Sean Adams | Evidence

Joe Orton: Dangerous Collage

Defaced cover, The Three Faces of Eve. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum

Several years ago, Jessica Helfand posed the question, “is scrapbooking graphic design?” An individual creates a scrapbook with words, images, shape, and color. Does that not match the definition of graphic design? Did the maker, as a graphic designer, determine the answer? If a civilian, non-designer, created the scrapbook, could it still be graphic design?

Joe Orton’s defaced books raise the same issue. Are they graphic design? What separates them from a collage by Cipe Pineles or Ettore Sottsass?

Collage, Ettore Sottsass, 1946

Between 1964 and 1967, Joe Orton helped reinvent the British theater with a working class attitude. He was the toast of an ‘alternative British intelligentsia.' His plays, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot were commercial and critical successes. Unfortunately, his career was cut short at age 34. In August 1967, his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, suffering from severe depression, murdered Orton before killing himself. Halliwell's suicide note referred to the contents of Orton's diary as an explanation of his actions: ‘If you read his diary, all will be explained …’

Before Orton’s success as a playwright, from 1959 until 1962, he defaced books from local libraries. He modified the covers and often added new descriptions for the dust jackets. The crime of malicious damage and theft resulted in a prison sentence of six months. In 1967, he explained the crime, “Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books.”

LEFT: Joe Orton at 25 Noel Road, London, 16 April 1964. © George Elam/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock. RIGHT: Joe Orton, March 1967

Defaced cover, The Great Tudors. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum

LEFT: Defaced cover, The Secret of Chimneys. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum. RIGHT: Defaced cover, Collins Guide to Roses. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum

I don’t approve of defacing books unless it makes them better. Orton’s versions, based on the cover, present a more exciting version than the originals. I would much rather read The 3 Faces of Eve if one of Eve’s personalities were a house cat. And The Great Tudors has a far more interesting group of characters, including a gorilla monarch, than the actual Tudors.

LEFT: Defaced cover, The Collected Plays of Emlyn Williams. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum. RIGHT: Defaced cover, Seen Any Good Films Lately?. Joe Orton, c.1960. © Islington Local History Centre and Museum

In addition to the obvious defacement of books, Orton created characters—Edna Welthorpe and other pseudonyms—to write complaint letters. Edna wrote about bad pie filling, or engaged in an ongoing argument with a catalog company. Others wrote letters to the theater disturbed that Orton’s plays promoted low morals. This is another form of re-presentation and hyper-reality playing with authenticity using words and images. Whether the result was a defaced book or physical typed letter, the question remains: Is it graphic design?

Defaced dust jackets. Joe Orton, c.1960

Edna Welthorpe letters. Joe Orton, 1965, 1966

The Letters

As a playgoer of forty years standing, may I say that I heartily agree with Peter Pinnell in his condemnation of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'. I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour! Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people. I hope that the ordinary decent people of this country will shortly strike back!

Yours truly,
Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


15th November 1958.

Dear Sirs,

I am puzzled by several letters I have received from you. Apparently you are under the impression that I am organising something for you, or at least that someone in this flat is. I assure you that there is no one called Mr Orton living here. I am a widow and dwell alone. You state that catalogues are expensive. I have no doubt that they are, but what, may I ask, has that to do with me. You surely cannot imagine that I have stolen your catalogue. And as for selling anything which your firm makes ... Please believe me if I arrived at the New Acol Bridge Club with a catalogue under my arm and explained to my friends that all goods were at cash prices, yet payable by small weekly installments, why I think they would laugh at me. Will you please stop sending letters to me, or I shall seriously have to consider putting the affair into the hands of my solicitor.

Yours faithfully,
Edna Welthorpe. (Mrs)



In finding so much to praise in 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane,' which seems to be nothing more than a highly sensationalized, lurid, crude and over-dramatised picture of life at its lowest, surely your dramatic critic has taken leave of his senses.

The effect this nauseating work had on me was to make we want to fill my lungs with some fresh, wholesome Leicester Square air. A distinguished critic, if I quote him correctly, felt the sensation of snakes crawling around his ankles while watching it.

Yours truly,
Peter Pinnell



I cannot recall a successful play—from, say, Othello to St Joan, from Tamburlaine to Look Back in Anger—which concerned itself with 'ordinary decent people'! Ordinary, decent people are the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country, but they do not make subjects for exciting, stimulating, controversial drama. John A Carlsen Sir—Mr Carlsen's suggestion that Othello (the noble Moor!) and St Joan (belatedly canonised) are not decent people I find more than controversial. I find it completely unacceptable!

Jay Chakiris



Any oasis in the wasteland is welcome. And Entertaining Mr Sloane is not a mirage which disappears when the thirsty traveller approaches. If we find the customs of the country differ from our own—what else is foreign travel for?

Donald H Hartley

Malicious Damage: Malicious Damage: The Defaced Library Books of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton by Ilsa Colsell, published by Donlon Books.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Evidence, Graphic Design

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