Researching The Letters of Sylvia Plath

I recently chatted with Peter K. Steinberg about his research for co-editing The Letters of Sylvia Plath with Karen V. Kukil (Faber, 2017). For someone like me whose laptop files are a shambles to say the least, I am always in awe of Peter’s ability to be a really organised scholar. I asked him about the actual research process – how do you even begin to approach a project as vast as this one, and when it’s underway how do you keep track of it all?

Peter, how did you go about actually tracking down all of these Plath letters?

David Trinidad [another Plath scholar] and I were keeping separate lists of letters unbeknownst to each other. This was realized sometime around late 2010 and we shared them. I believe at the time the totals came to about 800 letters from various archives. He had worked extensively with the letters at the Lilly Library, particularly from September 1961 to February 1963, which contains mainly letters from Plath to her family. When I saw the list, I realized fully, for perhaps the first time, how incomplete Letters Home was and how unfamiliar I was with Plath’s letters. This motivated me to get a better handle on the extent and volume of letters that there were.

In early 2011, David and I were encouraged to write a proposal to edit the letters of Sylvia Plath and for this we transcribed a few representative letters: one to Helga Huws and two to her mother. Though we submitted the proposal, for some reason we never heard anything. However, while we were waiting I had started transcribing all the letters that I did have copies of from various libraries such as Smith, Indiana, University College Dublin, and the University of Washington, St. Louis, to name a few. As time went on, I wrote to other libraries that listed they held Plath materials in their archive and got copies when they could be provided. If I couldn’t get copies I’d try to travel there or enlist friends to do so.

Time passed and around October 2012 Karen Kukil was approached by Faber to edit the letters. She initially brought me on as the lead transcriber for the project and somehow this metamorphosed into being a co-editor and then the lead co-editor. It is my great lament that we could not get David Trinidad on board as well but he provided so much assistance and support that his particular contributions have not gone unacknowledged. I went through phases of writing to places that held archives of people Plath knew, or that I suspected she wrote to. I then went after the periodicals that she submitted her work to. Reading her diaries, other letters, and journals provided another resource for names to try to track down. The majority of this seems to have been wasted efforts as the results were largely negative. However, from time to time, new letters or a cache of letters did turn up.

Ordered files of letters

The numbers of letters began to grow. From the initial list of 800 or so in 2010, the next milestone I have is 970 letters as of January 2013. Eventually I made a spreadsheet of letters in order to better track what was out there, what I had transcribed, and what was a mystery or still outstanding. I added in those from Letters Home, and then a list of all the other letters at the Lilly Library that weren’t in Letters Home. Before I knew it the total was approaching 1300. In the end, we had 1,380. Of course there are (or were) more. But I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t stop here and say, “Find out more in These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath by Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, to be published by Fonthill Media in 2017.”

What format did you see them in – originals/pdfs/scans/photographs and how did differing formats alter the experience of reading them?

I saw the letters in a variety of formats. All of those you stated above. Nothing can compare to seeing and working with the originals as you get the full view of the color of the paper, the annotations in a variety of pens and pencils, rips, cancelled text, etc. Scans and color photographs are extremely helpful and useful, but do fall short in conveying some information that working with the originals provides. For letters that I had only a black and white copy of, I kept a list of hard to make out things and would blitzkrieg archivists with requests for clarification, or keep it on file for an in-person visit. Also, seeing the letters in person (or in color if a surrogate, at least) provided helpful information in dating letters for which a dateline was absent. In many of Plath’s postcards home from camp and Smith, the letters were undated. For example, Plath would write “Tuesday” because that was all she needed to write. But for the editor working on a comprehensive documentary edition of letters, that didn’t pass muster. And so seeing the postmark either in person, with the aid of a magnifying glass, or blowing up the image in Photoshop enabled me to discern the postmark date (and location) and then verify that date against a perpetual calendar. In Letters Home many of the dates are assigned from the postmark date, which is often the day after Plath wrote it. So this edition of letters that Karen and I produced will allow scholars and readers to know properly and exactly when a letter was written.

Storing and filing just a small sample of the letters

What is the process of transcribing a letter – what do you actually have to do?

