British-born poet and collagist John Digby's productive and multi-faceted career spans nearly five decades, beginning in the 1960s. Best known as a collage artist whose Surrealism-influenced collages have been widely exhibited in England, France, Korea, and the United States, Digby is also a prolific poet whose works have been translated into several languages. In addition, he is an accomplished illustrator, editor, publisher, and printer. His seminal publication, The Collage Handbook , produced with Joan Digby, his wife and frequent collaborator, was the culmination of many years of research into the materials, methods, and techniques of the art of collage and the individuals past and present who practice it. The Collage Handbook (1985) remains an important and influential contribution to the development and history of this distinctive art form.
John Digby was born on January 18, 1938, in London, and spent his early childhood in London during the Blitz in World War II. An avid birdwatcher, he left school at the age of fifteen to work in the Small Bird House at the London Zoo. During his six years at the zoo, Digby encountered many different species of birds and animals, gaining invaluable experience and knowledge of the natural world that later found expression in his creative work.
During his early days at the zoo, Digby was motivated to return to school after attending lectures given by Sir Julian Huxley. He registered for night classes at The Working Men's College in London and studied a variety of subjects. An English literature class introduced him, through an English translation, to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, which inspired Digby's first foray into writing poetry. As poetry became increasingly important to him, he left the London Zoo and spent several years working in a series of different occupations, including proofreader in a printing and publishing house, working in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and serving in various departments of civil service.
During the 1960s, Digby traveled between London and Paris in his free time as he pursued his love of poetry. In London, he became associated with a poetry circle known as "the Group," which included Edward Lucie-Smith, Philip Hobsbaum, George Macbeth, Peter Redgrove, and others, and Digby began to publish his poetry in a number of magazines. While in Paris, John Digby discovered Dada and Surrealism, which would have a profound and lasting influence on his poetry and other artistic endeavors.
The next decade was a period of tremendous activity and dramatic change in Digby's life and career, both literary and artistic. Digby co-founded a small British press, Caligula Press, with artist and illustrator Steve Wheatley. They not only published their own material, but also featured the work of such rising poets as Asa Benveniste, Jeremy Reed, Nathaniel Tarn, and others. In 1974, Anvil Press published Digby's first collection of poetry, The Structure of Bifocal Distance , followed in 1978 by his second book of poems, Sailing Away From Night , published by Anvil Press in collaboration with Kayak, the American press of George Hitchcock based in San Francisco, California. Digby was actively involved in the cover design of both books, and at this time he began working with black and white collage, an art form that eventually emerged as his primary means of artistic expression. It was during a trip to California in the mid-1970s that George Hitchcock invited John Digby to work as an editor for Kayak , a literary magazine featuring surrealist poetry and found imagery, for which Digby also provided collage illustrations. The first one-man exhibition of Digby's collages took place in Santa Monica, California, in 1976.
In 1978, John Digby emigrated to the United States, where he met his future wife, Joan Weiss, a professor of English at Long Island University and alumna of the University of Delaware (MA, English, 1965). Well known for her work with undergraduate honors education, Joan Digby is herself a respected scholar, author, editor, and poet. In addition to her scholarly contributions to eighteenth-century studies, Joan Digby has also published poems in numerous magazines and small presses. Her book of prose poems, A Sound of Feathers , was published by Red Ozier Press in 1982, and she was co-editor of three well-received poetry anthologies, all featuring illustrations by John, published by William Morrow: Permutations (1985), Food for Thought (1987), and Inspired by Drink (1988).
In the decades since their marriage, John and Joan Digby have proved a dynamic and prolific team, working together on a variety of literary and artistic projects ranging from exhibitions to workshops to books. One of the most significant and influential works to emerge from this period is without doubt John and Joan Digby's The Collage Handbook , published by Thames and Hudson in 1985. As a collagist, John Digby was interested not only in the history of collage, but also in the fundamental materials of his art—paper and paste—and methods of collage construction, with long-term conservation of these works in mind. For years, Digby consulted with rare book librarians, paper conservators, and chemists, even spending time at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in order to explore these issues. This seminal book offers the first complete history of this distinctive art form. Using visual examples from the works of collagists past and present to explore the development of the art of collage, John and Joan Digby delve into the problems caused by various materials and suggest ways for collagists to ensure the long-term survival of their works. The Collage Handbook remains an influential and invaluable resource for collagists around the world.
Since 1985, John Digby has continued to create and exhibit collages, write and publish poetry, and work closely with Joan on their many joint projects, including the establishment of two small presses at their home on Long Island. Since 1994, they have issued a variety of books and ephemera under the imprint of The Ragged Edge Press, including Archival Collage: A Personal Example (1998), in which Digby demonstrates his archival collage techniques and materials. They later founded The Feral Press, devoted to black and white printing using ordinary archival-quality materials. Active since 2002, The Feral Press continues to publish books and ephemera written or edited by John and Joan Digby, as well as works by many different authors, with John Digby providing most of the illustrations.
