But things didn't work out exactly as expected. Spare briefly had a successful art career, but he's more famous for his work as an occultist and practitioner of witchcraft. Spare claimed that a witch named Mrs. Paterson set him on this unusual path.
As a child Spare had been raised Anglican, but in his early adolescence met an elderly fortune teller named Mrs. Paterson. Spare described her as a "colonial woman," and Paterson claimed she was from a venerable line of New England witches who had escaped the Puritan prosecution in the 1600s. Although quite old and not traditionally attractive Spare found himself drawn to her. Paterson seduced him, and for the rest of his life Spare was attracted to older women.
|Austin Spare and Witch, 1947, by Austin Osman Spare|
Although Paterson was poorly educated and had a limited vocabulary she had a powerful grasp of abstract metaphysical concepts. More impressively, she had strong occult powers. In addition to being an accurate fortune teller she was able to materialize her thoughts into physical manifestation, and often created visions of the future for her clients using this power. Spare claimed she taught him this talent but he could never use it as skillfully she could.
Mrs. Paterson possessed several other unusual talents. Using her ability to externalize her thoughts, she was able to easily transform herself from an elderly woman into a beautiful young one. Spare painted portraits of her in both forms.
Paterson could also travel to the Witches' Sabbat, and took Spare with her several times. Spare claimed the Sabbat occurred in "spaces outside of space" that were indescribable and could not be physically represented. Paterson gave Spare the witch name "Zos" after initiating him into the cult. In return, Spare called her his Witch Mother.
|Drawing by Austin Osman Spare|
Spare eventually turned his back on the mainstream art world to devote himself to his occult and magical studies, briefly associating with Aleister Crowley before striking out on his own. (An interesting note: Adolf Hitler asked Spare to paint his portrait, but Spare turned him down, rightly thinking he was evil.) He lived in squalid conditions in London's slums where he wrote books with titles like The Book of Pleasure, The Focus of Life, and The Anathema of Zos, and sketched and painted his poverty-stricken neighbors and spirits that he summoned. He died in relative obscurity in 1956, but his work on magical sigils (a way of encoding desires in visual form) was rediscovered by occultists in the 1980s. Today his art work is quite expensive; the largest collection of his work is held by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
And what of Mrs. Paterson, the New England witch who set him on this path? It's unclear what happened to her, if she really existed at all. Perhaps she is now residing in a space beyond space, but some writers think Spare simply made her up. People who start magical cults or new religions often claim they were taught by divine beings like angels, secret Ascended Masters, or extraterrestrials. After all, the magic has to come from somewhere. Mrs. Paterson fits into this pattern. Then again, if Spare really did have the ability to manifest his desires in the material world, perhaps the elderly witch emerged from his subconscious mind to teach him.
|Witches, undated, by Austin Osman Spare|
Mrs. Paterson doesn't fit the mold of most traditional New England witches, who were not usually seductive. Accounts of the Witches' Sabbat from early New England witch trials were quite chaste and lack the descriptions of orgies that are found in European trial documents. There is some underlying sexual tension in tales of New England witchcraft - particularly those where the witch 'rides' her male victim all night long like a horse - but it is usually not explicit. If anything, Mrs. Paterson reminds me of the shape-shifting fairies and enchantresses from Medieval romances like Gawain and the Loathly Lady, where one of King Arthur's knights marries a hideous crone who later transforms into a lovely maiden.
|"Dreams in the Witch House" from the Masters of Horror TV series, 2005|
Lovecraft and Spare were contemporaries, but I don't think they were aware of each other's work. Perhaps Mrs. Paterson was working behind the scenes? Lovecraft did once receive a letter from a female fan who claimed to be descended from the Salem witches. She offered to share her magical knowledge with him, but he declined her offer. Who knows what might have happened if he had taken her up on it.