The History of the Society

The Early Days of the BOS Part One. ‘How about you, Mike?’
(Mick Guy remembers a day in the sixties when the BOS was formed)

BOS portfolios
BOS portfolios

On the afternoon of Saturday 28th October 1967, a group of eleven people sat around a table in a room at the prestigious Russell Hotel in London. It was the year in the UK when Radio 1 had hit the airwaves, colour television was launched and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper. Amongst them was a magician, a patents agent, a schoolboy, a housewife, a teacher, a solicitor, a statistician, an Oxford student and a civil engineer. They all had one thing in common, a love of origami.

The meeting was significant; by the time a few hours had passed, the British Origami Society had been formed. Three years earlier, Sidney French had perceived the idea of an informal club where a box of models was passed around us in a postal circle. It had been a success but there was now a need to formalise things as a structure was required to move the origami movement forward. This was the third time we had met. I was a naive twenty year old engineering apprentice with no knowledge of committees or meetings. I thought we were all getting together to fold paper again and even though his invitation letter had been clear, I was rather confused when Sidney called us together to tell us the plan for the afternoon.

There was to be the agreement of a Constitution which David Lister had prepared and then an inaugural meeting and then the first AGM. Fortunately I was seated at the back next to Noel Stanton and very soon he was passing me the latest models he had received from the USA under the table. My contribution to the meeting was very little but my willingness to help resulted in an unexpected direction of my life.

Towards the end of the meeting it came to the stage where it was decided as to who was going to do what. John Smith was an obvious choice as Librarian, Sidney offered to remain Chairman and a few said they were too busy to do anything. But bit by bit, Sidney chipped away until the post of Secretary was the last post to fill. Out of the blue Sidney said, “How about you, Mike?” I was completely taken aback by this. All I could do was to be ask for an explanation of what the Secretary actually did.

A few things were stated and I agreed to give it a go. When I returned home my mother, who had experience of working with a political party, asked what had happened at the meeting. I told her that I was to become the Secretary. “Well that’s the biggest job of the lot,” she said “They didn’t tell me that,” I replied!

Part Two – The library starts to get organised.

Previously, the box of models we received now and again and the annual meetings held at Rosaly Evnine’ s satisfied the needs of many. However one or two, in particular John Smith, were looking forward. He had visited Lillian Oppenheimer’s Origami Centre in New York and was amazed at the amount of new origami he had found, many undocumented.

Thinking it over on his way back home he became convinced that the British society should start a library. Clearly to do this, finance would be required and so the only way to achieve this was to place the Portfolio Society on a formal footing. At our second meeting in the spring of 1967, John put forward his thoughts. Not everyone was convinced, but much correspondence occurred between John, Sidney and David Lister in the months that followed and in the autumn, the BOS was formed.

There was much to work on in the first year. As well as my secretarial duties, I assisted John in putting the library together. Our brief was simple; to catalogue and diagram any model which had not been previously published. David Lister requested we begin with all the known bases. They are not as popular today but I would guess that the majority of pieces designed in the sixties were derived from bases. You very rarely hear of the blintz bases these days. These are made by folding the four corners to the centre before you construct the normal base and they usually give some more corners to play with. Nowadays you find some crease patterns which in fact are just blintzed or four times versions of standard bases.

Early library catalogues
Early library catalogues

We had a lot of support from three American Paperfolders, namely, Jessie Seto, Francis McNaul Jnr and Thelma Mason ( later to become Thelma Randlett) who were very happy to share their private collections. John separated instructions sheets into those prepared by BOS members and others from elsewhere which had other copyright restrictions applied. These became the M and J series. We were able to make die-line (draughtsman) copies of the M series and sell these to members for a small charge. The amount of material mushroomed in the first two years. The first catalogue, published in March ‘68 contained just 23 items, by December of the same year it had grown to 138 and by 1970 the library contained 600 items.