Information for the biographical note derived from the collection.
The papers of John Digby, well-known British-born collagist and poet, document nearly five decades (1963-2004) of his prolific artistic and literary career. The collection comprises 25 linear feet and 51 oversize boxes that include published and unpublished books, manuscripts, poems, lectures, notes, sketches, diaries, correspondence, clippings, photographs, slides, hundreds of original collages, and a personal collection of rare small press poetry and artists' books from the 1960s through the 1980s. This collection not only provides abundant documentation for the artistic and literary career of John Digby, but also offers rich resources for the study of the history and development of the contemporary art of collage, Surrealist art and literature in the United States and abroad, and printing ephemera and small press publications during the second half of the twentieth century. The papers are arranged in six series, with each series organized chronologically where possible, although the materials related to individual projects remain in the order established by Digby.
Series I. Published Projects and Ephemera comprises a major portion of the collection and contains materials related to various Digby publications appearing between 1974 and 2003, with the vast majority of the post-1994 projects published by the two small presses founded by John and Joan Digby, The Ragged Edge Press and The Feral Press. The series is arranged in chronological order by individual project, and the types of materials found in this series include drafts, layouts and mockups, galley proofs, background research materials, notes, correspondence, reproduction of artwork, and in many cases original collages. Projects in this series that are accompanied by John Digby's original collages include Miss Liberty (1986), Food for Thought (1987), Incantations (1987), Inspired by Drink (1988), and The Arches (1998), Slaughter in Paradise (2000), Lines to a Dodo (2000), Water Voyages (2002), and Improvisations on Rimbaud's Drunken Boat (2002). While some of these collages appeared as illustrations in these volumes, others collages from these projects were never published.
The Collage Handbook (1985), co-authored by John and Joan Digby, is by far the largest individual project in this series, both in content and scope. It contains over 100 files on individual artists from around the world, many of whom were featured in the book, and it includes hundreds of negatives, slides, transparencies, and photographs of the artists' works. Also included are the research files compiled by John and Joan Digby on the history, techniques, materials, and conservation of collage, and extensive correspondence related to the project.
Over the course of his career, John Digby published numerous poems and collages in limited editions issued by small presses. Subseries I.17 Small Press Publications gathers many of these smaller projects together, grouping them by individual press. These include Caligula Press, which Digby co-founded with Steve Wheatley, Perishable Press (Walter Hamady), and Red Ozier Press (Ken Botnick and Steve Miller). The Red Ozier Press materials include drafts and notes for two projects by Joan Digby: A Sound of Feathers , a collection of prose poems illustrated with John's collages published by Red Ozier Press in 1982, and an essay on two Long Island presses, The Four Winds Press (Henry Schniewind) and Stone House Press. The Four Winds Press published this essay in 1988 as Two Private Presses . Two projects for Morris Gelfand's Stone House Press are included in this series separately from the other small press materials. The first is an essay prepared by John and Joan Digby for John De Pol's From Dark to Light: Wood Engravings for the Stone House Press (1988) that includes numerous engravings, sketches, notes, and correspondence by John De Pol. The second project, Incantations , a collection of poems and collages by John Digby published in 1987, includes among the project materials a lecture by Joan Digby that discusses literary primitivism using Incantations as her primary focus.
Beginning with Fluttering with an Attempt to Fly in 1994, John and Joan Digby designed, edited, published, and printed many projects themselves. Among their Ragged Edge Press projects included here are Archival Collage: A Personal Example (1998), in which John Digby demonstrates his archival collage techniques, and a series of twelve booklets issued in conjunction with an exhibition of Digby's collages, Moon as Text (2000). Water Voyages , a literary anthology compiled by John and Joan Digby and issued as a series of seventeen booklets to accompany a traveling exhibition of John's collages, was published under their later imprint, The Feral Press, in 2002.
Series II. Unpublished Projects contains materials related to various unfinished and unpublished Digby projects ranging in date from 1968 to 1997. The types of materials found in this series include drafts, layouts and mockups, typescripts, background research materials, photocopies of illustrations, essays, notes, personal journals, and notebooks. Most of the projects in this series consist mainly of notes and drafts, and some have not progressed beyond the preliminary planning stage. The most complete project is A Birdwatcher's Guide to Literature , an anthology of bird literature compiled by John and Joan Digby and illustrated with collages by John Digby. It includes a project proposal, notes for a preface, outlines, paste-ups and layouts of the various chapters, and numerous photocopies of Digby collages. Notable among the materials in this series are a group of notebooks kept by John Digby, in which he recorded thoughts and ideas about collage and collage projects, sometimes accompanied by sketches (F362-F364).