The first thing I did, or tried to do, was date the letter as exactly as possible and determine to whom it was addressed. In the archives world this is called gaining “intellectual control” over the thing. I came up with a file naming scheme that aimed to keep things tidy and in order. The first part of the file was a date written in a way that would allow them to always sort in chronological order: 1951_03_05. Then I’d have sender and addressee: Sylvia_Plath_to_Ann_Davidow-Goodman. This would be followed by the library or archive from which it originated: _Smith. So the file reads: 1951_03_05_Sylvia_Plath_to_Ann_Davidow-Goodman_Smith. If there were multiple letters written to the same person on the same day, and there often was, I’d add a _#1 or _#2 or _#3 and so on after the date: 1947_07_06_#2_Sylvia_Plath_to_Aurelia_Plath_Lilly. Uncertain dates I added a _circa: 1955_12_18_circa_Sylvia_Plath_to_Mallory_Wober_Kings_College_Cambridge, and so on. This would allow something still to sort roughly where it belonged so that when I put the book together everything should be in order.

spreadsheet (1)
Spreadsheet of letters

I would read the letter through one or many times to become familiar with it. This way I would be prepared for any tricky words. Also, if a page was missing, perhaps, from a photocopy or a scan I could approach the library or letter owner in advance of starting the grind of transcribing.

After all that, I’d create a word document with the exact same file name and begin transcribing the letters. I’d open the Word file and make it a half-screen on the right side of my laptop; and then I’d open the PDF or JPG and situate that on the left side of my screen and type away. I found this the easiest way to work as my eyes were relatively fixed in a small space as opposed to typing on the screen whilst having to look away to a sheet of paper lying flat on my desk. I never felt coordinated enough to do that and feared pulling a muscle or making myself dizzy.

Split screen transcribing

I set myself certain goals (and rewards, i.e. chocolate). I’d try to do one letter a day, or several even if they were short. This process took a long time, even for the short postcards and notes. You check and check and re-check these things many times. And you try to make sure they are perfect. After the letter was transcribed and proofed, then came the really fun part of researching for annotations and notes. This was where I felt I could most contribute to the project. After all, Plath did all the work herself just by writing the letter. It was my duty/responsibility to dig as far and deep and down as I could to identify and explain the information she was relating in her correspondence. This had me constantly on Ancestry (with Gail’s help), looking at microfilm and online/digitized historical newspapers and magazines, reference books at various libraries, looking in biographies (really, as a last resort), and what was most fun, was reading the incoming letters Plath received and retained to footnote the letter she was responding to. This also required it’s own set of proofing and review; and very often also necessitated moving these footnotes around so that they would appear at something’s or someone’s first mention. It felt like I imagine someone monitoring traffic patterns in big dense cities feels like as they try to manoeuvre cars and people all over the place.

I maintained, until the very end, a separate file for each letter. For me it was easier to work on this as small individual units. The documents were full searchable using Windows Explorer, so it was always very easy to find the text of a letter as well as the next in a footnote. And as time went on, I started to learn, by heart, which periods of time – if not which letter exactly – something was mentioned in. Then, using Word, I combined the individual files into one massive document which exceeded 3,300 pages, had more than 3,000 notes, and had nearly one million words.

What surprised you most about the letters?

This is a really difficult question because I’m going to have to try to answer it without giving away too much information (content-wise) about the letters themselves. The volume of letters surprised me. 1,380 (known/seen) letters is a quite a lot. Seeing many of them in person was fascinating as I got familiar first with her handwriting and then her typewriting and I started to notice small idiosyncratic things she did. It seemed that Plath and an inability to not write letters. She was constantly writing her family and friends and the voice in the letters is so charming and interesting. The letters are far better than what was printed in Letters Home; that’s an unfair representation of who Plath was. She gave her full attention to the recipient so that whoever it was must’ve felt the complete dedication of her time, energy, and personality. Similarly, I gained a sense of how close she was to certain people and this is certainly something that could be revisionary from the way many have interpreted her letters before.

The final manuscript

How long have you been working on this project?

As I mentioned above, the work kind of started in late 2010 and early 2011 but slowly and quite officially. From 2011 to 2014 saw the greatest amount of transcribing taking places and then the least two or so years was spent in proofing, annotating, and happily getting more letters. So while the project was a very long one, in some ways the extended duration was beneficial as we got about 100 or so more letters this way to several different people and this therefore widens our appreciation of her epistolary output. And the work isn’t even done yet! Since the book as with the publisher now there will be more work to do when the time comes such as reading the entire manuscript again, making last minute changes and updates, doing the pagination for the index and the like. And maybe more than this, too, if it is necessary. My attitude was always “Whatever it takes” and “I can rest when it’s done”. As much as I want a break from it, I still find myself occasionally looking for the odd bits of information for the contextual footnotes that had eluded before we submitted the manuscript. And, too, I keep looking for new letters. Not that I’m hopeful that we could get them in – it may be too late for all that – but because I know there are some (many) out there.

