Friday, 13 January 2012

Malicious Damage

The exhibition of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's doctored library books continues at Islington Museum until 25th February. Displayed alongside all of the surviving covers are diaries, ephemera, and photographs of the couple's bedsit at 25 Noel Road, beautifully decorated at Islington Borough Council's expense:

For me one of the highlights of the show was a tangled and obscene jacket synopsis for a Dorothy L. Sayers book that ends with the reader being exhorted to enjoy it behind closed doors, 'and have a good shit while you are reading!' Orton recalled, 'I used to stand in the corners after I'd smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them, It was very fun, very interesting.' (Joe Orton Online)

I was fascinated to learn that the two prime suspects were eventually caught by Sydney Porrett, a cunning and assiduous senior clerk with Islington Council, who hatched a plan to send a letter to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. "I had to catch these two monkeys," said Porrett in the contemporary idiom, "They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake." The typewritten reply, stating that they did not own a car, matched irregularities in the defaced books, and the game was up.

Kenneth Halliwell, Untitled Collage, 1966
I was slightly disappointed that there were none of Halliwell's 'serious' works in the exhibition. Nobody took much notice of his baroque collages during his lifetime, which was probably a contributory factor in his murder of the more successful Orton, followed by his own suicide. But Halliwell's work shares a highly developed sense of colour and composition, as well as a camply subversive atmosphere, with his Californian contemporary Jess (below), and he deserves to be better known in his own right.


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