“On the frontispiece a picture of a monkey’s head had been pasted in the middle of a rose.”
“On the front, where there should be pictures of eminent persons, there are the faces of cats and a bird has been pasted where the face of an eminent person should be.”
“In a book on the life of Dame Sybil Thorndike there was a photograph of her sitting in a chair in a room, but the picture of a man’s torso had been pasted in front of her face to show her looking at the man.”
Such were the dry descriptions given in court of the vandalism carried out by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton on numerous books in Islington public libraries. Rarely seen, they are currently on display at the Islington Museum until February 25th (the end of this week – hurry hurry hurry!).
The understatement of the court-room minimizes the ferocious transgression of Halliwell’s and Orton’s activities. They had been stealing books for nigh on four years, cutting out plates – some were used for decorating their flat – then redesigning and collaging the covers, sometimes adding fantastically obscene blurbs. They would then replace the books on the shelves, and watch for an unsuspecting member of the public to browse them.
Several themes are apparent in the volumes chosen and their subverted covers. The Arden Shakespeare series are treated with great respect, being given dramatic and exciting images reflecting the subject; the critique is of the plain design of the series, monotone and dull, putting passionate work into the equivalent of a plain brown bag. The pulp literature and easy reading was given a more mocking treatment: the startled simian bouquet of the Collins Guide to Roses (a gibbon according to some sources, a baboon for others, although the Mirror headlined with ‘Gorilla in the Roses’); another monkey and assorted unlikely faces for The Great Tudors; even more apes for Exotic Cage Birds; the betrothed cats – with a kitten implying the motive for marriage – on Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Along with grotesque juxtapositions were queer entendres: the Queens Favourite was wrestling men.
But it is the biographies that inspire the greatest iconoclasm: The Lunts – a theatrical couple of some repute at the time – are portrayed as grotesquely garish childrens’ toys, John Betjeman is tattooed from neck to feet, Alec Clunes’s portrait is a smashed skull and Dame Sybil Thorndike, a statutesque amazon on the front cover, was not just looking at “a man’s torso” but staring straight at the crotch on the back.
Thus far, some inspired defacing. But it was using these works to provoke scandal that brought them notoriety, and gives them a guerilla aspect. They were designed to rupture the staid ambience through a rough surrealism and blatant sexuality. “I used to stand in corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back in the library and then watch the people read them. It was very funny, very interesting.” said Orton afterwards.
Most of their work was destroyed after a trial that saw both men sent to prison and given fines that nearly impoverished them: “because we’re queers” in Orton’s opinion. What is on display, around 40 covers, is all that survives of these remarkable productions.
The exhibition frames these works as an investigation into the juvenalia of a famous and celebrated playwright. These are his youthful exuberances, before finally ‘cracking it’ and breaking into the mainstream. But given their queer aspect, the lives of their makers and the vindictiveness of the trial, it is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?
I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.
Above, film of Joe Orton interviewed by Eammon
Holmes Andrews (whoops!) about his library exploits.
“Malicious Damage: The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington” is on at the Islington Museum until 25 February 2012. A book of the same name is rumoured to have been held up for legal reasons.
Quotes from the trial taken from “Because We’re Queers: The life and crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton”, by Simon Shepherd, Gay Men’s Press 1989. Open Library record. Quotes from Orton from “Prick Up Your Ears” by John Lahr, Penguin 1980. Open Library record.