What sort of advice can you offer researchers who are about to embark on a project of this scale, because it was such a mammoth undertaking?!

My advice for any researchers about to embark on a project would be to be as logical and methodical and ruthless as possible. To come up with a reasonable working process; gather people you trust around you who can help; never be afraid to ask for help or information; buy ibuprofen for joint pain and carpel tunnel syndrome. Keep a list of outstanding queries that you have made to libraries and other reference sources because it’s easy to send out 12 emails and then forget about them. This way you can stay on top of things, follow-up with people in a timely fashion, and also periodically check for new information as it (information) is always becoming available. When it comes to the work, though, decide as early on in the process as you can what information you will include about the letter as metadata in each letter’s header. Look at other published volumes of letters to get ideas on styling. As much as you can try to understand the scope and scale and to take this into consideration when developing your plan to achieve the work. Ascertain in advance or when the contract is being discussed what the publisher has in mind for size, deadline and the like because no one wants surprises. Create personal goals and deadlines for accomplishing work in a given day or a week and most importantly stick to it. I took virtually no time off throughout the project but other people may not be as robotic, “dedicated”, or as driven as I was.

Peter signing the book contract with Faber

See Peter’s blog

And website



This Night Has Opened My Eyes

The following is a guest post by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, author of Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture (2016) which is a collection of essays exploring the continuation of Ian Curtis as a significant cultural figure, and the various ways in which fandom can manifest itself. I’m pleased to have an essay in this collection called ‘The Unquiet Graves of Ian Curtis and Sylvia Plath’.

This Night Has Opened My Eyes

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

I love my hometown of Santa Cruz, California more than anywhere else in the world. I am not saying this as a country bumpkin who has never left California, or the United States- there is some silly statistic of how many Americans do not even have a passport.  I have traveled all around the world, to cities huge and villages tiny. I appreciate a lot of places, but there is only the singular best place on earth of Santa Cruz. It is the perfect mix for me of artists, beach culture, nature, pot smokers, tech start up want-to-bes, crystal healers and corporate culture.  It is the perfect ying and yang of opposing forces, yet it works so beautifully. I left the Cruz when I was 18 to go to University, and I was homesick within a week of being away from it. I have yearned my entire life to go back there to live full time- or maybe, I have always hoped, to find another place that encapsulates those same Santa Cruz qualities.  I thought I would never find it, or get that feeling again.  Until I set foot in Manchester.

It is safe to say that I had ‘been’ to Manchester many, many times. I have been obsessed with all the bands from the city for three decades- since early pre-teen-hood, listening to New Order and the Smiths on repeat, usually on shitty taped over cassettes of my mother’s Juice Newton or Alice Cooper albums. You could sometimes hear the former recording between songs, a screech from Cooper or a croon from Newton. But these were my bands, and it did not matter what material had been on there before- these artists were the soundtrack to long summer nights cruising around the Cruz with a newly minted drivers license, to midnight clove cigarettes in college, to make out sessions with the cute guy from the apartment next door when I first moved to San Francisco after uni.

When I finally had the opportunity at the ripe old age of 33 to go to England- my first ever vacation as an adult!- the most important place for me to go was to Manchester. I remember stepping off the train that first night- I was HERE. I was overwhelmed at literally being able to walk the same streets once traipsed down by Joy Division, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.  I had a sweaty grip on Phil Gatenby’s Morrissey’s Manchester, a pre-Google tome which had a map and literal step by step directions to every place of relevance in the universe of the Smiths. Having also been equally enamored with Factory Records, I had my own even further DIY list of must see locations, such as the Hacienda, once the mythical epicenter of all Manchester nightlife, now outrageously overpriced footballer apartments.  Top of the list, though, besides the legendary Salford Lad’s Club, was to go to Macclesfield and pay my respects at the grave of Ian Curtis.  I remember looking it up- Macclesfield? Where the hell was that? Even my English friend who I was staying with had never heard of it.

Besides being too excited to sleep- so pumped up about actually being IN the ground zero for all of the music and artists I had loved for my entire life- I remember having that feeling. That Santa Cruz feeling. Of being totally at home, of the air, the architecture, the vibe, the intangible yet crucial thing that makes a place familiar and feel right.  Santa Cruz is right on the Pacific Ocean, alternatively foggy and sunny, with a huge surf scene.  Manchester has a ‘river the color of lead,’ red brick buildings and unrelenting gray, misty rain.  Two places could barely be more diametrically opposed, even though they were on literal opposite sides of the globe. Yet they shared that magical, mystical feeling of possibility.  I realize now how the two places had made me:  Santa Cruz, the stomping grounds of my adolescence; and Manchester, the soundscape for my musical awakening.

