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The tradition of divination using the 78 cards of the Tarot deck dates back to Protestant and Masonic sects in the 18th century. It later became an important part of the philosophy of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the 19th Century occult organisation that included Aleister Crowley, Pamela Colman Smith and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among its members. Golden Dawn had its own Tarot deck, apparently designed by one of its founders, S.L. MacGregor Mathers. Austin Spare’s life-long interest in cartomancy is well documented, yet very few of his own fortune-telling cards were thought to have survived. This compelling new example, hand-painted by the artist c.1906, demonstrates his precocious involvement with the currents that shaped the British Occult Revival at the beginning of 20th century, and his interactions with some of the period’s lesser-known protagonists.
Jonathan Allen rediscovered Spare’s forgotten tarot deck in the archives of London’s Magic Circle Museum in the spring of 2013. In his talk, Allen discusses the deck’s provenance, design and iconography, as well as its place within the wider histories of cartomancy.
Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956). Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Austin Spare’s early interests in art and the occult would remain with him throughout his life. After a turbulent career at the Royal College of Art and a pre-War period as a Mayfair enfant terrible, Spare’s star later waned and despite a modest renaissance at the end of his life, he died penniless and largely forgotten. Championed posthumously as an outsider, mystic and the progenitor of Chaos Magic, Spare was above all else a powerful artist whose myth and reputation continue to grow long after his death.
Jonathan Allen is a London-based artist and writer interested in the technology and politics of spectacular culture, and in the various magics at play in wider cultural discourse. His book ‘Lost Envoy’ on Austin Spare’s tarot deck was published by Strange Attractor Press in 2016, and is distributed by MIT Press. Allen is an associate curator at The Magic Circle Museum. www.jonathanallen.info