Issue 40 Hair Winter 2010/11

Split Hairs

Christopher Turner

Alfie West (1901–1985) holds the world record for splitting hairs. On eight occasions, he succeeded in splitting a human hair seventeen times into eighteen parts. In so doing, he performed the impossible, the act which pedants and quibblers are accused of always hopelessly trying.

His Leaf of the Lime Tree, a hair divided into radial veins, is inscribed on the verso: “World Record No 6. One human hair split into 18 parts, televised by Japan 1980.” His clinical incisions are as precise and magical as writing on a grain of rice, but the red annotation is rendered in clumsy and clunky capitals, like those that might be inscribed on a paranoid’s sign warning of doomsday. Some of West’s descriptions have fetishistic frisson: “One 14 inch split in the brunette’s hair. Sealed forever, 1970.”

West, an enthusiastic amateur cyclist who represented Britain in the 1929 World Championship Road Race in Switzerland, lived in London his entire life. He learned his hair-splitting technique during World War I, when he worked in a factory making aircraft parts and was taught how to grind the edge of a razor to make it as sharp as possible. He later worked as a furniture restorer and gave his hair pieces, which he framed and hung in a self-made museum in his apartment, whimsical names like The Crossed Swords, A Boa Constrictor, A Monarch’s Crown, and Epping Forest.

In 1981, the writer David Coxhead discovered West’s work and, after the artist’s death four years later, he acquired twenty of his drawings. (In a local newsletter an obituarist confessed: “Some of us, if we are strictly honest, did sometimes cross the street with a wave, a little hurriedly, to avoid another long tale of how many follicle-ended hairs had been split into how many more almost invisible antennae.”) In 1997, Coxhead’s partner, the artist Susan Hiller, exhibited West’s hair art in an installation at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons—the ideal home for this outsider artist, a surgeon of sorts.

All works reproduced here courtesy the collection of David Coxhead. All titles and verso text given in captions preserve West’s original spelling and grammar.

Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet. His book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came To America, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US and by HarperCollins in the UK in June 2011.


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