In 1962 Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were placed on trial for the theft and ‘malicious damage’ of books belonging to Islington Public Library. They were found guilty and each sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for their elaborate literary prank. Orton claimed that their actions were a protest against the poor choice of books available in public libraries.
Shown here is a selection of the book covers that Orton and Halliwell doctored with collaged cut-out images of monkeys, tattooed torsos and other surreal imagery that juxtaposed mischievously with the 'real' contents of the books. Many of their creations have a homoerotic or sexually provocative element. Often, they worked on plain covers (such as the Arden Shakespeare editions, which in their altered form are often attributed to Halliwell due to their more ‘serious’ artistic approach). As well as library books, Orton and Halliwell took images from magazines and newspaper colour supplements.
The couple also wrote new, often scandalous text that took various forms: rewritten titles (see The Plays of Emlyn Williams, which features doctored titles including ‘Knickers Must Fall’ and ‘He Was Born Grey’), blurb typed directly on to dust jackets or passages pasted over body text.
On the walls of their Islington bedsit at 25 Noel Road, Orton and Halliwell created their largest-scale collage of all, pasting overlapping prints of classical and Renaissance masterpieces cut out from art books.
Capturing Orton’s famous humour, brazen sexuality, an irreverent attitude towards authority and his urge to unsettle ‘polite’ middle-class morality, these creations display all the elements that later brought Orton fame – and infamy – with his plays including Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot.
In proportion to their crime, Orton and Halliwell’s prison sentence was harsh. Orton later said it was ‘because we were queers’.
While serving his sentence Halliwell faced difficulties, and attempted suicide. In contrast, Orton regarded this period as liberating and creatively inspiring. The isolation provided Orton with an opportunity to focus his writing, and the experience crystallised his perception of a ‘rotten’ society.
Two years later, Orton was a celebrated playwright. His first success came a year after his release from prison with the BBC radio play, The Ruffian on the Stair.
Yet the couple’s contrasting experiences of prison planted a divergence between them. It would tragically culminate with Orton’s murder and Halliwell’s suicide in 1967.
How have the book covers survived?
Since 2003, the book covers have been preserved by the Islington Local History Centre where they form the Joe Orton Collection. After the trial, the surviving covers were kept within Islington Public Library Service by the special collections librarian. Today, this totals 41 examples. An additional 31 doctored books are believed to be lost, stolen or destroyed.