Monday, 29 July 2019

The Death Posture - Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) Buckingham Road Cemetery, Ilford

Artist Who Refused to Paint Hitler  Mr. Austin Osman Spare, an artist who refused a commission from Hitler in 1938 to paint a portrait of the dictator, and who had a painting hung in the Royal Academy when he was only 17, died yesterday in a London hospital, aged 69. In the blitz his studio was bombed and his right arm badly injured. After several years of poverty and struggle he regained the use of his arm and last year exhibited again in a Paddington gallery.

Birmingham Daily Post - Wednesday 16 May 1956

In a rather commonplace grave that lies almost at the dead centre of an unremarkable suburban cemetery are buried the mortal remains of the extraordinary Austin Osman Spare, a working class artist and visionary cast in the same mould as William Blake. Like Blake Spare lived on the fringes of society, gathering some renown for his drawings and paintings but often the target of ridicule for his esoteric beliefs and his refusal to conform to the norms of polite society. He was buried anonymously in Buckingham Road cemetery in Ilford, interred in his father’s grave. There is no mention of Spare on his father’s plain granite kerb memorial and nothing to mark out the grave site amongst the almost uniformly grey ranks of toppled headstones and grave markers. But when I visited someone had managed to locate this needle in a haystack before me, in fact a small delegation seemed to have made its way to the grave sometime in the previous days or weeks and left a greetings card, a bundle of desiccated twigs that may possibly have been red carnations when they were originally purchased, and a still unopened miniature bottle of Tomintoul 10 year aged single malt whisky.  “I hope you’ll enjoy these humble gifts,” said Mia in a message in the card. “Dear Spare,” said Zak, “thank you for imagining a system of magic I could engage with in good faith.” The message from the leader of this trio of young devotees of the Zos Kia Cultus, who signs himself off with a sigil, was unfortunately almost completely illegible apart from the final few words “continue to work your magic in the 21st century.” I would like to imagine these three callow occultists conducting some sort of necromantic midnight rite at the graveside but, given how hard it is to find,it seems unlikely that they would have been able to locate it in the dark. They probably arrived on the 25 bus in the late afternoon, spent at least 40 minutes wandering from grave to grave reading inscriptions and epitaphs until they found Philip Newton’s, then dropped a sorry bunch of carnations bought from a garage and the miniature whisky filched from one of their parents onto the tomb before gathering in a semi circle and self consciously mumbling some Thelemite orison.  Spare would have been pleased to be remembered; of the hundreds of thousands of graves in London’s cemeteries only a tiny fraction draw total strangers to them to pay homage to their occupants decades after their death and even fewer receive grave gifts.  

Philip Newton Spare, Austin’s father, was born in Pickering, North Yorkshire in 1857 and came to London as a young man to lodge in Grays Inn Passage, Holborn and to join the Metropolitan Police. His mother, Eliza Osman, whom he never got on with, was originally from Farringdon Gurney in Somerset and married his father at St Bride’s in Fleet Street in 1879. Spare père remained a police constable for his entire working life, based at Snow Hill station in the city. He seems to have had an unusually dull career; the only mention of him in the papers came in January 1911 when he had arrested Joseph Scott a labourer for being drunk and disorderly. At Mansion House Police Court Police Constable Spare has explained to the Lord Mayor that he had been at the foot of the boat pier at Blackfriars at 10.00pm the previous Sunday when he had seen Scott coming up the steps from the river stark naked. Apparently the rather foolhardy Scott had accepted a half crown bet and jumped naked from Blackfriars Bridge into the river, in January, in the dark. He was let off with a caution. Philip and Eliza started married life in police lodgings in Snow Hill, near Smithfield meat market. Austin was the fourth of the Spare’s five children.    

