In 2010, Columbia University received a donation of an extensive collection of Edward Gorey items from Andrew Alpern, an architectural historian and attorney who spent four decades acquiring the illustrator’s work. The 700 objects in the collection include almost every edition of every book Gorey published, as well as drawings, etchings and pieces of his design and illustration work. Gorey Preserved, now exhibited at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, is a glimpse into the collection, and into Gorey’s mischievously dark world, where death could be as playful a character as a cat on a unicycle.
Although he worked for many years in New York City, writing over 90 books in his career and illustrating many others, he had been living in the Elephant House, named for his favorite animal, in Cape Cod prior to his death from a heart attack in 2000. (The exhibit includes his Elefantomas collagraph print series, which have much more fluid, sensual lines and movement to them than his usual cross hatched style.) The undistinguished, somewhat rickety, two-story home in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, is now the Edward Gorey House, a museum devoted to his art and life. An animal-lover to the end, Gorey had left his estate to a charitable trust benefiting cats and dogs, as well as less precious animals like bats and insects, and his remaining cats continued to live at the house.
Gorey Preserved is cluttered with books, art, news clippings, theater posters and other ephemera in cases lining the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has some atmospheric old book presses and studious researchers behind a glass wall. The exhibit also includes one of Gorey’s fur coats, a coyote parka. It’s one of many fur coats the artist bundled over his tall figure, becoming a slightly anthropomorphic character himself, although in the 1980s he decided he cared too much for animals to wear their skin and put the fur coats in storage. The coat is definitely an eye-catcher when you enter the exhibit, although if you were unfamiliar with Gorey as a person, you might get the wrong impression that it was an exhibit on Antarctic exploration. Gorey Preserved is sparse on exhibit text, with a few anecdotes positioned alongside the objects, but little in the way of chronology or elaboration on Gorey’s inspirations or the art he continues to inspire.
Visitors to the exhibit are plunged into a tumult of Gorey’s work, where brooding Victorian imagery combined with fantastic creatures and Dickensian characters. In addition to his literary illustrations, the exhibit also focuses on the work he did for the theater, including promotional materials and merchandise for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet, which he attended obsessively and used as inspiration for two books, The Gilded Bat (1966) and The Lavender Leotard (1973).
In 1973, he designed a production of Dracula for a small theater on Nantucket that would open on Broadway in 1977 as Edward Gorey’s Dracula, for which he won a Tony award for costume design.
Early in his career, Gorey worked for the Art Department at Doubleday, where his distinctive illustrations danced over the covers of books like H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Gorey’s own books, however, were where his mind escaped to wander into ominous, yet endearing, darkness.
That Gorey is sometimes viewed as a children’s book author is an indirect result of his whimsical illustrations, as Gorey was not specifically writing for kids in most of his work. Yet it’s the childlike, almost naive, nature of his art that catches you into his world of oddities. In his first book, The Doubtful Guest (1957), a scarf-wearing creature suddenly appears in a Victorian family’s life, performing strange and unsettling acts. “It would carry off the objects of which it grew fond/And protect them by dropping them in the pond”; and “It wrenched off the horn of the new gramophone/And could not be persuaded to leave it alone.” Gorey’s work was much like this strange creature, something you invite in, put at ease by its charming appearance and end up somewhere ghastly.
In one of Gorey’s most famous images, death holds an umbrella over a school of children with gaping, innocent eyes, an illustration created for the cover of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabetical listing of unfortunate children’s deaths, including “B is for Basil assaulted by Bears” and “O is for Olive run through with an awl.” It is, to steal a line from Burt Lancaster in the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success, a “cookie full of arsenic.”
Gorey’s obituary in the Guardian quoted him as saying: “I see no disparity between my books and everyday life … I write about everyday life.” Gorey Preserved is an argument for that, a retrospective on a career that made the bizarre and nonsensical curiously accessible and acceptable, in a large part because there is such a genuine feeling behind them and a skillful wit.
After Gorey passed away, part of his ashes were buried by his family in Ohio, another part scattered in the harbor off Cape Cod and the rest preserved to be strewn upon the yard of his Elephant House once his remaining pet cats died. A final scene of morbid whimsy straight out of Gorey’s illustrated world.
Gorey Preserved continues through July 27 at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University (535 W 114th Street, Manhattan).
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