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John Cunliffe

I have known John Cunliffe for many years and can even pinpoint the occasion I first met him. It was on 6th April, 1974 at the Ivanhoe Hotel in London on the occasion of the spring convention of the British Origami Society. I don’t know just when he had joined the Society, but it is unlikely to have been very long before the convention. Newcomer though he was, John made a great impression on the members present and at the Annual General Meeting that afternoon he was elected to be a Member of the Council of the Society!

John immediately proved his worth. He lived in London, in Regents Park Road, not far from London Zoo. I remember the only occasion I ever walked down Regent’ Park Road, John, who had been in a shop suddenly rushed out and greeted me! John began helping in the organisation of events in London, especially when paperfolders from overseas visited England and wished to meet British folders. Obviously, he did not regard this as a chore because he became an enthusiastic member of the society. A few months later he even showed the Council an index that he had prepared for the magazine, British Origami.

I do not, however, know just when John became interested in paperfolding. He was a journalist by profession and for a time he worked for BBC radio. Journalism was the reason he had become a skilled indexer, something that was later to be of great value to the BOS. For the present he became the Society’s unofficial publicity officer. In fact, the Constitution was later amended to provide for an official Publicity Officer and naturally, John was elected to fill the position. He remained a Member of the Council until he resigned from it in April 1982. But John was not only active in administration. He was a keen folder and frequently contributed interesting material to the Society both in its magazine, “British Origami”, and at its meetings. John somehow acquired the difficult art of drawing diagrams for paperfolding instructions and his style was always well laid-out crisp and very clear. This skill made him an occasional illustrator for British Origami, apart from his own contributions.

Another of the contributions that John soon made was in the organisation of exhibitions of origami. In July, 1976, ( a very hot sunny time) a very successful exhibition of origami was held as part of the summer festival at Ludlow, the lovely market town near the Welsh border. Following the exhibition, much of the material was taken to London for another exhibition which was to be held at the showrooms of Wiggins Teape, the paper manufacturers on the corner of Poland Street in the Soho district of London. Exhibitions in London are exceptionally difficult to organise, but the exhibition took place in December, 1976. John played a major part in its organisation and in its great success. In the reports at the time, he was given the title of “Exhibition Co-ordinator”.

In May, 1977, John visited the West coast of the United States and enjoyed meeting Californian folders, including, especially, Lewis Simon, who had become enthusiastic about the then new enthusiasm for modular folding. Lewis went on to write his own booklet about it. He showed John how to fold his own version of the Sonobe Module and how he built up models using it. Later in that year Lewis Simon reciprocated by visiting John in London. However, John never became an enthusiastic modular folder: there were other aspects of folding in which he had an interest.

One of those interests was napkin folding and Mick Guy, then the Secretary of the BO, lent John a substantial collection of booklets and papers which he had built up. When he studied them John was inspired to write his own booklet on the subject, to be published as a BOS booklet. He selected what he considered to be the most effective napkin folds from a wide variety of sources, gave them names where they did not have them and drew the diagrams for folding them. He invited me to write a short history of napkin folding which he added at the beginning of the booklet. The booklet came out in March, 1978 and has remained in print ever since. I may be prejudiced, but I think that it is a far clearer exposition of napkin folding than many of the more sumptuous colourful books on the subject.

It became clear that John was not content with the routine folding of models of creatures and inanimate things. His interest was really in the structure of the model and its fundamental geometry. There was also a streak of the showman and magician in John that was to emerge much later. Perhaps it was the magic of paperfolding that attracted him.

Apart from his booklet about napkin folding, John became a regular contributor to “British Origami”. In February, 1980 he began to write a History of Papermaking which continued in six parts until the following December. The series covered all aspects of the subject from its origins in China and its spread to the Arabs and to Western Europe. Then, at the same time, he began to contribute to the magazine a regular column about Origami. He called it “Crosslewit” and its subject matter was mainly off-beat and curious aspects of folding, including all sorts of tricks puzzles and mathematical curiosities of folding. The column ran for thirteen issues until April, 1982, by which time John had probably exhausted even his own collection of items of this kind. He thankfully handed over the column to Dave Collier. Dave Collier changed the name of the column to ”Paperweight” and later it was taken over by the editor, Paul Jackson.

One of the reasons given in the editorial for John’s retirement was that he was moving away from London. It is true that John is rumoured to have a secret hideaway somewhere on the south coast of England, where goes “to get away from it all”, but we were later pleased to learn that he had not entirely moved away from London.

