Book thieves immortalised in a book

Artwork from Malicious Damage by Ilsa Colsell.
Artwork from Malicious Damage by Ilsa Colsell.

A new book which looks into the rebellious art of gifted playwright Joe Orton and his murderous lover, Kenneth Halliwell, will soon be available in libraries across Islington.

Artwork from Malicious Damage by Ilsa Colsell.
Artwork from Malicious Damage by Ilsa Colsell.

The artists, who lived together on Noel Road in the 1960s, were eventually charged with “malicious and willful damage” involving hundreds of Islington’s Central Library book stocks. They were jailed for six months and their turbulent relationship ended in tragedy when the jealous Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death at their home, before committing suicide.

In an exclusive interview with Islington Now, Ilsa Colsell, author of Malicious Damage, said: “For Islington, Orton and Halliwell’s story is like a kind of geological ley line – these two men and their sensationalised lives are now part of the fabric of the area.

“My hope would be that the book gives a visual key into that world, allowing people to see the visual language they shared as well as their more well-known, written collaborations.

“It seems an indefensible act to have stolen so many books from the library – particularly in light of current threats to public funding in this area. Within this there is an absolutely unavoidable irony – that if the librarians themselves hadn’t been so fastidious in their continued preservation of the collages then we wouldn’t be able to see them today.”

Janet Burgess, Islington Council’s executive member for health and wellbeing, said: “The council’s local history centre holds the surviving collection of the duo’s vandalised library book jackets from the late 1950s and early 1960s and we were honoured to have worked with the author and publisher of Malicious Damage.

“Five decades on, the couple’s notoriety is part of Islington’s rich and colourful history.”

Malicious Damage features a foreword by Leonie Orton Barnett, Mr Orton’s youngest sister, and is the first book by British artist Ms Colsell.

Follow Ashley Cowburn on Twitter at @AshCowburn