Now as the wife of an Englishman, the accent, the music, the exoticness of Manchester has lost some of its mystique compared to my first visit to the City Centre. But like my hometown of Santa Cruz, I will always love it, it will always be home, and I will always feel that zing of excitement when I am within her city limits.

Ian logo


Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a media and music academic, specializing in fan culture, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture and music. She has written and presented extensively on fandom and media, including The Guardian and has recently been featured on BBC Radio 4.  Formerly a music excutive where she worked with acts including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Dr. Dre and Gwen Stafani, she now lives in London and writes and lectures full-time.  Her newly edited book, Joy Devotion:  The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture is out July 15th on Headdress.  For more information, go to

joy devotion

These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath

By Gail Crowther & Peter K. Steinberg

We are pleased to announce that we have just signed a book contract with Fonthill Media for a co-authored publication, the working title of which is, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. The essays in the book are based on our ‘These Ghostly Archives’ series of papers which we published from 2009-2013. We have substantially revised several of the essays and written new conversational pieces, in addition to producing original solo chapters. We are contracted to submit the manuscript to Fonthill this summer and anticipate a 2017 release.

The topics in the book will cover a plethora of Plath finds in the archives, but will also reflect more generally on the experiential nature of working in archives, and how these spaces may be understood. We have become increasingly interested not only in the way power informs archives, but how archives are, rather paradoxically, quite fluid things – not just fixed repositories holding relics from the past.

address book
Plath’s address book
dh lawrence
Plath’s copy of D.H. Lawrence

We discuss tracking and tracing lost manuscripts and poems, finding new work in the most unexpected of places, the contrast between Plath’s professional and personal holdings, her hair and her clothes, and the largely ignored poetry anthology that Plath worked on throughout 1961 as she was concurrently editing The Bell Jar. These archival adventures occur on both sides of the Atlantic, and take us into a number of well known and lesser known archives.

Smith archives 001
Neilson Library, Smith College
smith 032
Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

We definitely have Derridean archive fever and we hope you will too!

[For other recent Plath finds and information visit Peter’s website and blog for Plath: and]

Encountering the Archive

Since the start of this year I have been thinking and writing about archives. I have also been reading about archives – journal articles by researchers and archivists, excellent collections of essays such as Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead’s The Boundaries of the Literary Archive and general theorising of the archive by Caroline Steedman in Dust. So what I have now is a messy head of ideas that need some kind of moulding.

There are two things of which I am certain. First, that archives are about power. There is power in terms of who gets to access archives. There is power in who gets an archive dedicated to them. There is power in what gets sold to an archive and what gets withheld. I also think there can be subversive power in an archive – a place for otherwise silent/silenced voices to be heard. The second thing of which I am certain is that archives are somewhat melancholic, or at least the objects contained in them can be melancholy objects. By this I mean often the artefacts are relics of the dead, and as such, we read them perhaps already knowing the end story of somebody’s life. In the Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College, we can see the cheque stub for the gas cooker which Plath purchased on 12 December 1962 for £16:5:0. In this sense sometimes the meaning of objects becomes re-negotiated.

What I often struggle to articulate is the actual experience of working in an archive. Peter K Steinberg and I tried to capture this unique feeling in our series of papers called ‘These Ghostly Archives’- those physical shocks and jolts you can feel handling certain things. In theory, academics are supposed to remain pretty detached from this stuff and not write about such emotions, a rule which I repeatedly break. The very first archive I visited was at Peter’s request – the BBC Written Archives at Reading in England. While I was sitting feeling completely overwhelmed handling original documents, seeing Plath’s signature for the first time, following stories of poems and submissions and recordings, someone sitting behind me was reading letters from George Orwell to the BBC. I invented a spurious reason to stand up and stretch my legs so I could saunter by and casually glance at these letters. Plath and Orwell both within my field of vision at the same time. No way am I not going to get over-excited.

It’s not just the manuscripts and letters that are so moving in an archive. At Smith College I loved the childhood bits and pieces that Aurelia Plath had preserved and passed on.  Little Sylvia Plath was a delightfully creative child making cards and drawings and cartoons.

