Artist defies classification

     Macabre, funny, wry, clever – these are some of the words used to describe the work of writer and artist Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000), who produced over 100 books in addition to being active in theatre design and screenplays. In fact for his work, he won a Tony Award for Best Costume Design and a nomination for Best Scenic Design in the 1977 Broadway production of “Dracula.”

     Gorey’s illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books are enjoyed by both adults and children, and his work has attained cult status. He became well-known to many people through his animated introduction to the PBS series “Mystery,” in which his characters dodge falling urns, peer at tombstones, and swoon gracefully atop buildings.

     Gorey was bald, bearded, tall, and lean. He enjoyed wearing earrings and big, clunky finger rings, and used to wear long fur coats until his conscience and love of animals got to him. He never married, and lived alone in a nearly 200-year-old house in Yarmouth on Cape Cod filled with antiques and strange items that inspired the artist, including frog-shaped rocks, glass balls, and ancient stuffed animals.

     He loved animals, especially cats. His six cats had the run of the house, shredding furniture and snoozing on every surface, including his drawing table. When they tipped over his ink bottle, ruining hours of work, he simply started over. He also allowed raccoons to live under the floors and in the walls until they became too destructive and he reluctantly persuaded them to leave. His favorite pastimes, other than drawing, included watching old movies and TV shows, such as “The X-Files.”

     Although he was sometimes called a recluse, he didn’t act like one. He was a cheerful, whimsical and witty man with a loud, unique laugh and a love of lively conversation. For almost 30 years he attended every performance of the New York City Ballet. He ate breakfast and lunch at the same restaurant each day, where he willingly signed autographs for fans who located him. For a while, he also worked in mainstream publishing, spending eight years in Doubleday’s art department. His passion was writing and illustrating his own rather bizarre stories. His ideas were often misinterpreted as morbid or ghoulish, and he was turned down by one publisher after another, until his book “The Unstrung Harp” came out in 1953 and his reputation began to grow.

     Because many of his drawings were for children, he was sometimes mistakenly classified as an illustrator of children’s books. However, many publishers saw his books as unsuitable for children because of what happens to some of his characters. (One of his so-called alphabet books begins, “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs.”) Still, he acquired a legion of fans of all ages and, in 1959, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson, writing in The New Yorker, enthusiastically described Gorey’s work as “poetic and poisoned,” comparing him to both Max Ernest and Ronald Searle.

     The style of Gorey’s pen-and-ink artwork, which often features vaguely Victorian or Edwardian people in dark, mysterious settings built up from thousands of tiny pen strokes, has caused people to assume that he was British. In fact, he almost never traveled and had never visited England.

     He loved word games and published books under not only his real name, but also under pen names that were anagrams of his name, including Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, E. G. Deadworry, and Raddory Gewe, as well as Eduard Blutig, which is also a word game: “Blutig” is German for “bloody,” which is a synonym for “gory.”

     Gorey died of a heart attack in 2000. Today, his former home is The Edward Gorey House, a museum dedicated to celebrating his life and preserving his works. The House also honors the artist’s passion and concern for animals, and works to raise awareness about local and national animal welfare issues. The House presents exhibits, holds community events, including blood drives and animal adoption days, and is a “must-see” for people interested in Gorey in particular and art in general.

     For more information about the artist and The Edward Gorey House, visit

cc SOURCE: Art-to-Art Palette Journal print edition

Published by on February 2013. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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