It’s true to say that playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell were big users of their local public library service. However, the form of use this mostly took not only landed them in prison and kick-started Orton’s career, but led Halliwell down a lost path that culminated in him murdering Orton and taking his own life. So the events covered by Islington Museum’s Malicious Damage exhibition – subtitled ‘The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington’ – are powerful ones.
Finding the selection of books at their local Islington Public Library Service wanting, Orton and Halliwell took to producing ‘guerrilla artwork’, re-working the cover art with images removed from other library books. Often these images were risque ones, but not always – animals and figures from history and art also adorn their ‘new editions’, many of which are on view in Malicious Damage. Alternative text was also inserted into blurbs and pages ripped from books and used to jot down notes and creative ideas. The two would then loiter around the libraries to watch the reactions of outraged patrons on discovering their handiwork.
When the police finally turned up at Orton and Halliwell’s bedsit in 1962 with an arrest warrant (Halliwell’s classic reaction being, ‘Oh dear’), they also discovered that their home was adorned with collage-style wallpaper created from images stolen from library art books (there is a great photo of this in the exhibition). Of course, there is no happy ending to this story. While Orton thrived creatively in prison, Halliwell struggled throughout the ordeal and long afterwards. Events culminated in the murder-suicide of 1967.
Although the exhibition is only in the one room, I strongly recommend visiting to see the cultural ephemera that is Orton and Halliwell’s fascinating guerrilla artwork. It seems nothing short of a miracle that these rogue books have been preserved! The explanatory panels in the exhibition are also informative, relating the story of the two men’s lives and careers. It’s free and runs until 26 February (not open Sundays). The Islington Museum (ironically) can be found in the basement of the Finsbury Library – part of the Islington Public Library Service.