The Peculiar Inkwell: Edward Gorey and Book Art

5 May

Edward Gorey did not grow up in a manor house in Edwardian England. He was born in Chicago in 1925 and grew up there. His art background consisted largely of having a good teacher in elementary school and attending Saturday art classes as a high school kid (Ascending, p. 21). He never received any art degrees. He taught himself how to read at the age of three and a half, and between the ages of five and seven he read the Alice books and Dracula. His mother was employed as a government clerk, and his father was (like mine) a newspaper journalist (Ascending, p. 151).

After high school, Gorey spent one semester at the Art Institute of Chicago (Ascending, pp. 26-7), before he was drafted (it was World War II) and worked in Utah as a clerk for the army; the only thing he got out of his army experience was time he spent writing plays (Theroux, p. 21). At the age of twenty-one, he finally went off to Harvard, where he majored in French and fell asleep in class, and where he already did quite a bit of illustration and participated in theater. He and his roommate, the poet Frank O’Hara (Theroux, pp. 23, 25), did eccentric things such as dress like Oscar Wilde and steal a tombstone, which they used for a table in their dorm room.

For many years, Gorey lived in both a studio apartment in New York City and a house in Cape Cod, where he stayed with cousins and cooked for them. He was asexual and never married, and he typically lived with between three and six cats. He was so enthusiastic about ballet choreographed by George Ballantine, that he attended just about every performance of the New York City Ballet for over twenty years, till George
Ballantine died in 1983. Afterwards, Gorey gave up his New York apartment and bought his own house in Cape Cod, where he lived from then on and only visited New York to see ballet performances (Theroux, p. 22).

Gorey’s house in Cape Cod was built in about 1800, so it already had a lot of character, but he /filled it with books, cats, and the sundry items he collected, such as bits of Victorian architecture (particularly finials) and stuffed toy animals. Now it is a museum called the Edward Gorey House, appropriately still occupied by cats, and filled with displays of his artwork and possessions. Alexander Theroux describes the house: “The dark, six or seven-room house on No. 8 Strawberry Lane, resembling the houses in his books, is a strange, wooden, sort of ancestral-looking thing with cold angles and a chimney in the center (p. 71).

Gorey’s style of dress was as eccentric as his house. He wore fur coats (that he bought at thrift stores [Theroux, p. 121]) until animal rights
consciousness led him to stop in the 1980s (Sullivan). He wore a lot of jewelry, particularly large rings on his fingers, necklaces, and earrings. But his clothing was mostly casual, such as sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers (Sullivan). One of the delights of looking at Edward Gorey’s illustrations is identifying figures that resemble the artist himself: with beard, fur coat, and sneakers.

Doubleday and Book Covers
John Updike’s time as a student at Harvard overlapped that of Edward Gorey. According to Updike, Edward Gorey was already designing covers while a student: Gorey illustrated the front cover of the college’s literary magazine with a peculiar /image of two Edwardian men throwing sticks at bodiless heads. Updike saw the same distinctive style illustrating the covers of Commencement programs. Edward Gorey’s highly recognizable drawing style was already full-fledged when he was in college (McDermott, foreword).

After college, in 1953, Gorey’s friendship with two Doubleday editors, Barbara Zimmerman and Jason Epstein (author of The Book Business) got him a job in the art department of Doubleday Books in New York. He had visited New York in 1952, where he drew a few book covers for them, and they wanted him to stay (Ascending, p. 232). For seven years, he designed, lettered, and illustrated books for the Anchor imprint (Theroux, p. 26). (I’ve occasionally come across some of these Gorey-illustrated books in used book stores, including a copy of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida.) He meanwhile made time to write his own books, and a (now long dead) publishing company called Duell, Sloan & Pearce published the first two, The Unstrung Harp and The Listing Attic (Ascending, p.27).

A major part of Gorey’s work during his time at Doubleday (1953-1960) was making paste-ups (Ascending, p. 233). Nowadays pages are designed in computer programs such as InDesign, QuarkXPress, and PageMaker, but back then it was done by hand. The designer
literally glued text and images on a piece of cardboard to indicate where it would be positioned on the page; the whole purpose was to show where everything, including illustrations and headings, went in the book (Lee, pp. 176-7).

