Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground at The John Rylands Library

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of the exhibition installation
Image courtesy of The John Rylands Library.

Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground at John Rylands Research Institute and Library, City Centre, 8 September 2016–5 March 2017, free entry - Visit now

It’s a funny thing when someone’s influence surpasses their own fame. Novelist, poet and playwright Gertrude Stein, mentor to and champion of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, is not a household name. Equally, look a little into the work and networks of writer, artist, musician and publisher Jeff Nuttall, and you’ll wonder why he’s now a lesser-known figure too.

He wrote enough, publishing a vast repertoire of poetry, criticism and creative writing. But beyond being merely prolific, this was the man who was at the very beginning of performance poetry, graphic novels and underground magazines. At the centre of the International Underground scene, his compatriots included William S. Burroughs and Michael Horovitz, he was Chairman of the National Society of Poetry and once staged a happening that resulted in meat being thrown around the performance space at Better Books in Charing Cross. Now, he’s the subject of a major exhibition at Manchester’s The John Rylands Library, home to the Jeff Nuttall archive.

Cover of Snipes Spinster
Snipes Spinster. Image courtesy Jeff Nuttall estate.

Off Beat showcases Nuttall’s prolific output, global influence and radically unconventional outlook. Rarely-seen examples of his work will be on show, including correspondence with other writers, the self-published, anarchic My Own Mag and a first edition of Bomb Culture, Nuttall’s autobiographical and critical analysis of ‘60s counter-culture. Bomb Culture was a best-seller, translated into many languages and criticised in parliament in 1970 as part of a debate on youth culture. A digital touch table will allow visitors to flick through virtual editions of other publications he contributed to, including a rare, illustrated manuscript.

“He was a genius of his time,” says co-curator of Off Beat Jay Jeff Jones. “It’s hard to think of anyone today who can match his originality, range or artistic influence.” Jones, who has previously published Nuttall’s work, highlights his true polymath nature. From using kapok and stockings to create visceral objects much like body parts, which he left in luggage lockers for someone to find, to exhibiting his painting at the highly-regarded Angela Flowers Gallery in London – as well as appearing as Friar Tuck in the 1991 film of Robin Hood – Nuttall’s talent was as versatile as it was original.

Black and white photo of Jeff Nuttall
Jeff Nuttall. Image courtesy of the Jeff Nuttall Estate.

Though his work spanned poetry, ceramics, publishing, painting, music and acting, he consistently challenged moral and political orthodoxies – in consistently unusual ways. At a poet-meet for Nuclear Disarmament at the Albert Hall, Nuttall and John Latham were painted head-to-toe in blue for a performance, before nearly passing out from blocked pores. They were found by a caretaker soaking themselves sensible again in the dressing room bath of the great conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent. This and other ‘happenings’ Nuttall staged (which included performances in telephone boxes, public toilets and mock murders in hotels – for which rumours were spread by the actors for days before) were at forerunners of performance art in the UK.

Nuttall died in 2004, leaving behind a fairly vast legacy. Off Beat looks to bring his art and influence to greater public attention; the rebel is finally getting his own pedestal.

Due to the adult nature of the content, the exhibition is not recommended for children.

Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground at John Rylands Research Institute and Library, City Centre

8 September 2016–5 March 2017
Free entry