One thing that never materialised was a collection of folded models. This is probably because of the room required to house them, particularly those in 3D. So original pieces from the masters of the past remain in private collections. After getting the library established, John passed it on to Winifred Smith. Brian and Margaret Goodall were the next custodians who looked after it for over 25 years, during which the library grew considerably into the wonderful resource it is today

Part Three – The BOS logo is chosen

the BOS logo
the BOS logo

After the BOS had been formed, Sidney French requested everyone to think about a design which could be used for the Society’s logo. Eric Kenneway, who was an art teacher at the time was charged with putting together a few designs to be discussed at the next meeting. They say a camel was invented by a committee and my recollection was that resulting logo came about in the same way. John Smith had suggested the flapping bird, Harbin had a map of Europe and the preliminary fold, because it looked like a Union Jack, was amongst other interesting ideas. I clearly remember a discussion about the bird being like the crane and the wisdom of using a design adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

We had many skills in our group but we did not have a logo designer. If we had of done I think the design would have been simpler. But slowly and surely agreement came around to featuring the flapping bird flying from the east to Europe and in particular to the British Isles and Ireland depicted by their position against lines of latitude and longitude. Eric was happy to prepare the artwork but then we hit a snag – we had agreed that the words ‘British Origami Society’ should encircle the logo but Eric openly declared that he was not a sign-writer. It took some time for me to persuade him that he could do it and I reckon he did a great job. But Eric was never happy with the result. You can tell an early logo by the vertical sides on the capital ‘M’.

It was not until some years later when I did some work for an advertising agency that they offered to tidy up the lettering using the same style but with early computer graphics. The font has changed a few more times since but everything else has remained the same. That is apart from a rework of what became known as the ‘two old socks’. Les Turvey who, in doing a sterling job with the logo when producing large copies for conventions and exhibitions, has given the British Isles some overdue coastline definition. I wonder if anyone has noticed?

The BOS logo design has become loved over the years and should never change but I do wonder on a different day with other inputs what it may have finished up looking like.

Part Four – Finance

Most organisations make a loss in their first year and the BOS was no exception. Without any income streams apart from membership fees, I suppose it was inevitable that we would not really know the true costs until the end of the first year. In fact we made a loss of £20. At our second AGM, Sidney French our Chairman, generously and without hesitation said he would cover the deficit. It has occurred to me since that if the fledgling Society was going to fail it would not be because of finance.

Sidney FrenchWhilst we kept a good eye on expenditure, both Sidney and Robert Harbin would keep us out of trouble. On many occasions, I would go to settle a hotel bill and find that Bob had already paid it. Sidney of course had previously financed the Portfolio Society and continued to do so throughout its life. Nevertheless the membership fees of £1 for ordinary members and five shillings (25p) for children and students, which had been plucked out of the air at the first AGM, were immediately doubled for year two.

Membership remained small in those early years but was about to pick up when Bob’s ‘Teach Yourself Origami’ was published in 1968. It contained my address and so for first time Paperfolders had a UK contact. But money was still very tight. When we decided that we would like a badge, I had to ask members for loans! Pleasingly these were repaid very quickly. Never short of an idea, John Smith suggested we compile a series of booklets.

John argued that there were many models and related subjects which would never be published commercially and so the BOS would be providing a service by self publishing booklets and at the same time earning an income from them. The Chess Sets of Max Hulme and Martin Wall, published in 1977 became the seventh in the series and the first of many to feature designs of members’ work.

Harbin books and paper
Harbin – books and paper

Origami paper in the early days was not easy to come by. The first packs were made by Butterfly Brand in the sixties to coincide with Harbin’s origami slots in the BBC show, Top Score. The paper was thin and strong but was restricted to five colours which bled to the reverse side. When the show finished so did the manufacture of the paper. Undeterred, Harbin persuaded John Maxfield, a printer he knew, to make a very similar product which again served as an accompaniment to his new Yorkshire TV series aired in the seventies and the popular paperback books, Origami 1,2,3&4. I had been supplying packs of Maxfield origami paper (not easy to find in the early years) and the sale of library catalogues, ‘M’ Series sheets and homemade car logo stickers all added to funds.

This initiative led to a Supplies department being created and I was able to persuade Joan Homewood to become our Supplies Officer during her first convention. No doubt this will result in a Letter to the Editor from Joan! We enjoyed Bob Harbin’s company and support for just over ten years. He was the best PR person you could wish for but sadly he passed away in 1978.

origami books

Mindful of our need for resources he left the Society the royalties of his books, a legacy that has put the BOS on a very good financial footing. Subsequent Councils have wisely invested this income together with another legacy from Eric Kenneway. The interest, from these and other donations, is used for subsidising conventions and origami related events. Whether we will ever realise Harbin’s dream of an origami building permanently holding exhibitions I wonder, but I know that Bob and Sidney, who died in 1992, would be very pleased to see how origami and the BOS have developed since those early years.

Part Four – the Newsletter

As far as communications were concerned, the Portfolio trundled around and any notice of ad hoc meetings was dealt with by letter. Prior to the BOS being formed in October ‘67, many felt that we needed something to keep us better informed.