At Doubleday, he was promoted from making paste-ups to illustrating and designing covers. The first was for Andre Gide’s book
Lafcadio’s Adventures,
followed by a picture of the Globe Theater for the cover of a book about Shakespeare (Ascending, p. 233). The people in
charge liked his hand lettering (although he didn’t), so he ended up typically sing his distinctive hand-lettered style on many covers. Even for his own books, people insisted that he hand-letter, so he stuck with that; besides, he thought it was easier than type (Ascending, pp. 233-4).

While his own books were almost always black and white, his Doubleday paperbacks often had some muted colors. The policy with Doubleday was to use three colors in addition to black, and Gorey preferred less bright colors, such as olive and lavender (Ascending, p. 235).

Gorey left Doubleday to collaborate with Jason Epstein and Celia Carroll on a small publishing company called The Looking-Glass Library. This was children’s books made of “paper over boards” (Ascending, p. 236) and largely included near-forgotten nineteen-century literature. Gorey worked as the art director and illustrator; he also helped with acquisitions (Ascending, p. 237). Epstein lost interest after a couple
years, and Looking-Glass Books folded. Meanwhile, Gorey did some freelance for Vintage, another publisher of paperbacks, and in 1963 was the art director for a publishing company called Bobbs Merrill, where he was among many who were fired. But he had so much freelance work to do that he didn’t have time for job hunting (Ascending, p. 237).

Even after he was no longer a regular designer and illustrator of book covers, he continued to illustrate books when hired to do so (Ascending, p. 238). That is why I’ve come across the occasional anthology of plays or stories with cover art that has Gorey’s distinct style, and why I even have a special Gorey-illustrated edition of Dracula, published by Barnes and Noble in the 1990s.

Books that Gorey not only designed and illustrated but also wrote himself are highly recognizable by his unique style. His trademarks are extremely tall, slender people wearing costumes from between the 1890s and the 1920s; strange lurking monsters; whimsical, smiling
cats; interior scenes with wallpaper, paneling, urns, and elegantly draped curtains; and somewhat barren landscapes. His style is compulsively detailed with hatching and regular patterns galore.

During the 1950s and 60s, Gorey had trouble getting some of his unsettling books published. This was particularly the case with The Beastly Baby, which was too disturbing and warped a subject for any publisher to touch at the time, so finally Gorey decided to self-publish it, a total of two hundred copies (Theroux, p. 27). Thus he started Fantod Press.

Gorey’s studio in his Cape Cod house included a small wooden work table on which sat many bottles of ink and pens, a couple of metal frogs (one of which had a mouthful of paintbrushes), and a Figbash mug full of bookmarks. He tolerated his cats jumping on the table and leaving inky
paw prints on a drawing (McDermott, “The Studio”). His main drawing materials consisted of paper and ink:

“As to materials, virtually everything is done on Strathmore two-ply matt finish. For years I used Hunt #204 penpoints and Higgins India ink; somewhere along the line I switched to Gillotts titquill penpoints and Pelikan ink. When Gillotts titquills disappeared, I went with reluctance back to Hunt #104 (Ascending, pp. 86, 88).”

He occasionally used watercolors, but even then he first drew the image. He rarely used actual models and mostly took images freely; he had to look at pictures of old cars, for instance, in order to draw an automobile, and he relied heavily on Dover books (Ascending, pp. 89-90). Gorey said in an interview:

All my drawings are done to the size of reproduction, the only
exception being when the final result is going to be more than, say, six inches
in any direction, then I work smaller and have it blown up, because I am
uncomfortable working any larger unless I absolutely have to.

I correct drawings only in a very minor way—with white tempera and/or a razor blade. In
desperation I may redraw a segment and paste it over if I feel unable to redo
the rest of the drawing as well a second time (Ascending, p.

Gorey always completed the text before illustrating it, and all the drawings of one book typically took a month or two. Sometimes he didn’t start
the illustrations until ten years after he wrote the text, and it could be years before he completed the illustrations (Ross, p. 22). Books about Gorey’s art are sprinkled with sketches and notes for his work; he created rough, basic sketches /efore working on the final inked images. To draw one of his detailed images took a day or two (Ascending, p. 32). In the 1990s, he bought a Mac and took classes on Adobe Photoshop and illustrator…only to discover that his drawing style didn’t suit this technology, so he gave up on it (McDermott, “The Library.”)

The publisher of The Listing Attic admired his hand-lettering when he showed samples, and that is how he ended up hand-lettering his work, even though he thought it looked bad (Ascending, p. 90). Despite this aversion, he continued to hand-letter his books and covers for the rest of his life, apparently out of habit.