Homemade card signed ‘To Mother Love Sylvia 1937’

She seemed to appear often in the local newspaper which was a chance to view previously unseen photos


And as she matured, her personal library grew. It was fascinating to see her underlinings and comments, or images from certain books that ultimately inspired poems.

the hanging man
Image of The Hanging Man from Plath’s copy of The Painted Caravan

So while I try to sort out theoretical approaches to the archive, I don’t want to lose the experiential aspect. In a way that is the most important part because ultimately for me archives are about remembrance – re-vivification, restoration, dialogues with the dead.

The Living and the Dead

In the fog, the gravestones are just visible and it is very hard to tell what is real and what is imagination.


How can something be so bright, so white and so difficult to see? The line between the living and the dead becomes blurred. How is it possible to stand at the graveside of someone long gone, yet who is so present in day to day life?

Last week as I worked on edits for my forthcoming book The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, I began by asking the question ‘who’ or ‘what’ are the dead? Can they return, and if so what might they want from us, or us from them? In a curious convergence, I was also watching the last episode of the French TV series The Returned (Les Revenants) which was exploring similar ideas. Where do the dead come from and where do they go? Are they any different from the living, and if so, how? In this show, the dead looked just like the living; they loved, they ate, they felt, they laughed. In some cases they were more alive than the numbed-grief of the living. Refreshingly, the dead were not frightening, though there is something a little creepy about seeing a dead person return. They were searching and they longed for something, but were not really quite sure what that might be.


Longing or yearning is a feature of the living and the dead. The melancholic ache for someone who is gone, that ungraspable presence, the enigma of the finality, the never-can-be-ness of it all. The Returned was ultimately about resolution, letting go but experiencing a continuing presence. In this sense it seemed that the dead have nothing at all to do with silence, although Derrida claims that the dead can only speak if we choose to give them a voice. I am not so sure this is the case. I think the dead can quite happily take their place in our lives alongside us, very much there, very much becoming, by their traces and their objects and their photographs. Our memories and imagination can also leap in and create an overwhelming sense of there-ness so that it is almost like that person has not gone at all. Except of course they have, and that which we grasp onto is the very thing that causes the yearning. When there is no ‘body’ what is left? Perhaps it is a sense of kinship, or as I write in my book, the sense of a two-way door between the living and dead. Plath captures it perfectly in her poem ‘All the Dead Dears’:

All the long gone darlings: they

Get back, though, soon,

Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,

Childbirths or a family barbeque:

Any touch, taste, tang’s

Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,


And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair

Between tick

And tack of the clock, until we go,

Each skull-and-crossboned Gulliver

Riddled with ghosts, to lie

Deadlocked with them, taking root as cradles rock.

(1988: 71)

There is no barrier here, but rather a blurry intricacy in which the living and the dead become ‘Deadlocked’ in a sort of two way intersection between life and death. We cannot contain the dead and perhaps neither should we want to, but rather like the priest in The Returned, give them free rein to do what they wish and let them enrich our lives with stories, with memories and with words.

Electra on Azalea Path

There is always something to be said for tracing somebody’s footsteps. Pilgrimage, I suppose. I like making pilgrimages to poems. Partly it is about trying to see a place through somebody else’s eyes but it is also about atmosphere. Standing looking at the same scene as somebody else can produce powerful emotions. In some ways I feel it helps me understand part of the authorial process, transforming a scene or place into a poem. I feel I can take part in some sort of surrogate authorship being so fascinated by that meeting point where experience becomes text. When, say Sylvia Plath, looked at a scene, felt something at a certain place, how did this transform itself into a poem, a piece of prose, part of a novel?  What happens, what occurs at that moment?

In 2011, I visited Azalea Path in Winthrop where Plath’s father is buried. Like her, I too, followed a haphazard route through three graveyards separated by streets. I stumbled unexpectedly on Otto Plath’s grave, his stone flat to the ground; missable, unedifying. When Otto Plath was buried here, the graveyard was new. The plaque on the cemetery gates states that the churchyard opened on 1 June 1940, and Otto Plath died just five months later. Is this why his grave is situated where it is, in one of the first rows? I visited this site with Plath’s poem ‘Electra on Azalea Path’ firmly in mind. I also thought about sections of the poem that linked directly to her journal account and scenes from The Bell Jar.  What occurred for Plath in 1959 on Azalea Path in Winthrop?

Winthrop 087

The day I woke I woke on Churchyard Hill.

I found your name, I found your bones and all

Enlisted in a cramped necropolis,

Your speckled stone askew by an iron fence.

