Bob Neill is Alive and Well: A Brief History of Typewriter Art

Bob Neill is Alive and Well: A Brief History of Typewriter Art

Following the sad death of Bob Cobbing I am in a position to report
happier news. But as this is my first post to this group, I'll start
by introducing myself. My name is Andrew Belsey and I have been a
concrete poet since the 1960s, when I was introduced to the subject
at Warwick University by Michael Gibbs and Paul Merchant. They edited
the first number of KONTEXTS at the University, and Michael continued
as editor for some years. At some point he moved to Amsterdam, where
he continues to be active in the art world.

A few years later I became acquainted with Alan Riddell, and
contributed to his typewriter art exhibitions in Edinburgh (1973) and
London (1974), and to the resultant book, TYPEWRITER ART (1975).
Unfortunately Alan Riddell died in May 1977, when he was only 50, and
the British concrete poetry and typewriter art movements suffered a
blow from which they never really recovered. Had Alan lived, I am
sure he would have continued to be the centre of activity,
inspiration and encouragement for those working in the whole field of
concrete poetry. By this time his own typewriter art, which has been
exhibited (at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, in 1978) but as far as I
know never published, was reaching sublime heights, even transcending
the fine examples that appeared in his earlier book ECLIPSE (1972).

Over the decades I have continued as an (amateur) concrete poet and
typewriter artist, while making full use of changes in technology to
produce ASCII art and computer verbal/visual graphics of all sorts.
(Most of this lies dormant on hard disks or in files, as it is
difficult to find outlets these days.) But I was always something of
a historian and archivist. In this role I was able to assist Joan
Stark with her HISTORY OF ASCII ART website, and Brenda Danet with
her book CYBERPL@Y, which includes a chapter on ASCII art and its

One thing that I mentioned to Joan Stark was that the British Library
Catalogue listed the following:


But I could not find any copies of these books, nor discover any
information about the author or publisher. Goudhurst, after all, is
not known as a centre of avant-garde publishing: it is a small market
town in rural Kent. A version of one of Bob's pictures, a Persian
cat, was posted on the Web by a Dutch source, but it gave no further

However, after several years of drawing blanks, earlier in 2002 I
managed to trace Bob Neill, who it turns out is alive and well and
even thinking of bringing out a THIRD book of typewriter art. Bob
readily agreed to a visit, so I was able to talk to him about his
life and work, examine his two books and take a photograph of him in
his study holding the books. (Unfortunately from my point of view,
Bob has just one copy of each book, so he was unable to let me have
copies. The books sold well and there must be quite a few in
circulation but they rarely come on to the second-hand market.
Luckily, though, since visiting Bob I have managed to obtain a copy
of the SECOND book.)

I also learnt from Bob that he had been working almost completely
independently, and was unaware of Alan Riddell's TYPEWRITER ART
or of other traditions in typewriter art, with one small exception: he
had seen an article, without any illustrations, in the STAR newspaper
about a Spanish typewriter artist. Though his work has similarities
to some of the contributions to TYPEWRITER ART (especially the
portraits by Will Hollis and Dennis W.A. Collins), Bob's books are
unique because they contain not only the typewriter pictures but also
the "program" for producing them . that is, the exact sequence of
keys to be pressed for each line of the picture, including overtyping.
(The result looks something like a knitting pattern!) Thus anyone
with one of Bob's books and an old-fashioned (non-proportionally
spaced) typewriter can produce replicas of Bob's pictures. Many of
his readers did do their own pictures following Bob's programs, and
he has also inspired some professional artists, such as Helen Jones
and Kirsty Lyall, who had a collaborative exhibition, WITH THANKS TO
BOB NEILL, in Nottingham in December 2000.

The subjects of Bob's pictures are portraits of people and animals.
Examples of people in the SECOND book include contemporary
personalities like Sandi Toksvig, Selina Scott, Benny from
CROSSROADS, Miss Elly and J.R. from DALLAS, Barry Manilow and Adam
Ant. (The likenesses are excellent.) His technique uses the strict
grid format of the typewriter. He uses overtyping, sometimes up to
three timeson one row, to produce character units varying in intensity
from very dark to white (space bar). Bob's pictures are thus like
half-tone photographs, only with much larger "dots." Sometimes, in
addition to the black characters, he uses a two-colour ribbon to
produce a red background.

