Visual Arts Review: Edward Gorey @ the Boston Athenaeum

No one is safe in the world of Edward Gorey: “From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews, There is really abominable news:/ They’ve discovered a head/ In the box for the bread, / But nobody seems to know whose.”

Frivolity, at the edge of a moral Swamp. © 2011 The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey (1925–2000)
will be at the Boston Athenaeum (10 1/2 Beacon St. near the State House on Beacon Hill) until June 4, 2011. Organized by the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA, the exhibit includes works mostly of pen and ink on paper from the collection of The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

By Susan Miron.

Over the past week, I asked a lot of people if they knew of the artist and writer Edward Gorey, whose new exhibit at the Boston Atheneum I was about to see. A few just looked puzzled, guessing that, given my interest in music, he must be an arcane composer. Others, impassioned Gorey aficionados, reacted with barely concealed delight: Oh my gosh! I LOVE him! There was little middle ground. His fans would go on to tell personal tales—the first time they fell under the spell of his drawings, their collections and recollections of his books, eyes glassy, as if they were talking about some legendary diva.

The man has serious fans. His small books are “highly collectible,” and his house on the Cape is now a museum in Yarmouth Port, MA.

Gorey has been called many things—appallingly funny, master of the macabre, Brahman of the bizarre, full-blown eccentric. No author I know of, including murder mistress Agatha Christie, has put his or her characters through more extraordinarily odd trials and fates. For example, there’s the energetic compendium of peculiar demises to be seen (and read) in the five studies for the front and back covers of The Gashlycrumb Tinies or After the Outing (1963), which methodically goes through the alphabet, knocking off his young subjects one by one:

A is for Any who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears . . . K is for Kate who was stuck with an axe, L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks . . . M is for Maud who was swept out to sea, N is for Neville who died of ennui (this has its own pride of place at the exhibit). . . Y is for Yorick whose head was knocked in, Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.

The exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum takes up the walls of two rooms and has been generally arranged in chronological order, starting in 1953 with studies for the cover of The Unstrung Harp, featuring the marvelous Mr. C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbrass. Proffering nimble, offbeat wordplay and stylized drawings, Gorey was already recognizable as himself in his first book about “the well-known novelist.” Perennial favorites among his books include The Doubtful Guest, The Insect God, and The Fatal Lozenge, his work entering the popular imagination via his animated credits for Mystery! on public television.

Gorey loved strange names and alphabet games. He published several books under anagrams of his own name—Ogdred Weary, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, Wardore Edgy, Edward Blutig, Dreary Wodge. He had an inexhaustible supply of outlandish names for dozens of charactersOrtenzia, Herakleitos Withilogos, the Maharajah of Eschnapur, Embley and Yewbert, the late grandfather, G. E. Deadworthy, Madame Trepidovska, Miss Underfold, and Sir Odo Fitzaddle to name just a few.

He also had his way with adverbs. In 1974’s The Glorious Nosebleed: Fifth Alphabet people do things “Zealously,” “Fruitlessly,” “Jadedly,” “Endlessly,” a boy runs through the hall “Maniacally,” and so on through the alphabet. The accompanying drawings are brilliantly matched, as always, to their perplexing captions. The Eclectic Abacedarium (not found at the exhibit) elaborates on this alphabetic fun with little instructive drawings: “Forbear to taste Library Paste. Be sure a Mouse lurks in the house. A careless No leads on to woe. Don’t leave the shore without an oar” (the illustration shows a boy going over a waterfall, his arms raised in terror).

Yet another book, The Utter Zoo Alphabet, turns the spotlight on imaginary creatures whose names are accompanied by often sinister descriptions. There is a Ombledroom, Posby, Quingawaga (who “squeaks and moans/ While dining off of ankle bones)”, Raitch, Scrug (extremely nasty-looking and unusable for cooking), and the Veazy (makes a creaking noise; It has no dignity or poise”).

They searched the cellars Fruitlessly. © 2011 The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

From his early professional drawing days, Gorey deployed a set of props—umbrellas, urns, alligators, ominous shrubbery, old bicycles, six-legged prancing insects. A familiar set of characters reappear as well. Men in long fur coats (Gorey famously wore a dyed, yellow, fur coat), bald children, butlers, women in dresses from the Roaring 20s with fabulous hats, flappers wearing long beads, and dewy-eyed governesses. All take multiple star turns at this exhibit. Despite the sinister, creepy stories that they inhabit, one always feels glad to see them again. To me, who revisits them often, they have simply become another set of eccentric relatives.