In 1894, when Austin was 7 years old, the family moved to Kennington. Austin soon began to show precocious talent as an artist and when he left school at the age of 13 he was apprenticed to Sir Joseph Causton and Sons, a firm that designed and produced posters. In the evening he studied at Lambeth School of Art. In 1904 Philip sent two of Austin’s drawings to the Royal Academy:


The Royal Academy exhibition was opened on Monday. The youngest exhibitor this year, as stated in last Thursday's Daily Mail is only seventeen years old. His name is Austin 0. Spare and he is the son of Mr. Philip Spare, until recently a constable in the City of London Police Force. He sent two black and white drawings to the Academy, says the Central News, both of which were accepted, one being hung. They were executed when the artist was sixteen years of age. Spare was born in December 1887. He was educated at St. Sepulchre's School. Snow Hill, and St. Agnes School, Kennington Park and received his first art training at the Lambeth Evening Art School under Mr. Macady. There, before he was twelve, he took three first class certificates. At the age of fourteen he won a £10 County Council scholarship and one of his drawings was selected for the British art section at the Paris International Exhibition. When he was fifteen some work which he was doing for Messrs. Powell, the stained glass manufacturers, attracted the attention of Sir William Richmond and Mr. Jackson. R.A. and those gentlemen recommended the youthful artist for a free scholarship at South Kensington Art School. There at the age of sixteen he won the silver medal in the national competition and also the £4O scholarship. Some drawings executed by him a year ago form part of the art of the British section at the International Exhibition at St. Louis. (London Daily News -Tuesday 03 May 1904)

Austin became an Edwardian celebrity, the new Aubrey Beardsley, working as an illustrator, holding exhibitions in the West End, and publishing his own books. Fellow artists acclaimed his work including G.F. Watts, John Singer Sargent and Augustus John. He met the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, who became a patron, publishing several of Austin’s drawings in his magazine ‘Equinox’. Crowley invited him to join his Thelemite order the Argenteum Astrum but the pair fell out before Austin became a full member. His association with England’s greatest occultist reinforced his interest in the esoteric and he remained committed to magical theory and practice long after the pre war fashion for it passed. During the First World War he was initially rejected on medical grounds for military service but then called up again in 1917 when the authorities were desperate enough to accept almost anyone. He served in the Royal Medical Corp (where he was officially reprimanded for scruffiness) and had a short stint as an official war artist in 1918. After the war he career went into terminal decline; Austin’s strong draughtsmanship and his attachment to figurative art left him outside the new mainstream of modernism and he ended up back living south of the river in the Borough in near poverty and increasing isolation. In the early 1930’s there was an attempt by some newspapers to claim that the artist was the father of Surrealism (FATHER OF SUUREALISM – HE’S A COCKNEY! ran one headline in 1936). Before the war he was trying to sell stylised portraits of Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford and other Hollywood stars from a studio  above Woolworths in the Elephant & Castle and in the blitz he lived in a bombed out basement in Brixton with a pride of stray cats. 

After the war another newspaper article, this one portraying him as a starving artist (concerned readers from as far away as South Africa posted him tins of pineapple chunks and salmon) brought him to the attention of fellow artist Steffi Grant and her husband Kenneth, Aleister Crowley’s one secretary. In an article in the Guardian Phil Baker (author of an excellent biography of Austin) pointed out that “it was in the writings of the late Kenneth Grant…. that Spare was reinvented as a dark sorcerer, seduced and initiated in childhood by an elderly witch in Kennington. Grant preserved and magnified Spare's own tendency to confabulation, giving him the starring role in stories further influenced by Grant's own reading of visionary and pulp writers such as Arthur Machen, HP Lovecaft, and Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer. Grant's Spare seems to inhabit a parallel London; a city with an alchemist in Islington, a mysterious Chinese dream-control cult in Stockwell, and a small shop with a labyrinthine basement complex, its grottoes decorated by Spare, where a magical lodge holds meetings. This shop – then a furrier, now an Islamic bookshop, near Baker Street – really existed, and part of the fascination of Grant's version of Spare's London is its misty overlap with reality.” Kenneth Grant was a key supporter and promotor of Austin while he was alive and integral to the creation of his legend after his death. The Grants were one of the few mourners at Austin’s funeral, Kenneth who had been born in Ilford, like Austin probably returning to the place for the last time, Austin never to leave, Kenneth never to return.  