It must be said that the topics covered in Crosslewit remain a diverse and fascinating collection and in my view it is very desirable that they should be collected together and published as a separate book or booklet. Nevertheless, although his own column, “Crosslewit” came to an end, John did not cease to serve the BOS. He continued to contribute regularly to events which took place in London. He also continued from time to time to write sections for Paul Jackson’s Paperweight column under his own name or initials.

At the time he was writing his booklet on napkin folding, John had told the BOS that he also had ideas for a booklet about the Silver Rectangle, but that because of his other commitments, he could not at that time undertake to write it. However, John did not abandon this idea and the booklet, named “The Silver Rectangle” was issued by the BOS in April 1983. During the 1970s British businessmen had switched over almost completely from the old foolscap and quarto sizes of typing paper and had adopted the international size, “A4”, which has the proportions 1 X square root 2. So there was considerable interest in paper having these proportions, especially among paperfolders who wondered whether A4 could be used constructively for folding. Very little research had been done into the matter and John’s booklet was one of the first ventures into this new kind of folding. After a short introduction, he gave diagrams for some twenty-three models folded from A4. In the introduction, he gives a table of the different international “A” paper sizes. Very significantly, and very prophetically two of the models depicted were letter folds. Since then, the study of folding from the Silver Rectangle has been greatly extended and there is a need for a new book which will give a full account of the discoveries that have been made. But John’s booklet was very much the pioneering work on the subject.

In October, 1984, John fulfilled another of the promises he made. He completed his Index to the first hundred issues of British Origami and the index was published by the British Origami Society as its booklet no. 23. The index has been invaluable to members of the Society and it has made the back-issues of British Origami much more accessible to people seeking information about folders and their creations. In September 1987, he completed a further index for issues 101 to 120 and in August 1990, he produced an index for issues 121 to 140. He has suggested that he may bring the index up-to-date. This is much to be hoped for, but Indexing is a skilled job and let no one underestimate the great amount of work and application that the preparation of an index entails. In a letter to me in October, 1990 he wrote: “I would not like to admit to the number of hours this took to put together, but, of course, it was a labour of love. These things simply cannot be done by computers”.

Another example of John’s slightly off-beat approach to folding was shown in 1984, when he contributed five short articles on “Wrapping Origami” to British Origami. Significantly, some of the wrappers were envelopes. But there were other indications that envelope folding was attracting more of Jon’s interest, as diagrams for envelope folds began to appear occasionally in other places in British Origami The promised booklet on letter folding was eventually published with the title, “Envelope and Letter Folding” by the BOS in September 1988. However, it was more than a mere collection of letter folds. There was a long introduction and looking back, the booklet can be seen as époque-making. The inclusion of the word “letter folds” in the title acknowledged that letter folds had long preceded the use of envelope. Letters, written on paper or other writing materials, had been folded for well over a thousand years, not only in the West, but also in China and Japan, where a strict etiquette had grown up around the way a letter should be folded. It was really only after the Rowland Hill’s introduction of the “Penny Post” in 1840 that people adopted the use of a paper wrapper both to protect the letter and keep the contents private. It was matters such as these that led John to study postal history and he became a regular visitor to the museum of the British Post Office in London. So the envelope was born and countless millions of which are now used every day. Unfortunately most envelopes are not nearly as interesting or as decorative as John’s.

The fact is that envelope and letter folding so fascinated John that it had come to dominate his whole approach to folding. Although the articles which make up the “Year of the Wrap” also include other kinds of wrapper, when looked at again, they are heavily biased towards envelope folding. The title was a play on words because 1984, when the articles appeared was the Year of the Rat in Chinese and Japanese horoscopes. But a glance through the earlier issues of British Origami, including the issues of Crosslewit shows that John’s keen interest in envelopes went back at least as far as 1980.

It appears to have been in 1988 that John conceived the idea of an international organisation devoted solely to envelope folding. Elsje van de Ploeg has suggested that the idea came to John that year at a meeting at which Thoki Yenn, the Danish folder introduced John and Elsje to each other. John had made it his custom to pay visits to gatherings of paperfolders on the continent and an informal group of folders who met fairly frequently spontaneously formed itself. So John conceived the idea of an international society which would be separate from the various national origami societies. He visited Holland and spoke to Elsje about the idea. During the visit, they took the opportunity of visiting the postal museum in The Hague.

Gradually John’s ideas for the structure of the new organisation took shape. It would be based on circulating postal portfolios, in the manner of the original origami society in England. Membership would be divided between Full Members who would receive the portfolios and Associate Members who would receive the publications of the organisation but not the portfolios. Portfolios would circulate in separate countries or areas and then the best contributions would be selected for an international portfolio. There would be organisers for each area and an international organiser to bring everything together. But a significant part of the organisation was that there would be no subscription, and members and associates would only need to pay their own expenses, the most significant of which would be postage on the portfolios. The name chosen for the new organisation was the “Envelope and Letterfold Association” or “ELFA”. Later a square design based on a Japanese purse or “tato” was chosen as a logo..