(Collected Poems p. 117)

Winthrop 080

In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead

Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower

Breaks the soil. This is Azalea Path.

(Collected Poems p. 117)


Then I saw my father’s gravestone.

It was crowded right up by another headstone, head to head, the way people are crowded in a charity ward when there isn’t enough space. The stone was of a mottled pink marble, like tinned salmon, and all there was on it was my father’s name and, under it, two dates, separated by a little dash. (The Bell Jar p. 177)

 Winthrop 079

A clear blue day in Winthrop. Went to my father’s grave, a very depressing sight…In the third yard, on a flat grassy area looking across a sallow barren stretch to rows of wooden tenements I found the flat stone “ Otto E. Plath: 1885-1940”, right beside the path, where it would be walked over. Felt cheated. (Journals p. 473)

Winthrop 081

No trees, no peace, his headstone jammed up against the body on the other side. Left shortly. It is good to have the place in mind. (Journals p.473)

Winthrop 084

This journey, of course, is about the living and the dead, the private and the public, for both Otto and Sylvia Plath and ultimately for me. I do not know what occurred for Plath on Azalea Path in Winthrop. I can guess and I can daydream. I took photographs and in the end realised that for everyone involved, it was about loss.

An Exemplary Resistance

The remarkable art of John Heartfield, master of the political photomontage

I am delighted to present a guest blog by artist Anthony Cockayne on the power of art as a political tool.


Recent revelations of lewd and unbecoming behaviour alleged to have taken place during ritualistic practices in the Oxford of the 1980s have been aimed at the present head of government of this country. An old friend of The Prime Minister and a one-time funder of the Tory Party has made claims in his book that the leader of the Conservative Party presented a leading part of his anatomy, to the open jawed, severed head of a pig, as part of an induction rite, to gain membership of the “Piers Gav” society. Now, I wouldn’t know if shipping the member in this fashion would gain you access to a select club named after a bedmate of Edward 11,King of England (1307-1327) but it is certainly a most timely reminder of the fecund source from which political satire emerges. Britain has a long and esteemed history in the business of ridicule, where ridicule is due and no more brilliant exponents than the likes of Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray exist.

Thomas Rolandson cartoon

Their satirical jousts with the establishment were rich pickings for two hugely gifted graphic artists, whose needle sharp pens, dipped well in to the inky depths of the British Society of their day. However, it was to a German artist, with a very English sounding name, that my mind re-connected with during this last week.With much to revile and rail against in our present world, way beyond the student shenanigans and buffoonery earlier referred to, it was to the serious and assiduously accomplished graphic art of John Heartfield that I turned to have another look at. The Blue Plaque,that bears his name in Hampstead,London states, “ Master of the political photomontage” lived here, 1938-1943. Significantly, these years in exile, for Heartfield, were war years but John’s war had begun much earlier

blue plaque

Born Helmut Herzfeld on June 19th,1891, Heartfield would take his new English AKA ,following anti-British feeling circulating in his native Germany during and after the 1st World War and go to war himself on the injustices beginning to ravage the country of his birth.

In the Middle Ages…so in the Third Reich

Photomontage was his weapon and what a weapon. Deadly in its precision, he conjured images from the cut up magazines and periodicals of his day, to reassemble visual statements so extraordinary, so lacerating in their comment, as to put him on the top of the SS’s hit list. The method, formulated and used by The Dadaists, in Berlin, in the 20s was brought to the form’s apotheosis by Heartfield, skilfully adding retouching techniques and the work of photographers to assist him, in establishing the final image, before it was re-photographed, to create a large negative, prior to the final photogravure print.

The Executioner and Justice

For Heartfield, the means of disseminating his work to a large audience, was answered in the form of The Worker’s Illustrated News, or AIZ, as it was known in Germany. Published between 1921-1938, AIZ, reached a circulation of half a million people and contributors included Maxim Gorki, George Bernard Shaw, George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. Often Heartfield’s most searing work graced the front covers presenting his visual critique of a society gone rotten at the core.


With the seemingly innocuous tools of scissors, scalpel, pencil and glue, Heartfield set about making his statement and it is a reminder of what can be achieved with so little. As we face ever alarming times ahead, not just with endless wars, we now stand on a precipice watching the consequences of climate change, increasingly breathing in air toxic to our lungs, it seems to me that two-dimensional graphic art, can still play a huge part in our protest and the fight for a better world and who better to lead us by example than John Heartfield.

This is the salvation They are bringing us!