Friday, 19 July 2019

On Murder Mile - Buckingham Road Cemetery, Ilford

Buckingham Road cemetery is unkempt and dilapidated though not, as many disused London cemeteries are, wildly overgrown and returning to a state of nature. It perhaps has more than its fair share of vandalised graves, dozens of memorial stones in some parts of the cemetery have been toppled, altar tombs have been demolished and most of the few statues are missing limbs, wings or heads. When local residents and cemetery users complained to Redbridge Council in 2017 about neglect of the site claiming it was potholed, strewn with litter, beer cans and the remains of arson and fly tipping, a spokesman for the council responded by telling the local paper that the cemetery “is squarely in the middle of the borough’s rough sleepers and street drinking hot spot. Redbridge police, our own enforcement officers as well as the rough sleepers outreach team visit regularly to offer help and to keep order.” The council was, the spokesman promised, going to fix fences and repair paths and access roads as well as clearing up the rubbish “however carrying out this work is made difficult with the number of rough sleepers on site and the area needs to be cleared of litter and drug paraphernalia in advance.” Although there was evidence of at least one rough sleeper when I was there last week, the unruly hordes of down and outs cluttering up the place a couple of  years ago seem to have largely moved on.

At around 1.00am on the 9th September 2010 police were called to reports of an injured man on Ilford High Road, close to the cemetery. They found a badly beaten 58 year old Git Singh unconscious on the pavement. Following another call at 3.30am they picked up 43 year old Harteerth Singh outside the cemetery, also with serious injuries.  Later that morning, when it was light enough, the police returned to the area to search for evidence of the vicious attacks on the two homeless men. This time they found they found the corpse of 31 year old Harbarjan Singh who had died of horrific head and neck injuries inflicted with a blunt, heavy instrument.  The two injured men soon recovered sufficiently to be able to identify their attacker, 57 year old Jaswinder Singh of Town Road, Enfield. The three men slept rough, sometimes in the cemetery, sometimes in a car park belonging to nearby business premises.  A few before the murder the three men had been involved in an altercation with Jaswinder outside a supermarket. Being outnumbered he had been at the receiving end of a beating that day and had sworn vengeance.  Shortly before midnight on the 8th September he had tracked the three down to the cemetery and bludgeoned them with an iron crow bar while they slept.  Jaswinder was an illegal migrant who had entered the UK from India in 1995. He had previous convictions and served prison sentences for violence in the UK and Germany. Authorities made four unsuccessful attempts to deport him back to India after each conviction but he was back in gaol for another offence before the deportation order came through.  “You are obviously a man with a tendency to explosive and eruptive violence, quite disproportionate to any perceived provocation,” said Judge Richard Hone at Jaswinder’s trial at the Old Bailey. He gave him a life sentence, specifying a minimum term of 24 years.  

On the 24th January 2018 Ilford police were called to A-Z Furniture and Carpets on the High Road by 31year old shop worker Imran Muhammed. A surprisingly calm Muhammed, who was bleeding from lacerations on his forearms, told police that he had been robbed in the shop and slashed with broken glass by a group of unknown men. Something did not quite add up for the investigating detectives and their suspicions only increased a couple of days later when the wife of the 49 year old shop manager, Seyed Khan, reported her husband missing since the evening of the 24th. He had left his South London home in Thamesmead at 5.00pm to go to the shop and had not come home that night. Police soon found Khan’s car parked nearby on the High Road and a check of his phone records showed that he had made a call on his mobile at 6.55pm probably from the shop. Muhammed claimed that he had never shown up for work that evening. Khan’s wife told the police that he had told her that he suspected one of the shop staff was stealing money and that he intended to sack him. On the first of February the police began a thorough search of the local area using tracker dogs. Buckingham Road Cemetery was a 10 minute walk away from the shop and it was there that the dogs found Khan’s body hidden in undergrowth. When questioned Muhammed immediately admitted murdering Khan. He told the police that he had killed his boss with an axe after he had made sexual advances towards him. He said that Khan had tried to rape him on more than one occasion and had also tried to blackmail. That night he snapped and cleaved his skull open with an axe. He had then put in the body in a supermarket trolley from the nearby Aldi, covered it with an offcut of carpet and wheeled it up the road to the cemetery where he had hidden it amongst some bushes. He then returned to the shop, cleaned up and painted over the bloodstains on the wall, and then cut his own arms with a broken bottle before calling the police to tell them that the shop had been robbed.  When detectives checked Muhammed’s internet browsing history they discovered that four days before the attack he had searched google for ‘how to kill a man with a punch, ‘how to kill a man with a hammer’ and ‘brain injuries’. The Old Bailey jury refused to believe that Khan, a father of four, had sexually attacked Muhammed and convicted him of murder.