Given the nature of his technique, it is not surprising that Bob was
aware of the possibility of computerising the procedure. The last
section of the SECOND book contains a program for one his pictures,
written in BASIC for the Commodore PET by Nick Higham.
Interestingly, while the typewriter "programs" remain as valid as
ever, this section on computerisation is outmoded. (Is there anyone
out there still using a Commodore PET?) Now there are plenty of
programs available for drawing ASCII art, today's equivalent of
typewriter art. But the best ASCII artists, like Joan Stark, will
have nothing to do withsuch programs and do it all by hand and eye,
and are thus still following the example set by Bob Neill and all the
other typewriter artists.

This has not really been a history of typewriter art, not even a
brief one. It is more like a personal recollection of some typewriter
art episodes and events, together with some general thoughts on this
strange but fascinating art form. But I hope it will also bring
deserved though belated recognition to Bob Neill. And perhaps it
will also stimulate some more old-time practitioners of typewriter art
(I mean from the 1960s and 1970s) to see if there is anything worth
recording in their own memories.


The Constant Rediscovery of the Typewriter as an Artistic Medium

In the history of science there is the well-known phenomenon of
"simultaneous discovery," when two or more scientists working
independently and without knowledge of each other come up with the
same idea or discovery at roughly the same time. It seems that
something similar operates in the history of typewriter art, only
without such simultaneity. Or to put it another way, typewriter art
has been (re)discovered several times. For example, I doubt whether
many of the contemporary contributors to Alan Riddell's TYPEWRITER
ART in 1975 were aware of experiments in the 1920s by Bauhaus students
or the Dutch typographer H.N. Werkman, with which the book opens. Nor
had they come across the work of Guillermo Mendana Olivera round
about 1960, now available through Joan Stark's HISTORY OF ASCII ART
website. So the fact that Bob Neill was, with the minor exception
mentioned above, unaware of other typewriter artists is not
surprising. And he has not been the only major typewriter artist
outside any group or tradition. A few years ago the work done by
Winifred Caldwell in America in the 1940s and 1950s appeared on the
Internet (now, unfortunately, it has disappeared). Caldwell's
technique was quite different from that of Bob Neill and the main
tradition of typewriter art, for she manipulated the paper in the
platen and used lines, brackets, dots and a few other characters to
draw more "naturalistic" pictures of houses, landscapes and flowers
(named "TypEtchings" onthe website). But her results are highly
skilled and as appealing as anything in typewriter art.


Brenda Danet, Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online (Berg, 2001)

Michael Gibbs and Paul Merchant (eds), Kontexts [1], 1969

Alex Hamilton, "Key Industry," The Guardian, 12 December 1975
(article about Riddell's Typewriter Art book)

Neil Hanson, "Alan Riddell," The Guardian, 27 April 1978 (review of
the Hull exhibition)

Bob Neill's Book of Typewriter Art (Goudhurst: Weavers Press, 1982)

Bob Neill's Second Book of Typewriter Art (Goudhurst: Weavers Press,

Alan Riddell, Compositions: A Retrospective Exhibition of Work by
Alan Riddell (1927-1977), Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 8-30 April 1978,
foreword by June Road (unillustrated exhibition catalogue)

Alan Riddell, Eclipse (Calder and Boyars, 1972)

Alan Riddell, Typewriter Art: Half a Century of Experiment, New 57
Gallery, 105 Rose Street Edinburgh, 17 November-6 December 1973
(illustrated exhibition catalogue)

Alan Riddell, Typewriter Art: Half a Century of Experiment, Concourse
Gallery, Polytechnic of Central London, 35 Marylebone Road, NW1, 25
February-13 March 1974 (illustrated exhibition catalogue, with some
additions since the Edinburgh exhibition)

Alan Riddell, "Typewriter Art," London Magazine 13(4),
October-November 1973, pp. 63-67 (illustrated article about the
Edinburgh exhibition)

Alan Riddell (ed), Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975)
(major source of typewriter art from 1898 to 1974; 118 images by 65
artists from 18 countries)


Winifred Caldwell, TypEtchings
longer accessible: produces "a connection failure has occurred"
alert. But at the last minute I discover that some TypEtchings are
now displayed at

Mobile Cube, Typewriter Art
(contains examples from Riddell's Typewriter Art book)

Brenda Danet, Cyberpl@y

(information about and extracts from her book)

Michael Gibbs, Nondescript Productions
(includes information on
Kontexts Publications, 1968-1983)

Helen Jones

Kirsty Lyall

Bob Neill, Persian Cat
(no longer
accessible: produces "not found" response)

Joan Stark, Gallery of Original ASCII Art
(superb work by the
undisputed Queen of ASCII ART. Joan Stark's website is difficult to
access: normally produces "temporarily unavailable" response)

Joan Stark, History of ASCII Art
(highly informative
survey from hieroglyphs to ASCII art, via typewriters and radio

Andrew Belsey
12 November 2002