A personal memoir about collage.
I started to collect old children’s books in my early teens as I needed to get my own back on my mum. For some reason she refused to buy for me three volumes of the Boys Own
Paper Annual dating from about the 1910s that were amongst the books donated to the local Boys’ Club Jumble Sale. My brothers were members of this Club and they had enlisted my mum to help with the sorting. I had to come along too, although, as a 10
year-old I had not yet developed the impressive sorting skills that now dazzle my colleagues every Tuesday in the back room of the Oxfam Bookshop.
One of the three annuals had a fold-out illustration of a liner, cut away to show the intricate detail of its insides, and all the little people busying themselves from keel to promenade deck. I wanted that picture, and I still do, over 50 years later. What son of Southampton could resist it? What son of a shipyard worker could ignore it? How could anyone who has stood for hours alongside the Queen Elizabeth in the docks, fishing with his dad, turn from that picture with indifference?
And mixed with the maritime appeal of that fold-out was the charm of those hundreds of pages of who knew what? Highly illustrated, in a style lodged in history, the volumes promised hours of fascinated perusal. But evidently to my mum they just represented
three large dusty objects. She said no.
So some little time after that I started buying up old children’s books and taking delight in the outdated illustrations. Chief amongst these was the Children’s Encyclopedia. To believe its editor, Arthur Mee, this was a labour of love, an inspiration to the Nation’s Youth to grow straight and true. It can now be seen, however, for what it really was – a money-spinner got out decade after decade with minimal changes, sold to generations of parents who trusted that these books would surely provide all the edification and knowledge that they could want for their children. In exactly that spirit my parents bought the eight volumes of the New Book of Knowledge (A to BON, BOO to DEW, DIA to GRAP, GRAS to LOM, LON to PAP, PAR to SOP, SOU to ZWI, Fact Index) that sat unread on the bookshelf throughout my childhood and well beyond. We never read it. My parents probably regretted the good money they had been persuaded to part with for the set, probably by a doorstep salesman. But don’t we all know how easily that spirit of optimistic commitment that spurs us to buy that book about such-and-such, that piece of gymnastic equipment, those sporting accessories, how easily that bright enthusiasm fades? And we are left with the feeling that at least we still have that resource in case, perhaps sometime in the future, we should come to need it, maybe.
You can find editions of the Children’s Encyclopedia, unwanted in charity shops, dating from around the 1900s to the 1950s, with small alterations between them. Most, though, feature a detailed account of the construction of Arthur Mee’s personal big house in the countryside, paid for by the reader’s parents. This I call cheek, given that very few
self-respecting children, I suggest, ever actually read the Encyclopedia. Had they done so they would soon have been revolted by the Christian paternalism, the Eurocentric complacency, the male chauvinism, the implicit racism, the Victorian aesthetic still present even in the latest editions of the 1950s. As a young teenager I was soon appalled by the stuffy conservatism of the Children’s Encyclopedia, and I set out, therefore, to subvert it.
To puncture its pomposity I could alter the pictures. Apollo, arms outstretched in a classical pose, could be made to be begging for a pie supported in mid-air by his companion. Out of a top hat, inverted on a writer’s table, could emerge a tiny man, mimicking the gesture of the important personage in the background. Columbus, or was it Drake, climbing a tree to espy the Pacific, could be cut out and transplanted to the palms in the lounge of a great liner. I was, as we say, taking the piss.
In altering those pictures I wanted to produce a credible but ridiculous alternative illustration, to make people laugh. But as I went on I discovered that taking an element from one picture and placing it unexpectedly into another could produce an arresting and resonant effect that went beyond the amusing. This made me look at pictures with an eye to messing with their meaning.
For instance, at university I found a 1930s book on tap dancing. There were some fifty images of an energetic dancer, full of life; I think it was no other than Ginger Rogers
herself. I cut them all out carefully and arranged them on a big sheet of green paper as if I were Busby Berkeley. I had made myself a cue that I was to ignore for the next 35 years.
Approaching retirement, I started making pictures again, working as before chiefly with children’s books. In these I found the tired images of locations and adults at work that I needed, together with the verve and innocence that I could get from the pictures of the children. I wanted to produce surrealistic or dreamlike effects and found that confining myself to images from before 1960 could help me to achieve that. And once in a while,
quite rarely, an impact could be achieved that went beyond the funny or dreamlike and expressed a genuine emotion.
