Gallery in Hanover Square in 1927, and then at the Lefevre Gallery in 1929.
He was experimental and at one point, based in a studio above the Elephant and Castle Woolworth's, Spare spent a period creating much-admired stylisations of film stars, such as Jean Harlow and Mary Pickford, using a technique of altered perspective that he termed siderealism, Pan-like "satyrisations" of male faces and pastel portraits of local cockneys, particularly old women. 200 of his works were presented in an exhibition at the Archer Gallery in 1947 It was a very successful show and led to something of a post-war renaissance of interest in Spares work.
When his flat and all the artwork in it was destroyed by a bomb in May 1941, he ended up in a small, dark basement in Brixton. Struggling to survive outside of the gallery system, he came up with the idea of holding exhibitions in South London pubs and continued exhibiting until his death in 1956.
Many exhibitions of his work have since taken place, such as the Greenwich Gallery held, who held an exhibition of Spare's work in 1964. It was accompanied by a catalogue essay by the Pop Artist Mario Amaya, who believed that Spare's artworks depicting celebrities from the late 1930s and 1940s, represented the first examples of Pop art in this country. In 2016 a new street was named after the artist, near his former home in Elephant and Castle and collectors of his work include rock stars, such as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.