Gorey came up with stories and wrote them first, before he started drawing. In interviews, he mentioned having a great many—fifty to
seventy-five—books written out but not yet illustrated. (Now that he’s dead, I wonder if he ever finished all those books, or whether at least some of them will be published without the illustrations; some were used for productions of plays that Gorey worked on in the 1980s and 90s.) Although his books are short on words and dominated by his illustrations, he thought of himself first and foremost as a writer (Ascending, p. 21).

Gorey’s books include some novelties such as pop-up books and tiny, unusual flip-books. He wrote (under pseudonyms that are acronyms of his real name) flip-books like The Floating Elephant, which when turned backward, is The Dancing Rock. One way, the book illustrates a little elephant floating skyward, and the other way it illustrates a moving boulder (Theroux, p. 65). This two-in-one flipbook was published in the 1990s, and when out of curiosity I looked up The Floating Elephant on Amazon, I discovered that it sells used for between $100 and $350. Another of Gorey’s flipbooks, Figbash Acrobate, is available on Amazon for either $200 or $475.

Nineteenth-century book illustrations, which were engravings made from steel or wood, heavily influenced Gorey’s illustrations. Lewis Carroll and his illustrator John Tenniel are thought to have influenced Gorey, and his work certainly reminds me of that pair; some people also think Edward Lear influenced his work. But it’s more general than that, although he was an avid fan of both Carroll and Lear (Ascending, p. 21).

Gorey’s favorite authors were Jane Austen and Lady Murasaki (the Japanese author of The Tales of Genji, the world’s first novel). He said, “I’m very fond of Japanese and Chinese literature. I like to work in that way, leaving things out, being very brief,” and he mentioned Ronald
Firbank, Samuel Becket, and Jorge Luis Borges but wasn’t entirely sure “influences” was the right word for them (Ascending, pp. 22-3). Japanese art had some influence on his work; in particular, his ocean waves in Lear’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose look strikingly like those in Katsushiki Hokusai’s painting The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (Ross, p. 90).

Gorey was also influenced by art that was neither illustration nor literature. He was an avid fan of Louis Feuillade, who created silent films such as Fantomas, Les Vampires, Tih Minh, and Barrabas. In Elegant Enigmas, Karen Wilkin’s description of Feuillade’s films proves that Gorey’s artwork is heavily influenced by them, since the films involve:

women in long dresses and enormous hats with plumes, and men with magnificent moustaches wearing top hats and frock coats, all playing out mysterious dramas in pompously furnished interiors, long corridors with multiple doors, and outdoor settings with rows of iron railings (Elegant, p. 16).

Gorey was fascinated by the choreography of Georges Ballantine, though he was uncertain how this influenced his own art, other than writing a couple of little books about ballet dancers. Looking at books that he both wrote and illustrated, I can see how his enthusiasm for ballet, for film, and for theater affected his work: each square or rectangular image resembles a stage set; the figures pose like ballet dancers; the images together progress like melodramatic silent films.

Edward Gorey’s artistic style is truly unique and easy to recognize across a bookstore. While his work is so unique and distinctive, it was also influenced by a variety of art. Often this influence was extremely subtle, such as something vague about the tone of one of his little books. All art is somewhat derivative, including Gorey’s, but at the same time his work manages to be truly original. He has inspired fans worldwide—undoubtedly he has influenced filmmaker Tim Burton—and will continue to pique the interest of other artists and writers, just as nineteenth-century illustrators like John Tenniel did for him. His interiors, urns, cats, and Edwardian people have become iconic.


Edward Gorey House Museum,, accessed 3/5/11.

Marshall. Bookmaking: Editing/Design/Production, 3rd Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, NY: 2004.

Marci and Deth, “Edward Gorey Doubleday Anchor Paperbacks,” /photos/marcianddeth/sets/72157623465700599/detail/?page=4, accessed 3/2/11.

McDermott, Kevin, photos and text. John Updike, foreword. Elephant House: or, The Home of Edward Gorey. Pomegranate, San
Francisco: 2003. (No page numbers)

Ross, Clifford, and Karen Wilkin. The World of Edward Gorey. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY:

Sullivan, James. “From the Cape, a View of Edward Gorey,” Boston Globe,
accessed 3/2/11.

Theroux, Alexander. The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. Fantagraphics Books, Inc., Seattle: 2011.

Wilkin, Karen, Selected and Edited by. Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey. Harcourt, Inc., NY: 2001.

Wilkin, Karen. Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey. Pomegranate, San Francisco: 2009.

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