Two Occult Biographies


A review of Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (Phil Baker, Strange Attractor Press, 2012) and Madeline Montalban: The Magus of St Giles (Julia Phillips, Neptune Press, 2015)

The chances are, you are more likely to have heard of Austin Spare than you have of Madeline Montalban.

Saying you’re into the work of Austin Osman Spare these days is like saying you’re into the work of Throbbing Gristle, or Nico’s solo work, or Scott Walker’s late era: sure, it’s not a household name, but he’s not exactly unfamous either, and if you have even a passing interest in the occult these days the chances are you’ve heard of him. And that’s OK! His posthumous reputation, although largely mythologised, is deserved.

For my part, Madeline Montalban was part of the furniture of my life since childhood. I could have told you who Madeline Montalban was when I was nine. Dad’s jumbled up collection of Prediction magazines meant that I rarely read them in order; I’d find them in caches around the house, all mixed up, and I don’t recall reading her obituary as a kid (although I must have: It’s in the issue with the picture of Battlestar Galactica on the front that includes Doreen Valiente’s article about the Necronomicon).

I remembered her mainly as having written most of the articles about the Tarot, mysterious and forbidden.

(As a kid I found once a mouldy miniature Tarot deck, rotting in my dad’s garage, but it smelled bad and I left it there, and it ended up binned.)

I had seen Austin Spare’s art before I’d known his name. The lascivious, bare-breasted and faintly malevolent Isis Unveiled on the cover of my Dad’s copy of Francis X King’s Magic: The Western Tradition and several of the illustrations within, that was Spare.

Phil Baker’s Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist(Strange Attractor Press, 2012)is about as comprehensive a biography as one could want of anyone, exhaustively researched, annotated and indexed. It’s a useful reference work without once being any less than enthralling. It’s the sort of thing people call a “tremendous achievement”.

Austin Spare (1886-1956) was feted as an artistic genius in his teens. It didn’t work out for him. He crashed out of Crowley’s Argenteum Astrum. W B Yeats (who always seems to come off like a colossal prick in anything I’ve read) picked a fight with Spare over the illustration of his poems. Spare tried to launch magazines and exhibit work, and founded his own magical system. As time went on, his star waned, and a succession of reversals and misfortunes beset him, culminating in him getting bombed out of his home and losing everything during the Blitz.

He ended up in poverty, but kept ploughing his furrow, in magic and art. He exhibited his paintings in pubs, and in his final few years got tangled up with the flamboyantly imaginative artist/occultist Kenneth Grant who, it’s fair to say, is the reason for Spare’s enduring fame and influence over the occult scene as it is today, particularly through the growth of Chaos Magic.

A good biography needs a linchpin, an idea that forms its heart, and Baker, right from the beginning, stresses that Spare was above all a Cockney. This serves as an effective centre to his story, if not for the unfortunate effect of causing me to imagine Spare’s voice being exactly like the voice of the Phantom Cockney from The Mighty Boosh (I respectfully submit that should the all-too plausible BBC4 dramatisation of his life ever come to pass, Noel Fielding is a shoo-in for the title role).

Spare was, so Baker says, the man Gerald Gardner, the father of Wicca, went to in order to extricate himself from curses, something Gardner seems to have had a problem with. Spare didn’t seem to go much on the man – when Kenneth Grant introduced Spare to Gardner, Spare would later opine that “Dr. Gardner has never met a pukka witch…”

I wonder if Spare ever met Madeline Montalban (1910-1982). Certainly their circles overlapped: she knew Crowley, Gardner and Grant to some extent or other. But I think that if anyone described her as a witch, pukka or otherwise, they would have been subject to her wrath to an exquisite degree.

This was not, as far as I could tell from Julia Phillips’ biography, Madeline Montalban: The Magus of St Giles (Neptune Press, 2015), an altogether unusual occurrence. Montalban was, it seems, a fierce presence, capricious and mercurial, and yet truly beloved by her friends and students.

Looking at the issues of Prediction I have which carry her work, all of which come from the last five years of her life, none of this comes as much of a surprise. She wrote most of the astrology section (although towards the end she got a colleague to ghost it for her), had a regular column on the Tarot, and every issue supplied a piece in the middle of the magazine that was only ever called in the contents “Madeline Montalban’s long astrology article”.

These articles were not always astrology. Looking at them in recent years I’ve often felt that she just turned in whatever the hell she wanted just because she could, and knew they’d pay her to print it, whatever. It doesn’t matter: these articles are almost entirely pretty great. It went both ways, I suppose. Prediction trusted her to bring in the esoteric goods just as much as she trusted them to print her writing. Prediction was still publishing articles by her at least into May that year, although interestingly, one of the last articles she supplied, “The Throne of Understanding”, a cracking piece about using the Old Testament of the Bible as a grimoire, was printed twice, in the February and March 1982 issues. No reference is made to that mistake in any of the issues I have (although I’m missing June and July of that year, so it might be in there). My own writing is heavily influenced by her.

