Rebellion in the library

The defaced library book jackets of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell have now become collectors items

Fifty or so years ago, selecting a book in a public library in Islington could mean being at the receiving end of a singular project of guerrilla artwork. Between 1959 and 1962, two struggling writers, Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who lived in a tiny bedsit in Noel Road, Islington, stole over 70 books and doctored images and blurbs on their dust jackets as a protest against the “endless shelves of rubbish” on offer at the Essex Road library.

After smuggling the books back, Orton would lurk in a corner to relish reactions to the inappropriate collages and improbable synopses. Favourite targets were books by or about establishment figures of the day. JC Trewin’s monograph on the revered British actress Sybil Thorndike was adorned with a bare-breasted sculpture that is Henry Moore meets Easter Island. Over 1,600 art plates cut from the purloined books were used to wallpaper the 16ft x 12ft bedsit.

Extra staff was drafted in to catch the culprits. The pair was suspected but there was no evidence until a wily clerk at Islington council sent them a letter about an illegally parked car – to which they replied using a typewriter with the same irregularities as appeared in the altered blurbs. They were each imprisoned for six months - a sentence that Orton believed was unduly severe “because we were queers”. Halliwell attempted suicide in prison but it was the making of Orton. He went on to write hit plays including Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot.

An intriguing exhibition at Islington Museum, Malicious Damage: The Life and Crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington, includes all the surviving dust jackets, which have been one of the most viewed items at the Islington Local History Centre but may become too fragile for open access in future. There are also photographs of the bedsit’s bizarre d�cor and a splendid collection of documents and ephemera (including the typewriter) which fleshes out the story of the collagists’ artwork and apprehension - and its sequel.

Orton was an aspiring actor from Leicester studying at RADA when he met Halliwell – a sophisticated and educated man seven years his senior - in May 1951. A month later, they began living together at 161 West End Lane, West Hampstead. They bought the Islington flat in 1959, and it was there in 1967 that a jealous Halliwell murdered Orton with a hammer before killing himself.

Halliwell was the driving force behind the collages and continued to practice this art form – legally but unsuccessfully – after his release from jail. The photographs in the exhibition suggest he was a more conventionally handsome man than the impression created by Alfred Molina in the 1987 Stephen Frears’ film based on John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears.

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Also of special interest is the information about Orton’s screenplay for the Beatles, Up Against It. The wall text explains why it was rejected in 1967 by the group’s manager Brian Epstein: “This may have been due to the storyline involving adulterous cross-dressing murderers – characters not compatible with the public image of the Fab Four!”

Until February 26 at Finsbury Library, 245 St John Street EC1. Wednesday to Saturday 11am to 5pm, Sunday 2pm to 4pm. Events include guided walks following in the footsteps of Orton, Halliwell and other writers and artists at 11am today and on January 15 – �6 & �5 concessions, meet at Angel tube – and a talk by John Lahr at 7pm on February 9 at the museum, �8 & �4 concessions.