John wrote to me inviting me to join the new Association in 1990, but I had other things on my mind and failed to respond. I wish now that I hd been more aware of what was happening. Meanwhile a group of full members was formed, including Genevieve de Gouvion St. Cyr of France, Edwin Corrie of England and Elsje van der Ploeg of Holland as well as John Cunliffe himself, who took the position of International Organiser.

The real launch of ELFA was in London in September, 1992. It coincided with the 25th anniversary convention of the BOS, which was held at the Middlesex Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster), opposite Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. To preserve the independence of ELFA, John wisely did not want it to be associated closely with the BOS, so he organised a separate exhibition of envelope and letter folding to take place concurrently at the nearby Sherlock Holmes Hotel. The hotel took its name because its main entrance was in Baker Street, not far from the reputed residence of Sherlock Holmes himself.

The exhibition was very successful and many people attending the BOS convention visited it. On display were folded letters and envelopes and other items of postal history not only from England, but also from France and Holland. Steve and Megumi Biddle, friends of John from the south coast, who had a double cabaret act of magic and origami, contributed a fascinating display of Japanese letter folds. Everyone attending the exhibition received a paper which explained the nature of ELFA and inviting membership. I put right my earlier dilatoriness by joining as an associate member straight away.

From then on I periodically received copies of the contents lists of the portfolios and if there were any items that particularly interested me, I wrote to John as English organiser and he duly sent them to me. When I have come across an interesting envelope or letter fold, I have sent a copy of it to John and if he though it merited recognition, he has drawn diagrams for the next portfolio and eventually for inclusion in an edition of Envelope and Letter Folding.

Yet, something more was needed, a way of making a permanent record of the discoveries and the new folds contained in the portfolios. John achieved this by adapting the idea of the original BOS Envelope and Letter Folding booklet. For a start, in 1991 ELFA itself reprinted a second edition of the BOS booklet, calling it the “2nd Edition”. It was given the sub-title of “An Encyclopedia of Hand-folded Communications”. Then in 1992, a “Third Edition” was published which was started to be “with Dutch emphasis” This was, in fact a wholly new booklet with many of the models contributed by Dutch folders. A Fourth Edition, “West –East” followed in 1995, which included material from Japan. So far a total of seven “editions” of Envelope and Letter Folding have been published. Together they make substantial addition to our knowledge, not just of envelope and letter folding, but to paperfolding in general and have demonstrated that envelope and letter folding it as a creative art in its own right. We have also learnt a lot about folding the Silver Rectangle through ELFA.

John has continued to attend origami conventions on the Continent, especially those of Origami Deutschland. Most years I have been to the German convention myself, so I have been able to meet other members of ELFA at the meetings that are always take place. John has always carefully prepared an “act” in which he demonstrates folds or passes on interesting information about postal history. For one presentation he dressed up as a 19th Century London postman, complete with top hat. I think that most people were even more interested in the way the top had collapsed flat than in the folds! At one convention John brought a record player and included some nostalgic popular songs of the 1930s which he somehow managed to fit into his act. John always includes a few simple magical tricks with which to delight his audience. John is, indeed looked upon with great affection by the members of the Association which is his creation.

Nor has John forgotten or been forgotten by the British Origami Society. In August 1992, he represented the Society at the funeral of Sidney French, the president and founder of the Society. Then at the autumn convention of the Society at York in September, 1997, John was presented with the Sidney French Medal for his services to Origami and to the Society. Particular mention was made of his work as Public Relations Officer and his services to the Society in organising meetings with visitors from abroad, but there were many other reasons why he merited the award.

It has been possible to recount only a small proportion of John Cunliffe’s great contribution to paperfolding and especially to some of the more specialised aspects, including napkin folding, the silver rectangle, origami tricks and puzzles and above all, envelope an letter folding. I have not, for instance mentioned the way John boldly tackled the editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary when they first included the word “origami” into this popular English dictionary and defined it misleadingly as the “Japanese” art of paperfolding! But it is not too much to say that John created envelope and letter folding as a separate and important aspect of what is popularly called “origami” and without his example, persuasion and encouragement we should today know far less than we do about this fascinating and most enjoyable aspect of folding.

So let us warmly celebrate the achievements of a great and innovative folder who is held warmly in the hearts of everyone from far and wide who has come to know him.

24th April, 2004.

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