Series III. Exhibitions includes materials related to exhibitions of Digby's collages that are not included in Series I. The types of materials found in this series include exhibition announcements, invitations, programs, posters, postcards, artists' statements, notes, slides, and photographs. Notable among the exhibitions included in this series are two exhibitions in 2002 at the Russian-American Cultural Center in New York City. The first, The Mandelstam Series , featured collages inspired by two poets who suffered political persecution, Dante Alighieri and Osip Mandelstam. The second, Skyline Remembers: Skyline Sought , commemorated the first anniversary after the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001, and included a keepsake booklet, In Memory of the World Trade Center: Two Poems by Joan Digby. Original collages from both of these exhibitions are included in the collection.
Targets for the Millennium , a series of circular collages exhibited in 1999 at the A. Jain Marunouchi Gallery in New York, includes a videotape recording of the October 15, 1999, performance of an original dance and theater piece inspired by Digby's collages. For Digby's many other exhibitions from 1977 to 2002, numerous exhibition cards, handbills, announcements, labels, invitations, small broadsides, and other publicity materials are gathered and arranged chronologically in the last section of this series.
Series IV. Original Collages contains almost two hundred undated collages by John Digby. They include thematic groups of collages such as birds, mammals, and butterflies, and collages created for specific projects or publications. Included in this series are the collage illustrations for Permutations: Readings in Science and Literature , an anthology edited by Joan Digby and Bob Brier that was published by William Morrow in 1985. Also included are magazine illustrations prepared by Digby, such as the Chinese-style cut paper and collage illustrations made for Gourmet magazine, and collages for Margin , the literary magazine edited by Robin Magowan.
Series V. Correspondence is divided into two subseries. The first subseries, Correspondence with Authors, includes letters, notes, postcards, photographs, original collages, photocopies of artworks, signed books, and other ephemera from John Digby's wide circle of friends and colleagues. These include writers, poets, artists, publishers, and printers such as Asa Benveniste, Tony Curtis, Thérèse Donath, Clayton Eshelman, Charles Henri Ford, Cecil Helman, George Hitchcock, Ted Joans, Edward Lucie-Smith, Jeremy Reed, Joe Rose, Tina Seligman, Gregory Stephenson, Nathaniel Tarn, Steve Wheatley and Martin Fidler, Donald Windham, Bill Wolak, and Ludwig Zeller and Susana Wald.
The other subseries, V.2 Correspondence with Galleries, Universities, and other Institutions, contains correspondence with galleries, museums, universities, colleges, publishers, and other organizations related to John Digby's career as a professional artist. The types of materials contained in this subseries are letters, notes, books proofs, exhibition catalogs, exhibition announcements, pricelists, contracts, and grant application materials. This subseries is arranged in alphabetical order by institution or organization.
Series VI. Miscellaneous Materials brings together a variety of materials collected by John Digby over the course of his career. The series is arranged by category, with the materials in each category then arranged in chronological order whenever possible. The categories include reviews and press releases, price lists, journals and magazines containing John Digby's poems and/or illustrations, gallery guides and other notices of his exhibitions, books and magazines on special subjects of interest to Digby, and the collected slides, photographs, and negatives of Digby's collages. The reviews, price lists, slides, photographs, and negatives remain in the order that Digby established for them.
Digby collected a wide variety of publications on Surrealism, including special issues devoted to surrealism in journals and magazines; anthologies of Surrealist stories, plays, poetry, photography, drawings, and collage; small press magazines devoted to Surrealist poetry, often illustrated by Surrealist artists; and monographic series produced by small presses, like Black Swan Press (Franklin Rosemont), Black Stone Press (Peter Koch) and Caligula Press (Steve Wheatley), featuring the works of individual poets. Of particular note are a group of rare survivals from the French Surrealist press known variously as Melog Press, Melog's or simply Le Melog, edited by Jimmy Gladiator. Digby collaborated in the creation of the early publications of Melog Press, and his personal collection includes issues of Incendie de Forêt-Le Melog , its mimeographed supplement, Nevermore , and a copy of the extremely rare first issue of Melograffiti .
Many of the Surrealist poets, artists, composers, and writers featured in these publications were friends and colleagues of John Digby, and a significant number of the works in Digby's collection were inscribed to him by the author, artist, editor or publisher. Particularly well-represented in Digby's collection are George Hitchcock, Franklin Rosemont, Nathaniel Tarn, Steve Wheatley, and Ludwig Zeller and Susana Wald. Printers and editors of note in Digby's collection include Peter Koch, Franklin Rosemont, and Bill Wolak. Other notable writers and poets that John Digby collected include Leonora Carrington, Bob Cobbing, Paul Grillo, George Hitchcock, Norbert Krapf, Jehan van Langhenhoven, B. C. Leale, John Lyle, Opal L. Nations, James Penzi, Jeremy Reed, Nathaniel Tarn, Toyen, Tristan Tzara, and Nanos Valaoritis. Almost all of these publications have been removed for cataloging in the print collections of Special Collections. A keyword search "From the Library of John Digby" will retrieve these items from the library's catalog.