Buckingham Road is one of the few cemeteries in the capital missed from that otherwise meticulous and exhaustive work of reference Hugh Meller and Brian Parson’s ‘London Cemeteries’.  The reason for its absence is probably a certain ambiguity over its status; is it a cemetery or merely an overextended churchyard?  Ilford became an independent parish from neighbouring Barking in 1830 and the new parish church of St Mary’s Great Ilford built the following year to a design by James Savage. The church had a small churchyard which was used for burials and which quickly became filled when the population of the parish began to grow at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1880 the parish established a burial board which bought vacant land behind the church and laid out a new cemetery, including a chapel (since demolished). The first burial took place on 4th September 1881. The cemetery was initially separated from the churchyard by a brick wall but this too has been demolished. There are few distinguished people buried in the cemetery. Sir Peter Griggs, a local house builder who laid out much of Ilford’s new estates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and became the town’s first MP has the tallest memorial surmounted by an angel (well out of reach of even the most determined vandal). The artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare is buried in his father’s grave (more of him another day) and the bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans is buried in an unmarked grave. 

A toppled grave in the centre of the cemetery marks the final resting place of 45 year old George Ward, ‘a devoted husband, a loving father, a faithful friend’ who died August 17 1928 at Ilford train station. George had worked for WH Smith’s since 1897 and was manager of the station bookstall when he died. The Essex Newsman of 25 August takes up the story:

ILFORD RAILWAY TRAGEDY. SMITH'S MANAGER KILLED. Mr. George Ward, aged 45, of Madras Road, Ilford, who had been manager of Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son's bookstall at Ilford station for years, was knocked down and killed by a train last Friday. Mr. Ward was married man. He was crossing the line to open a stall on the other side of the station, and apparently did not notice the train coming. Dr. Ambrose held an inquest at the Ilford Town Hall Tuesday, and in returning verdict of Accidental death. said: Familiarity breeds contempt, and after twenty-seven years of dodging across the line he tried to get across and was knocked down."

Saturday, 13 July 2019

'Highgate Cemetery; Victorian Valhalla' John Gay & Felix Barker (John Murray, London 1984 - out of print)

One of the key publications in cemetery studies “Highgate Cemetery; Victorian Valhalla” is sadly out of print but good second hand copies can be picked up online for less than a tenner.  Originally published in the UK in 1984 by John Murray in conjunction with the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, unusually for a book on a single London cemetery an American edition was published by Salem House the same year. The public image of Highgate was essentially created by Gay and Barker’s book and thereafter assiduously marketed by the Friends of the Cemetery. There have been further books on the cemetery, John Swannell’s 2010 book of photographs published by Hurtwood Press and the Friends for example, but the view presented of the cemetery always sits comfortably within the template set by Gay and Barker.

John Gay was born Hans Göhler in 1909 in Karlsruhe, Germany. He studied art in Paris but taking an interest in photography returned home to try and make a career for himself as a photographer. He  left Germany for good at the age of 24 in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor and the Nazi’s snatched power and emigrated to London where he had friends. No doubt the increasing hostility to Germans in the run up to the Second World War were ultimately behind the decision to give himself an English name but the reason for his choosing the 18th century poet who wrote The Beggar’s Opera as his namesake is not clear; perhaps he had seen the 1931 film of Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper and was making his political affiliations clear? Like his fellow national Bill Brandt, Gay became a successful commercial photographer in England taking striking portraits of the famous and documenting the daily life of the country for the magazine market. 

