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Marvellous Humans: The Wonderfully Strange Edward Gorey

Black and white Edward Gorey illustration of Illustration of group of Victorian people around a dinner table from The Doubtful Guest
Illustration from The Doubtful Guest, 1957

We at The Dilettante love to delve into the stories of creatives, eccentrics and marvellous humans. Our latest subject, Edward Gorey, makes for the perfect study of an artist who carved out a curiously singular existence and an impressively unique body of work. So do please come along with us as we explore the life of the wonderfully unusual fellow.

“My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that's what the world is like.”

Black and white photograph of artist edward gorey surrounded by cats in his office
Edward Gorey and his cats

If provoking ominous unease was his aim, then writer and artist Edward Gorey certainly succeeded. Conjuring a world of unsettling situations and ghoulish characters, Gorey's distinctive monochrome drawings were imbued with lashings of unwholesome humour and morbid whimsy.

Gorey's droll, dark tone clearly follows in the footsteps of gothic and absurdist Victorian writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Edward Lear, and his work has continued to delighted audiences for decades, in turn going on to influence modern masters of the macabre including Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket.

Born in Chicago on the 22nd February 1925 to a creative family, Gorey taught himself to read by the age of three, gaining him a reputation of being a particularly gifted child. At school he was known by his peers for his creativity and it is said that his yearbook contained a blank square where his photo should be, in which Gorey would draw a doodle of himself when asked.

After a spate in the army during the Second World War, Gorey enrolled at Harvard to study French literature. He shared a room with poet Frank O’Hara, and the two created a salon-like atmosphere in their dorm, hosting numerous parties attended by artists, actors and other students with bohemian sensibilities. But O'Hara's dedicated to partying eventually surpassed Gorey's, and as his interests in art and design took hold, Gorey's penchant for the solitary life grew.

After moving to New York in the 1950s, Gorey worked for the art department of Doubleday Anchor, illustrating book covers for titles such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Understanding that colour illustrations were more costly to print, it was here that Gorey’s signature black and white cross-hatched style began to take shape.

Black and white Edward Gorey illustration from War of the Worlds, 1960
Illustration from War of the Worlds, 1960.

Whilst living in the Big Apple, Gorey became ardently dedicated to the New York City Ballet, attending with such a fervent regularity that it was rumoured he saw every performance of The Nutcracker for several years. Dressed in his signature fur coat and jewellery, he would be seen loitering in the lobby at intervals engaged in humorously scathing gossip about the costumes, dancers and sets.

Black and white Edward Gorey illustration of Victorian era people in a balcony at the opera
Illustration from The Blue Aspic, 1969.

Despite gaining regular work illustrating for commercial magazines and designing theatrical sets, Gorey's own stories certainly catered to a specific, more surreal taste. He found getting published tricky. To allow himself greater artistic freedom, in 1962 he created the Fantod Press. Publishing works from writers such as Ogdred Weary, Mrs Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Edward Pig, and Garrod Weedy (who were all of course pseudonyms for Gorey himself), over the next 35 years Fantod would publish 28 imagined memoirs, alphabet books and other Gorey stories including The Deranged Cousins, The Beastly Baby and The Abandoned Sock.

In 1963, Gorey released The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction, a box set of picture books featuring The Insect God, The West Wing, and what would become Gorey’s most famous work, The Gashlycrum Tinies. This dark romp through the alphabet features an array of grim fates beheld by children, including Leo who swallowed some tacks, Zillah who drank too much gin, and Neville who died from ennui.

Towards the end of his life, Gorey wound down to living what can only be described as an introvert's dream retirement. He moved into a 200 year old sea captain's house in Cape Cod (which he nicknamed ‘The Elephant House’) and increasingly began to enjoy his own company, often ignoring the telephone, doorbell and fan mail. Free at last from the confines of New York living, Gorey perused second-hand fairs and filled his home with an thousands of books and a melange of art, games, toys, and treasures. He enjoyed watching television and spent hours sewing bizarre beanbag creatures which he would give to friends. “Books. Cats. Life is good,” he is quoted as saying. We couldn’t agree more.

Edward Gorey's stories were certainly too odd for some, and we admire his perseverance in carving his own path despite his unique, sombre style. He died in 2000, leaving his estate to a number of animal welfare charities. His home in Yarmouth, Cape Cod still stands as a dedicated museum The Edward Gorey House and his work published by The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. To finish, we highly recommend checking out this delightfully illustrated audio clip of Edward talking about the capers of his beloved cats.


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