It’s not known what Islington’s Essex Road Library subscribers made of the guerrilla art that started popping up on hundreds of book covers in the early 1960s. To cite a handful of examples, these included cut-out images of two well dressed cats parading, pasted on the front of an Agatha Christie mystery; cartoon images of deer, butterflies and a little Humpty Dumpty embellishing a guide to the achievements of a forgotten theatre family; a pulp ‘true fiction’ novel about a split personality showed the unlucky woman in question as a silent movie villain, a diva and a cat; while anyone perusing Collins Guide to Roses would find a monkey face peering out from a flowerhead. This last dust jacket prompted a headline in the Daily Mail: The Gorilla in the Roses.
“People must have been very surprised,” said Joe Orton a few years after he staged the prank with his lover Kenneth Halliwell. In his short, brilliant life the great English playwright and diarist made his name shocking and delighting theatre-goers with works like Entertaining Mr Sloane, a wicked mix of murder, gay flirtations, bed-hopping and the blackest humour. The library book farrago was his first entry into public consciousness however. Masterminded as a form of covert protest at the terrible quality of his local library’s book selection, what the authorities felt about the stunt was clear: it earned Orton six months in jail.
A selection of Orton’s embellished covers is currently on show alongside the sculptural assemblages of contemporary artist Adam Gillam. From a teetering structure of spindly aluminium, rubber bands and ring binders to bits of board wrapped in glossy red vinyl that resemble 1950s abstract paintings, Gillam’s work is less racy than Orton’s. Yet they share a knack for playful bricolage, imposing witty, personal transformations on what they find to hand.
Adam Gillam/Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell is at Ancient and Modern, London until 26 February.