One of Gorey’s early jobs was designing book jackets and several of these, including T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1982), are on display. There are also designs for a drop curtain and the set design for The Mikado and eight costume designs, all in pen, ink, and watercolor. These more conventional tasks show a kinder, gentler side of Gorey.

Gorey was well known around the New York City Ballet as the man in the long fur coat, beard, and basketball sneakers. His love of ballet and ballerinas comes through in The Lavender Leotard (1973), and The Gilded Bat (1966) represented by one of the funniest panels of this show: “After Federjenska did a grand jeté into the wings one matinee and was never seen again, Maud took over.” Federjenska, flying off from the stage, is but one of countless ill-fated characters who disappear in Gorey’s world. In four panels from pencil studies of The Willowdale Handcar (1962), the last drawing simply says, “At sunset they entered a tunnel in the Iron Hills and did not come out again.”

But no one has a nastier fate than Little Zooks in drawings for A Limerick (1973). His horrid fate is expressed in verse:

Little Zooks, of whom no one was fond,
They shot towards the roof and beyond,
The infant’s trajectory passed him over the rectory
And into the lily-chocked pond.

Danger lurks everywhere in Gorey’s world. In studies and drawings for The Blue Aspic (1968), Gertrúdis Callosidad “dipped into the box of candied violets from an unknown admirer.” There is little doubt she is in for trouble, which almost always happens offstage in Gorey’s drawings. A statue falls on the Duke of Whaup, and Jasper, in the fourth drawing, gets off relatively easily if bizarrely—his (vinyl) records fly through the air as he escapes from the asylum. People are murdered, have accidents, and misadventures. Yet the texts stay dispassionate despite the dank, inky, and densely webbed imagery. Children have the nastiest fates. With only a limerick or rhyming couplet as explanation, a child might be lost, preyed upon, abandoned, or worse.

No one is safe in Gorey’s World. In a large drawing here, “Gazebo,” five women in fur coats in a gazebo await a butler who is about to serve them tea. The sky, full of flying sunglasses, scallions, and something looking suspiciously like a UFO, tells a different story. Something lethal has got to happen.

'I am the Bahum Bug,' it declared. © 2011 The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Gorey gave interviews but usually revealed little. He was unhappy when his work was called “macabre,” because, as Steven Schiff wrote in a New Yorker profile, he never lingers on the violence, investing it with no emotion at all. “For Gorey, existential dread isn’t the subtext, it’s the punch line . . . As Gorey has said, only half in jest, ‘I write about everyday life.'” An omnivorous reader, he remarked to one interviewer, “I think of my books as Victorian novels all scrunched up.” To another he blithely admitted that he collected photos of dead babies.

When living in New York City, Gorey attended nearly every performance of the New York City Ballet from 1953 to 1983. When George Balanchine died in 1983, Gorey decamped to Cape Cod where his constant companions were five to seven cats.

His favorite piece of advice came from the choreographer Ted Shawn, who used to say, “When in doubt, twirl.” Gorey marveled, “Oh I do think that’s such a great line.”


More Gorey:

As a Gorey enthusiast, I had the thrill of seeing the artist on stage in 1996, playing the small but pivotal role of a superannuated Boy Scout in a production of his script Heads Will Roll & Wallpaper, which he also directed for Theater on the Bay on Cape Cod. Those interested in reading intelligent commentary on Gorey’s wit and gruesome whimsy should turn to the lavishly illustrated book The World of Edward Gorey, which features astute analysis by critic Karen Wilkin, along with Clifford Ross’s amusing and somewhat informative interview with his longtime friend.

— Bill Marx


  1. Maureen on February 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I count myself among Gorey enthusiasts and enjoyed reading this wonderful piece about him and the show.

  2. Carol Verburg on May 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    As a longtime friend, neighbor, and collaborator of Edward Gorey’s, and the author of Edward Gorey Plays Cape Cod: Puppets, People, Places, & Plots, I really enjoyed this perceptive, affectionate review. Please note that the Edward Gorey House, mentioned here, is currently showing his work related to the performing arts.

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