Description & Technical information

Throughout his life, Austin Osman Spare was recognized as an outstanding draughtsman. An obituary of the artist in The Times noted that ‘Mr. Austin Spare, an artist of unusual gifts and attainments and even more unusual personality, died yesterday in hospital in London…He worked chiefly in pastel or pencil, drawing rapidly, often taking no more than two hours over a picture…His minute draughtsmanship may have owed something to the Pre-Raphaelite influence, though in general his art was much more human and full-blooded than that of the “brethren”. Of his technical mastery there can be no manner of doubt. The collection of his drawings may yet become a cult.’

Datable to c.1928-1929 and typical of many of Spare’s portraits in its unsettling intensity, the present sheet is possibly a self-portrait. Always particularly interested in achieving and expressing a heightened self-awareness, he produced powerful self-portrait drawings, pastels and paintings throughout his career. The title Palimpsest, in various forms, appears several times in Spare’s work, as early as his exhibitions at the Lefevre Gallery in 1929 and the Godfrey Phillips Gallery the following year, in which the present sheet may have been included. Two works entitled Palimpsest (Face in Body) and Palimpsest (Profile) were exhibited at the artist’s home in Brixton in the early 1940s, while other works with similar titles appeared in Spare’s exhibition at the White Bear pub in 1953 and at his final show at the Archer Gallery in 1955.

As the Spare scholar William Wallace has noted, recording the statements of two of the artist’s closest friends, ‘[Kenneth] Grant recounts…that he visited Hannen Swaffer, the ace journalist one evening in the late 1940s…Swaffer showed him two large drawings that he was unable to hang on his walls (of which two were covered with Spare’s works), as the line-work was so pure and fine that it did not register on the eye. These do indeed sound like examples of Spare’s palimpsest method, achieved – as Frank Letchford explained to me in conversation – by rubbing down the drawing with dry crumbled bread to ‘lift’ some of the graphite from the indented lines...My own view is, that as drawings with a strong quasi-automatic element as a fundamental aspect in their process, these palimpsests by Spare might owe some debt to the essay Suspira de Profundis of Thomas de Quincey (1786-1859), specifically in the section ‘The Palimpsest of the Human Brain’. It is perhaps significant that a drawing entitled ‘Palimpsest’ appears as No.31 in the 1930 Godfrey Phillips catalogue whilst ‘De Profundis’ is No.46. In his essay, De Quincey deftly catalogues the term: ‘A palimpsest then, is a membrane or roll cleansed of its manuscript by repeated successions’…Spare’s palimpsests are, quite literally, automatic expressions and represent attempts to reify the incarnations of the archaic unconscious mind.’

Medium: Pencil and watercolour on board
Signature: Inscribed and titled P / A.O. SPARE / “Palimpsest” / 6-2=143 the reverse of the board.

Dimensions: 49 x 30.8 cm (19¹/₄ x 12¹/₈ inches)
Provenance: Sir John Richardson, New York
Thence by descent.

Exhibitions: Possibly London, Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd., Drawings and Water-colours by Austin O. Spare, April 1929, no.52 (‘Palimpest’ [sic], priced at 18 gns.); Possibly London, Godfrey Phillips Gallery, Water-colours & drawings by Austin O. Spare, November - December 1930, no.31 (‘Palimpsest’).

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints