Artist profile: Edward Gorey

I read lots of books by John Bellairs when I was a kid. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man who illustrated most of Bellairs’s books was Edward Gorey (1925-2000). His pictures perfectly embody the creepiness of Bellairs’s stories, which, needless to say, I highly recommend. Next week I’ll talk more in depth about their artistic partnership.

The Secret of the Underground Room (1990)
The Secret of the Underground Room (1990)

Edward Gorey was a bit of a Renaissance man. Besides illustrating for books, he wrote and drew his own, designed costumes and sets for theatre productions, wrote plays, and contributed art for the opening credits of the PBS show Mystery! His art itself also takes many different tones, from dense and busy to sparse and airy, from dark and creepy to cute and funny. He worked primarily in ink.

Gorey claimed to have inherited his artistic talent from his mother’s grandmother, who wrote and illustrated greeting cards in the 1800s. He had one semester of art classes after graduating high school and then was in the Army for two years (he was likely drafted). Luckily he spent 1944 through 1946 in Utah and was never sent into active combat.

In 1946, he entered Harvard to study French and graduated four years later. His roommate at college was the poet Frank O’Hara. That one semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is the only formal education he ever had in art.

Gorey’s art career started in New York at the publishing house Doubleday. He illustrated the covers and interiors of a variety of genres while working on his own books. His first book was The Unstrung Harp in 1953. During his lifetime, he wrote and drew over 100 books and went by dozens of pen names, including Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, Deary Rewdgo, Edgar E. Wordy, Dora Greydew, Waredo Dyrge, and Madame Groeda Weyrd (which you can probably guess are anagrams of his name). He founded The Fantod Press in 1962 to self-publish the books that big publishers refused.

from the 1960 edition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds
from the 1960 edition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds
from the 1960 edition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds
from the 1960 edition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds

Many of Gorey’s books feature children and so one might assume that he wrote for kids. That would be inaccurate – he simply wrote and drew what he liked.

Gorey didn’t date and never married; he was probably asexual, as it seems that romance and sex were never very important to him:

I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly. I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something … I’ve never said that I was gay and I’ve never said that I wasn’t … what I’m trying to say is that I am a person before I am anything else …

Although Gorey didn’t have a large group of friends, he had a few good friends. He wasn’t a recluse, either. He kept his phone number in the phone book, talked to fans when they spotted him in town, and when people would show up at his house, he just let them in.

It is hard to describe Gorey’s artistic style; he liked to use the phrase “I don’t even know” when asked what he meant by a book or artwork. This is partly because he was influenced by so many things. He read books and watched films voraciously; among his named influences are author Jane Austen, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji), director Yasujiro Ozu, and artist Johannes Vermeer. He also adored cats, fur coats, rings, and the ballet.

Gorey attended almost every performance of the New York Ballet for three decades, and designed the sets and costumes for Dracula on Broadway, for which he won a Tony award in 1977 (for the costumes). I will be discussing his illustrations for both the novel and Broadway production in a future post.

Jeremy Brett in Dracula (1977)
Jeremy Brett in Dracula (1977)

With his multitude of influences and interests in mind, then, it’s difficult to describe Gorey’s style. It is immediately recognizable, but it’s not always creepy. Sometimes his subjects and scenes can be cute, especially if cats are involved. He also has several different ways of portraying people that range from cartoonish to fairly realistic. Gorey has often been described as “macabre”, but I think that doesn’t do justice to his wide range of styles and subjects.

Gorey at home with his cats (unknown date)
Gorey at home with his cats (unknown date)

My articles this month will be about John Bellairs, Dracula, and the fashions Gorey had his characters wear, which I think is an overlooked aspect of his work.

*Further reading!

Other parts in the Edward Gorey artist profile series
John Bellairs



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