As the cover makes clear this is a book of John Gay’s photographs, Felix Barker’s contribution is merely an introduction. Barker was a successful journalist who had become the youngest drama critic on Fleet Street at the age of 19. He was also interested in art and architecture and as a sideline published books on London’s history including the innovative “London As It Might Have Been”, which looked at all the grand architectural plans for the capital that never got off the ground. He was an inspired choice for the text of the book. In a little over 30 pages he retails all the key narratives that have since become the story of Highgate Cemetery; its creation by Stephen Geary, its architectural marvels, its unparalleled success as the premier Victorian cemetery, and its decline into semi wilderness and eventual rescue by the Friends. As for its inhabitants he tells us about James Selby the coachmen, General Otway, George Wombwell, Tom Sayers and Julius Beer amongst others. We also learn about the Druce and Rossetti scandals but there is no mention of vampires or Satanism.  It is a lively trot through the history of the cemetery and sets the scene effectively for Gay’s photographs.      

Gay’s cemetery photos, particularly those he took of Highgate, are iconic. His is an essentially romantic vision; he was clearly fascinated by the cemeteries return to nature, angels wreathed in ivy, sometimes only a face or an upturned managing to escape the sprawling vegetation, tipsy monuments seemingly on the point of being toppled by tree roots, stairs covered in dead leaves, memorials imprisoned in a thicket of saplings, collapsed tree trunks held up by cast iron railings. Everywhere in the photos the work of civilisation, the human drive to memorialise the dead, is being engulfed and obliterated by the twin forces of time and nature. Whether he set the fashion or merely captured the zeitgeist, his photos are now the prototypical vision of what a London cemetery should be. The Friends expend considerable effort maintaining the cemetery just as Gay saw it. Nature is only allowed to run rampant up to a point, then it is carefully trimmed back, uprooted or cut; monuments must not be allowed to fall or be damaged. Nature must be carefully held in check, its attempt to overtake the cemetery frozen in mid course. It is a very tight balancing act.  

If you pay to go on one of the Friend’s guided tours you will get to see the majority of the monuments and sites within the cemetery photographed by Gay. Very little has changed since 1984 when the book was published.  Undergrowth has been trimmed back to better reveal some of the memorials and despite the best efforts of the Friends some monuments have succumbed to the ravages of time or vandals. There has also been some new burials – the tour guide will inevitably point out Alexander Litvinenko’s grave after you have paused at  James Selby’s and might draw your attention in passing to Beryl Bainbridge. George Michael is off limits though, one more of Highgate’s secrets carefully guarded by the Friends.  

Friday, 5 July 2019

Reasons To Be Cheerful? - Chiswick New Cemetery, Staveley Gardens, W4

“This is not one of London’s most appealing cemeteries,” says Hugh Meller with typical understatement, in ‘London Cemeteries’,” and it must be one of the noisiest, set down in a water meadow sandwiched between an arterial road and a suburban railway line. The planners probably realised the site was not ideal for residential development, but would not have anticipated the additional roar of aeroplanes that now regularly fly overhead to Heathrow. However, the dead don’t complain and the cemetery remains in regular use.”

I was last at this unappealing 15 acre plot in May 2014 looking for the grave of Moura Budberg, Russian émigré, possible spy, society hostess and lover of H.G.Wells and Maxim Gorky. The Russian graves were easy to find, marked as they are by Byzantine crosses. There were far more of them than I expected – in fact they seemed to stretch almost as far as the eye could see, hundreds of them in neat rows, blackened with soot and with heavily weathered inscriptions often in Cyrillic. My heart sank – finding Moura was going to be a nightmare. I almost gave up before I’d even started. I was standing on the path and I looked down at the cross in front of me. The inscription on the base was still legible though lacking a few letters M RIE BUDBERG nee ZAKREVSKY (1892-1974). It was the easiest grave search I have ever done. 