The result was a small, but effective publication produced by Tim Ward called, The Origami Monthly. It contained diagrams of models and any news that needed to be communicated and the idea was that it would be financed from voluntary donations.

Two issues were published and it became adopted as the official newsletter of the BOS but with its name changed to Origami Art. What happened next was unclear but after two more issues it ceased publication.

To keep the ball rolling and as Secretary, I published a third issue under the same title prior to the following meeting. As the library was by now well established and the sourcing of diagrams a lot easier for members, it was decided at the second AGM to publish a monthly publication containing text only and be produced by the stencil process. It was renamed, British Origami, and sub-titled, the newsletter of the British Origami Society. Iris Walker became Editor and eventually printer and distributor. For the first time and thereafter, member received regular communications.

After about forty issues, Iris handed over the Editorship to Ray Bolt. Under his tenure, significant changes were made, becoming affordable as the membership increased. After a number of size changes, an A5 booklet size was adopted and produced using an outside printer by the offset litho process. Composition of the pages was achieved by actual cut and paste, a far more painstaking process than it is today.

Diagrams were now included and eventually a card cover was introduced and the subtitle changed from newsletter to magazine. From very humble beginnings and over 300 issues, British Origami has progressed into the full colour periodical it is today. The collection provides us with half a century of the history of Origami in the UK and abroad. Producing each issue has been a labour of love, but I know that each retiring Editor has been proud to be associated with it.

Part Six – Meeting Together

The first BOS meeting
The first BOS meeting

The first meeting at Rosaly Evenine’s apartment in Kensington, London in 1966 was very special. Yes, by then, many of us had corresponded with each other but there was a real desire to share our hobby in a way only getting together can achieve.

Subsequent meetings could not come soon enough and when the BOS was formed a year later (again through Rosaly’s, generosity) we were able to see and share with our new friends for the day, every six months or so.

But we were still thinly spread around the country and so any local meetings were out of the question. This started to change with the paperback version of Harbin’s ‘Teach Yourself Origami’. Renamed ‘Origami 1’, it became the accompanying book for Bob’s new Yorkshire TV series. The ten minute, low budget production ran for many episodes and so successful was the book the publisher, Hodder, commissioned Origami 2 and 3. Now quite a rare book, Origami 4 followed but with a much shorter print run as by that time the shows had ended. The TV series was exported to several countries and the paperbacks translated into many languages.

As membership increased, I took the opportunity to encourage and sometimes visit anyone in the Birmingham area and beyond who had written to me. Philip Blencowe from Kidderminster was one of the first and he began to accompany me on visits to the London meetings. In 1971, Sue and I were looking for a house to live in when we got married. When we found one with a loft and a large billiard table, my mind immediately thought about having mini meetings up there. The first was on Saturday 19th August 1972, attended by myself, Philip Blencowe, Peter Ford and Ray Bolt. We folded the Bunny Bill (Neale), Rabbit (Elias), Portrait Base / Shakespeare (Kenneway) and Dougal from the Magic Roundabout (Steve Carter).

Council meetings were later held there as many of the officers lived in the West Midlands area. What particularly pleased me was the distance people were prepared to travel to be part of it. Forty-five years later, at our current West Midland mini meetings organised by Dave Venables, many still travel significant distances to meet and share.

Meanwhile, as numbers began to grow, convention venues came under the spotlight as Eric Kenneway proposed we should hold our meetings over a weekend. Although rather sceptical at first, because of the low number I thought would turn up, it was agreed to organise one in Birmingham.

Such was the success of this that Birmingham became the autumn venue for the next ten years. Universities also served us well in the many UK cities we have visited.

We have now had a hundred conventions and continue to keep costs down so that everyone has the opportunity to attend. The Internet can supply many of our origami needs but the joy the founding members experienced of meeting together is just as real now as it was some fifty years ago.

Part 7—Spreading the word.

This final instalment covers the ways in which we used to try and educate the general public about what origami actually was! Ask a person in the street about this now and he will usually know but that was not the case fifty years ago. Looking back we divided our efforts into holding exhibitions, giving talks and teaching sessions and working with the media.

Events in Nottingham and Hull were held in the late sixties, but the first major BOS origami exhibition in the UK was held in the book department of Heal’s department store, Tottenham Court Road, London in 1971 over a period of three weeks. Harbin, Kenneway and other Londoners put it together and supported it throughout. But sadly some exhibits from abroad never made it because of a prolonged postal strike.