I owe her an awful lot.

Phillips’ biography of Montalban is barely a quarter of the length of Baker’s biography of Spare. It neither has a table of contents nor an index and it’s arranged by rough topics rather than chronologically. I think that’s a deliberate choice: It’s apparent that the bulk of Phillips’ research relies heavily on first hand accounts of Madeline Montalban’s life from people who knew her and survived her, and this necessarily means that the book skews towards living memory, and hence the latter half of her life. By avoiding a chronological structure, Phillips also avoids a more obviously lop-sided book. And it’s the right decision.

I mentioned Austin Spare’s encounters with Gerald Gardner before, mainly for the sake of comparison. Here, there’s an entire chapter on Montalban’s association with the founder of Wicca, including evidence in Gardner’s own handwriting that he had also consulted Montalban on the subject of avoiding curses.

It seems that she was a close associate with Gardner, especially during the writing of High Magic’s Aid, Gardner’s pseudonymous Wiccan ur-text (it’s originally credited to “Scire”) written as fiction for the simple reason that in 1949, witchcraft was still illegal in England. It’s incontrovertible that Montalban was Gardner’s typist and sub-editor.

According to Phillips she claimed right up to her dying day that she actually ghostwrote the whole thing, based on Gardner’s jumbled notes. The whole affair is further complicated by Montalban’s refusal to have anything at all to do with Wicca after Gardner’s death in 1964, even to the extent of cutting off the late Michael Howard (a writer on magic, not the Tory grandee) for a few years after he was initiated into a Wiccan group. Phillips gives getting to the bottom of why this happened her very best shot, but, dependent on recollections of Montalban’s surviving friends and pupils, she has to throw up her hands and let the mystery remain unsolved.

And this is largely a problem Phillips faces, which Baker doesn’t. Austin Spare is heavily documented, both in his own words and those of others, as presented in contemporary accounts from throughout Spare’s life, and Phil Baker is able to show with sensitivity and depth how the man changed over the decades; Julia Phillips’ Madeline Montalban is in some ways frozen in the memory of those who knew her, in the way that the beloved people we lose over the course of our lives so often are. With so few accounts contemporary with the earlier phases of her life, we largely see the final twenty-five years or so, and what we see of her earlier life is through the lens of that later period. This isn’t Phillips’s fault. Her perspective depends on what she had to work on, and personal retrospective, with all its problems, is the bulk of that.

In her lifetime, Madeline Montalban was undeniably far better known than Austin Spare was in his, but their afterlives seem to have afforded them opposite trajectories, I think. Spare, richly documented and mythologised, is collected by celebrities and rock stars and thanks to Kenneth Grant and Pete Carroll, is now very much part of the furniture of the occult stage. Montalban might have been published every month in an internationally distributed print magazine during the peak life of print and the heyday of public interest in the occult, but barely three decades after her death, her life is already beset with lacunae, her early existence a cipher, beloved and well-remembered in anecdote only by survivors and committed enthusiasts.

The record of her role in the history of twentieth century British occultism is in danger, even with work like this, of being forgotten. Her unwillingness to publish her writing in a more permanent form is part of it, I think; she refused to write in book form on principle, according to Phillips. As a result, her legitimately vast body of work (for example, in five years’ worth of magazines I have easily a couple hundred pages of text by her) lies largely in ephemera, in pamphlets, correspondence courses and mainly in a magazine that, reduced to a shadow of its former self, finally ceased publishing about four years ago. In a world where it seems that most things are always available in print or PDF, Madeline Montalban has become increasingly hard to track down.

Of course, one wonders if she would have had more acolytes and prophets had she not been a woman, a disabled woman at that (she’d had polio as a child, with the consequences that brought), and a powerful, awkward, difficult figure. History is kinder in general to difficult men than it is to difficult women. We call difficult men free thinkers and iconoclasts, grand, heroic labels. We call difficult women bossy and selfish, diminutives designed to make them seem childish and ridiculous. It’s easy to do.

She mattered. I suspect that it goes against her own wishes (and hence against the wishes of her literary executors) but I can’t help thinking that perhaps someone should compile Madeline Montalban’s writing into a more permanent form before it vanishes altogether. Before we lose her entirely.

Howard David Ingham

A version of this article was originally published at Chariot (chariotrpg.blogspot.com).

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