Most people, when they are shown my pictures, like to run their finger across the surface to see where the alterations have been made, because often it is not immediately obvious.
They then resemble people reading braille, educing meaning through touch. It’s gratifying watching them do this because I like the appreciation of a picture to come from interrogation and think of those pictures where you can’t see the joins as amongst the most successful. In fact I regret it a little that since I started to make pictures for uploading onto the net I have had to make the joins more obvious since people can’t get at the truth by stroking the screen.
Putting the pictures on the net has taught me that collage is not something that I personally invented. Hundreds of people are making collages every day of the week. On Flickr there are scores of groups for collage work, some with over 7000 members. And again, many of these hobbyists and professional artists make use primarily of vintage imagery. Why?
Using vintage imagery bypasses contemporary references, so signalling an intention to treat universal themes. Unless you’re careful, however, it can suggest a cultural superiority, uniting artist and viewer in a smug compact that exploits the old imagery as merely quaint. If I offer a picture of a Victorian gentleman in a top hat it tells you that I seek to propose a general artistic idea, in a way that wouldn’t happen if I offered a picture of Terry Wogan (and the copyright issues around the picture of Wogan make the dated picture even more attractive to use). However, unless I make that Victorian gentleman mean something, all I am doing is to appeal to a vague kind of nostalgia.
It is all too easy, in collage, to be allusive as opposed to communicative, and a great amount of amateur collage seems to me to fall into that trap. If you work with words
instead of pictures the same thing can happen – rap, for example, is riddled with spurious significance arising from mere rhyme.
Collage is easy art, art for those of us unable to create our own stuff de novo. It is a kind of second-order creativity, and somewhat parasitical. But it is tremendous fun to do. Like real art, it is full of cliché. Please send me £1 for every garish, messy, discordant, multi-referenced piece of collage you find in 15 minutes perusal of the Flikr sites. I will also gladly accept £1 for each work that uses head-substitution or alteration of the eyes. Collage can be way too easy.
One way of avoiding the problems that come when presenting collages to an audience is to downplay the pretension to Art. Often, for me, this has meant sticking to my original discipline of creating what passes for a visually plausible illustration. This avoids all the conventional signals whereby collage presents itself as art, such as using images against no
background, or using multiple partial images overlying eachother. These are perfectly legitimate techniques, but they should be used only if there is a genuine expressive purpose. Leave too much to the random subjective responses of the viewer and you court triviality.
I started out by taking the piss, moved on to an appeal to surrealism, and found that it was possible to make recombined images pose some interesting questions about important subjects, like gender roles or media effects, and also relationships and feelings. On a very few good days I have been lucky enough to discover image combinations that express an emotion very clearly, and therefore touchingly.
So here are some of the rules that I follow in collage.
- The picture should preferably require some study before its impact is fully felt.
- Girls are prettier than boys, nicer to look at.
- If not being funny, then be interesting.
- Make ‘em think. The picture should be capable of being “read” for a meaning, and preferably one that was intended.
- If attempting to be visually arty, then seek quality. But best not try.
- Avoid cliché.
- Be neither totally explicit nor excessively cryptic.
Until last year, nearly every day, I went off looking for old books to parasitise. This took me, and my assistant, to godawful rundown areas full of smelly charity shops, only
few of which have anything useful. I scoured the car boot sales. I kept revisiting the smaller and smaller number of secondhand bookshops. But I did best on Tuesdays, when, as an Oxfam sorter, I got to open the bags of books fetched from the recycling centre book
dumps. These are the ones they couldn’t sell at the Church Book Sale, the ones that folks pooh-poohed at the Boot Sale last Sunday, the ones that the elderly relative was unable to take with them to Paradise. Once in a while I found something just right.
But last year I discovered my niche. And, by the way, just in time, because Oxfam, being a corporate entity run along modern lines, rather than a company of bibliophiles, decided that they would no longer collect from so many book dumps. Similarly, all other charity shops, except some Age Concern ones, seem recently to have decided not to put any books out that don’t look newish. No matter. I have my new niche.
There is a place where unwanted old books end up. Here they give them one last look to see if anything collectable has somehow got through to this last judgement and then they consign the rest to be pulped. Every week, for four hours, I examine these for material…. and I find it! If you want to know more about this place, please see the other blog post here, called “Books, That’s What I Think of Books!”