An early exhibition

In the West Midlands we had members who had staged Ikebana and Heraldry exhibitions and encouraged us to join them at venues in Lutterworth, Leicestershire and at the Town and Country festivals in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. We quickly learned that an exhibition together with audience participation was the best way to get the message through. Also it was better to stage the exhibition where there were people, rather than in an art gallery and hoping that folks would turn up.

The Birmingham group later staged two very successful weekend exhibitions in 1975 and 1979 at a boathouse at Cannon Hill Park and Max Hulme organised our participation at the Ludlow show in 1976. Scotland also featured with an exhibition in Edinburgh organised by Naomi Whitelaw.

Then there were the talks in the daytime and evenings to women’s groups, Scouts, Girl Guides and other associations, all of whom enjoyed making things, even though liking origami enough to join the BOS was rare. But the seeds were sown and we had the backup of origami books which are now not as difficult to find. Boathouse in Cannon Hill Park british origami 15 Media interest was always there and many members were prepared to work with companies in what came to be known as commissions. Slowly, but surely, the word origami was becoming much more well known.

Rolling the clock on and everything mentioned above still happens but with a better awareness from the public. One good thing that has changed in the UK is the gender balance. My guess is that at the start there was a male female split of about 80/20. Nowadays it is much nearer 50/50.

Mick & IrisThe origami movement has spread to the four corners of the world and with it a wonderful family has emerged. There seems to be no stopping the development of the branch lines from which so many new models emerge. When we started, fifty years ago, modulars, tessellations (both versions) and minimalists did not exist. Just like any other craft we are open to fashion but the classics never go away. We owe our designers, diagrammers, communicators, teachers, planners and organisers a great deal of gratitude, for without them our selection of things to fold would be a minute fraction of what we have today. Long may it all continue. Chess Set by Max Hulme

The Portfolio

For a UK paperfolder in the early 1960s, the origami world was a lonely place to be. But fortunately Robert Harbin, a popular magician, had earlier caught the bug and through his book, Paper Magic, first published in 1956 he had begun to gather contacts. These were mainly overseas, particularly in the USA, where Lillian Oppenheimer’s Origami Centre had become a place where folders over there could meet. Because of his profession, Harbin could open doors and he would take every opportunity to write an article for a newspaper or film an origami piece for the television.

Meanwhile, Sam and Jean Randlett had also written an important book entitled , ‘The Art of Origami‘ which was published in the USA in 1961. The sequel, ‘Best of Origami’ (1963) and Harbin’s, ‘Secrets of Origami‘ (1964) not only contained some spectacular models, but also listed the address of Lillian’s centre in New York. At last there was somewhere to whom and where UK paperfolders could write and Lillian diligently answered them all with passion and enthusiasm.

Iris Walker
Iris Walker

When in 1964, Iris Walker, a housewife from Hull in the north of England, asked for a list of UK addresses, Lillian was able to supply eighteen. Not all responded to Iris’s follow-up letter but there were enough for her to start thinking about how to bring them together. She realised she needed help and this came from Sidney French a retired Civil Engineer who had became interested in origami through buying an origami book for a child. He liked it so much that he kept the book and bought the child something else!

It was Sidney French who conceived the idea of a box of models travelling around a postal circle. It began in August 1965 and the concept was simple. When you received the Portfolio, as it became known, you were encouraged to add a contribution. This could be a new model, an article or anything else of interest. After a few days studying everything else in the box you sent it to the next on the list. Months went by until it came around again, completely replenished with new material. You simply removed your old contribution and added a new one.

To begin with there were just a dozen of us arranged in a postal route that travelled anti clockwise around England and Scotland. A notebook travelled with the Portfolio and we were encouraged to add information about ourselves, suggest how the group should evolve and to comment on each other’s models and developments. The Notebook is amongst the most precious pieces of archive material the BOS possesses. Sidney’s first message read as follows:

“Welcome to all members of our Society, possibly the first of its kind in the country. I hope that it will provide all that you expect of it. A successful portfolio is one that is full of interesting entries. Please do your best to contribute to it.”

Our membership at the moment is small but the important thing is to make a start. Arrangements for seeking new members are in hand and I am confident that by the end of the portfolio’s first round, perhaps before, our route list will have grown.

Do not hesitate to make suggestions, state your problems and say what you would like to see in the folios. One or two have suggested that we supply a few personal notes concerning ourselves and the books we possess.

