World of Cats!

A rare Kenneth Halliwell one-off collage screen was bought at auction for Islington Heritage in September 2016 with funds raised from an Art Fund grant and private donation. The screen is part of the Islington’s Pride: an archive for the future exhibition on until 16 March 2017. untitled

The four-panel collage screen, by former Islington resident Kenneth Halliwell, was sold at auction in September for £8000. Described as “an important part of 1960s cultural history, as well as an engaging piece of art work”, it measures 167.5cm high with each of its panels measuring 39cm wide. 

The fabric-based screen with paper collage overlays – cut from newspapers and magazines – is in robust condition but needs some repair as it has seen functional use. Not given a name by Halliwell, museum staff have given it the apt working title of ‘World of Cats’, so named from a piece of collage bearing these words on the first panel; the collage also features dozens of images of cats!

A mock-up of the screen can be seen in a few scenes in the 1987 film adaption of John Lahr’s biography of Joe Orton, Prick up your Ears.

Soon after its completion in 1966, the screen was acquired by Peggy Ramsay, literary agent to Halliwell’s partner, British playwright Joe Orton. In 1999, eight years after the death of Ms Ramsay, her estate donated the screen to a charity auction at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square. Here it was purchased by a private collector until its sale this year.

Halliwell was no stranger to collage. He and Orton shared a flat in Noel Road, Islington from 1959 until their deaths in 1967.  When residing here in 1962, both were sentenced to six months imprisonment for ‘malicious damage’ to Islington Library books by defacing their covers with complex or comedic collage and narrative. The couple argued that the long sentence was given “because we were queers” and not because of their ‘guerrilla artwork’ antics!


Islington Heritage hold the surviving collection of these covers. The screen collage is a welcome addition to this collection, which also features another 1966 collage by Halliwell acquired, again in auction, in 2013.

It is now accepted that Halliwell was the main creative force behind the more sophisticated and complex library-book collage work, as well as the collages that covered the walls of the couple’s apartment. Struggling to find success as a writer, Halliwell pursued a career as a collage artist but his work was never recognised until recently.

Both men died in tragic circumstances in 1967, with Halliwell murdering Orton and then taking his own life with an overdose of barbiturates. The double death took place only weeks after the amendment to the Sexual Offences Act, which legalised relationships between consenting homosexual men over the age of 21 years.

The screen has now been restored and will form part of an exhibition in February and March at the museum to mark LGBT History month. It will make another appearance in July 2017 when the museum presents an exhibition to mark the 50-year anniversaries of Orton and Halliwell’s deaths and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and its impact on Islington’s LGBT community.

Take a look at the Evening Standard article

Leave a Reply