Collage screen by Kenneth Halliwell
This collage screen by Joe Orton's lover - and killer - Kenneth Halliwell was sold at auction on September 22 at Northamptonshire saleroom JP Humbert for £8000 to Islington Museum.

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While Orton has long been celebrated for the dark and shocking plays he wrote in his short life, Halliwell’s art has since come under focus and a lot coming up at auction nearly 50 years after he ended Orton’s life recalls his work.

A four-panel screen decorated by a collage now on sale in Northamptonshire on September 22 represents “an important part of 1960s cultural history as well as an engaging piece of art work”, according to the auctioneers, JP Humbert.

Estimated at £3000-5000, it was produced about a year or so before Orton’s murder and Halliwell’s suicide.

Orton met his partner at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in 1951. They lived together in a small flat in Islington, north London. In 1963 Orton and Halliwell were sent to prison for ‘maliciously defacing’ books from London libraries, in a spree of anarchic and unlawful redesign of book covers during the late 1950s. This experience inspired Orton but depressed Halliwell.

The use of extensive floor-to-ceiling collage work of Halliwell had become a signature design feature of their flat. As a story in The Guardian notes: “The men soon moved in together and began writing novels and plays – as well as pursuing their library transgressions. But as Orton's celebrity and success took over, Halliwell increasingly came to see himself as an artist, and he expanded their collages into the room the two men shared.”

 “I remember the back wall of their tiny bedsit,” Orton’s sister, Leonie, recalls in Malicious Damage, a book by Ilsa Colsell analysing the collaborative art of these two men. “It was covered from floor to ceiling with hundreds of colour plates made into collages. I remember them as being very dark in tone, no hue of brightness; they'd been torn out of Renaissance art books.”

The screen up for auction was bought by the present vendor during a Royal Court dinner auction of items from Orton and Halliwell’s home in Islington in aid of the Royal Court Theatre in 1999. It is in the September 22 sale as part of a local house clearance.   

Halliwell collage sold in 2013

In 2013 Essex auction house Stacey’s sold a framed 1960s original collage by Halliwell for £2800. The 60 x 70cm design was composed from various cut magazine, newspaper or book cut-outs, signed by Halliwell and dated 1966. Stacey’s said the vendor “bought the piece directly from a close friend of Halliwell living in the Walthamstow area of London who was given the collage as a gift in the 1960s”.

It was bought by Islington Museum, who unveiled it in February 2014. The collage was set to join a permanent display of book jackets that were artistically defaced by Halliwell and Orton.