Sidney, who lived in St Leonards on Sea in Sussex on the south coast of England had a deep interest in the work of Akira Yoshizawa. He passed the box to Lance Morley, a Civil Servant who loved making crosses and boxes. David Lister, a solicitor from Grimsby was next who, it appeared, possessed more origami books than the rest of us put together. From David to Iris Walker, a housewife from Hull, very adept at copying models, a technique now known at reverse engineering. Iris sent it onto Michael Turner, a 21 year old cost clerk, who Sidney fitted into the circle whilst on its travels.

The portfolio then travelled to Scotland to James Scott, a bookseller who liked the work of Ligia Montoya. From James it went to Irene Allan, a management consultant who lived in Birmingham. Irene contributed her one and only original model, a very good kneeling nun. As I also lived in Birmingham, Irene and I arranged to meet to pass on the box. I was an eighteen year old mechanical engineering apprentice interested in anything complicated. How things have changed!

Two twelve year old schoolboys, Jonathan Bourbour and Mark Solon came next. Mark, like many of us, had been introduced to origami through Rupert Annuals, written by artist, painter and book illustrator Alfred Bestall who became one of our first Vice Presidents when the BOS was later formed.

The portfolio then travelled to London, firstly to Rosaly Evnine, the daughter of Lillian Oppenheimer. Rosaly’s gifting was hospitality, generously opening her home so we could meet in those early years. The box passed to the very talented Eric Kenneway, an arts teacher at a comprehensive school and then to Noel Stanton, a patents agent and sleight of hand card magician who had already contacted Fred Rohm and Neal Elias. The box finally returned to Sidney just over four months after it had begun.

There was unanimous agreement that the Porfolio had been a great success, both in allowing us to share new models and giving us a way to communicate with each other. For some of us though, the excitement of receiving it was matched by the pressure of finding something to include! For many, it was a revelation that you could design your own models. Iris, who, like Noel had already established links with the likes of Elias and Rohm had plenty of new material and this in a way made up for my meagre offerings. I remember my first contribution of a flamingo being described as being a little over fed, but this certainly didn’t put me off.

Sidney described the comments we made about each other’s models as lively and informed. If we thought something could be improved, we said so. Given that the really good stuff was highly praised, it was clear that not everyone liked the same thing. Soon, the “cutting“ debate began. Most of us came to the conclusion that we would avoid cutting at all costs! There was also discussion about the time we had to examine the portfolio and concern about how this would impact on the period it took to travel around.

Round two started almost immediately with some notable additions to the route list. The Nottingham High School Origami Club which founded in October 1965 had 20 members led by Paul Castles. A few years later it was to be joined by Robin Macey. Tim Ward, Trevor Hatchett and John Williams were a trio of Oxford University students who were technically quite accomplished and clearly wanted to push the boundaries.

Lillian’s visit to her daughter in April 1966 gave us all chance to meet and many made the trip to London for the day. We met Robert Harbin, a surprise to most of us as he had earlier, not wanted to take part in the Portfolio. We talked about many things, in particular, the need for a second portfolio which Sidney duly introduced at the earliest opportunity. It was a day that none of us would forget and would pave the way for the forming of the British Origami Society, eighteen months later. Instrumental in this were Sidney French, David Lister and John Smith who joined in round four.

The portfolios were run extremely well by Sidney who kept a close watch on their progress and sent updates regularly. They served their purpose: to bring us all together. Added numbers meant longer waits. Harbin’s Teach Yourself Origami, published in 1968, contained my address as a contact, the first time one had appeared in the UK. From the dozen or so who had joined that first circle, we had now grown six fold and this rendered the Portfolios impracticable.

Instead they became “Packages”, a bundle of models which circulated but without including news about the Society. A compilation was sent around a circle of prominent paper folders in the USA. When I hear about a country with a few people spread far and wide. I always encourage them to start a Portfolio as the concept is as good now as it was fifty years ago.

When we wanted an award to recognise the volunteering work of our members, John Smith suggested we call it the Sidney French Medal. So far there have been 25 recipients who have continued the great work begun by those who not only had a good idea but made sure that it happened.

So whatever happened to the original members of the Portfolio’s first round? Well, Jonathan Bourbour, James Scott, and Mark Solon fell by the wayside. Sidney French, Irene Allan, Eric Kenneway, Noel Stanton and David Lister have sadly passed away. But five of us, Lance Morley, Iris Walker, Michael Turner, Rosaly Evnine and myself very much remain members of the BOS.

For those of us who were involved, the porfolios are remembered with much affection. After all, this is how we started 50 years ago; an event certainly worthy of celebration! Mick Guy