The cemetery was opened in 1933 by Brentford Council. The brick and Portland stone chapel was designed by the borough surveyor Joseph R. Musto and thriftily constructed for just £5000. It looks like an Art Deco cinema and was deliberately never consecrated to allow cross denominational services. It is small, relatively recently opened for a cemetery, belongs to the council and nothing much of any interest ever seems to have happened there. The one time it seems to have hit the news was last year when cemetery users complained it had become so overgrown that it was ‘like a jungle’. Photos showed that the grass hadn’t been cut for at least a couple of months....

The site may be unattractive, there are no really striking memorials but there are a few interesting burials here. Moura for me still remains by far the most fascinating character but the grave of Father Nigel Bourne also caught my attention. It isn’t often that you come across a catholic priest buried with his wife. There are many Polish as well as Russian graves including Wincenty Andrzej Rudolf Rapacki (1901-1980) whose epitaph reads 'ostatni potomek slynnej rodziny aktorskiej' – the last descendent of the famous acting family. He was named after his grandfather, the great Polish actor Wincenty Rapacki who was born in Lipno in 1840 and went on to found one of an acting and performing dynasties which included well known musicians as well as painters. Chiswick’s Wincenty was a pianist who fled Poland after the Second World War and settled in London, working as producer for Radio Free Europe.

At least three victims of the 1960’s serial killer popularly known as Jack the Stripper are buried here. The killer operated in West London and is believed to have murdered at least 8 women, all of them vulnerable to predatory attacks by a psychopath because they were working as prostitutes. The first to be killed and buried in a common grave at Chiswick was Elizabeth Figg a 21 year old from the Wirral who was found at 5.10am on 17 June 1959 by police officers out on a routine patrol in Dukes Meadow, Chiswick, a couple of hundred yards from Barnes Bridge. She had been strangled. Her underwear and shoes were missing and her dress had been ripped open to reveal her breasts. She was identified by family from a post mortem photo published in the newspapers. Also buried at Chiswick in common graves are Irene Lockwood whose naked body was found on the Thames foreshore at Corney Reach, Chiswick on 08 April 1964. She was 24 and was another northern girl working in the capital; she had been born in Retford, Nottinghamshire. She had been last seen alive the night before her body was discovered at a pub in Chiswick. The post mortem revealed that she was pregnant at the time of her death. Found just a couple of weeks later, in a Brentford alleyway, on 24 April 1964 was 22 year old Helen Barthelemy from East Lothian in Scotland. She was buried in the same grave as Irene Lockwood.     

In July 1979, the miserable, early months of Thatcherism, Ian Dury attempted to perk the nation up with ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3’. His catalogue of things calculated to put a smile on the face of the gloomy British public included;

Something nice to study, phoning up a buddy
Being in my nuddy
Saying hokey-dokey, Sing Along With Smokey
Coming out of chokey
John Coltrane's soprano, Adi Celentano
Bonar Colleano

Dury was perhaps one of the few who remembered Bonar Colleano, a bit part actor whose film credits included A Matter of Life and Death and Escape By Night. Bonar was born in New York in 1924 and came to the UK when he was 12. He retained his American accent which stood him in good stead, winning him innumerable parts as an American serviceman in British movies of the 40’s and 50’s. He died at the age of 34 in 1958 when his red sports car was involved in a fatal collision in Birkenhead. He is buried at the cemetery. He fathered two children before his premature death, one out of wedlock, who grew up in Dundee to become Robbie McIntosh, a founder member of the Average White Band. Which means Bonar was connected to two top 10 1970’s hits as his son drummed on the AWB’s ‘Pick Up The Pieces.’  

P.S. This cemetery has strong personal significance for Sheldon from the Cemetery Club. His has written about at on his own blog, and for Loren Rhoads Cemetery Travel.