British-born poet and collagist John Digby's productive and multi-faceted career spans over 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, 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.
Biographical information derived from collection.
The John Digby papers supplement contains substantial additions to the original collection and documents Digby's prolific artistic and literary career, his wife, Joan Digby's creative and professional work, and their joint efforts as editors and contributors to their imprint, The Feral Press, which published the work of nearly 100 authors and artists from 2002-2016, and featured short works of poetry (including translations into English), short fiction, and essays from both emerging and established writers. The collection comprises forty-sixthree linear feet and nine oversize boxes of published and unpublished books, drafts, layouts and mockups, manuscripts, notes, sketches, correspondence, clippings, photographs, slides, hundreds of original collages, and a personal collection of small press poetry and artists' books. The bulk of the collection spans from the early 1970s to 2016, with some earlier outlying items (mostly pages from mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century books used as collage source materials). The vast majority of post-2002 projects found throughout the collection are publications of The Feral Press, and were designed, edited, published, and printed by John and Joan Digby. The supplement closely aligns with the original collection in providing abundant documentation for the artistic and literary career of John Digby and 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 and first decade of the twenty-first century.
The collection is arranged into three subgroups: I. John Digby, II. Joan Digby, and III. The Feral Press.
Subgroup I., John Digby, parallels the original collection in its arrangement and contains published and unpublished work by the artist/poet; exhibition-related materials; collages and artwork; correspondence; personal and ephemeral items; reviews and press releases; financial appraisals of Digby's artwork, assorted publications with John Digby poetry and artwork; and other publications collected by Digby.
Subgroup II., comprises materials related to scholar, author, editor, and poet, Joan Digby. The series mirrors the arrangement of Series I., and contains Joan Digby's published and unpublished projects; materials related to her professional work as an educator; correspondence; personal and ephemeral items; assorted publications with Joan Digby essays; and reviews of Joan Digby's work.
Subgroup III., comprises materials related to and produced by The Feral Press, the primary imprint of Prehensile Pencil Publications, a small New York publishing company founded and operated by John and Joan Digby. The series contains general materials related to the press; Feral Press publications arranged by author; and Feral Press publications arranged by artist.
Materials in the collection are arranged chronologically within each topical subdivision where possible, although the materials related to some individual projects remain in the order established by Digby and are noted throughout.