Feeling At Home with Edward Gorey
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs / B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” So begins Edward Gorey’s famous alphabet book The Gnashlycrumb Tinies, which denotes each letter with a child’s unlikely cause of death. Macabre, mysterious, and whimsically quirky, the book is emblematic of Gorey’s distinctive, wholly original style.
Often mistakenly associated with 19th century England (Gorey was an American who died in 2000 at the age of 75), Gorey was best-known for his extraordinarily detailed black and white illustrations. He published over 100 illustrated books, provided artwork for dozens of other authors and publications, and designed sets and costumes for theater productions. His personal life was nearly as eccentric as his work: he collected fur coats, frequently wrote under pseudonyms like Ogdred Weary and E.G. Deadworry, both of which are anagrams of his name, and allowed a family of raccoons to live in his attic---ostensibly as penance for his furs.
Today, Gorey fans can journey down the rabbit hole of the artist’s mind at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, where Gorey lived for the last 14 years of his life. We spoke via e-mail with the museum's director and curator Rick Jones, who described the enduring appeal of Gorey's work, whether his illustrations reflect his home, and the museum's current exhibit, The Envelope Art of Edward Gorey.
NEA: Edward Gorey was a distinctive character to say the least. How do his eccentricities reveal themselves throughout the museum?
RICK JONES: One of the things people will notice about Gorey by visiting his home is his love of collections. Gorey loved to go to yard sales and tag sales and collect odds and ends. Some of these collections are displayed on the many bookshelves in the museum. There are clusters of cheese graters and tools, and hundreds of books (only a minute selection of his massive personal collection). The kitchen is set up the way it was when he used it; most of the counter space is covered in bowls of rocks and other items that Gorey amassed.
NEA: What is it about Gorey’s work that you think makes it so appealing to so many different generations?
JONES: Gorey’s work is mysterious and sinister while simultaneously being nonsensical and silly; this combination of themes is intriguing to any age. Paired with intricate illustrations that often depict children, cats, or mythical creatures of Gorey’s imagining, he captivates fans across generations.
The Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of the Edward Gorey House
NEA: Why do you think people are so attracted to the idea of seeing an artist’s personal space and studio?
JONES: The intimacy of an Edward Gorey museum, located in his own residence, provides the visitors with the opportunity to examine “up close” the remarkable pen and ink artistry of Edward Gorey. His finely detailed crosshatch workmanship surpasses even the best efforts of the printed page. The Gorey House display in glass-top cases almost places the artwork in the visitor’s hands. In addition to seeing his works up close and personal, visitors often come in hopes of better understanding what Gorey was like as a person. It is intriguing to see the personal space and belongings of someone that you admire. Viewing Gorey’s work in his own home is a very intimate experience that gives the viewer context for the work. Visitors get a flavor of who Edward was and where he got some of his inspiration.
NEA: Can you describe the Edward Gorey’s Envelope Art exhibit, and what you think it reveals about the artist?
JONES: The current Gorey exhibition of his “Envelope Art” was inspired by the extraordinary response to his latest book of letters exchanged with Professor Peter Neumeyer, a now-retired authority on children’s literature (Berkeley, Harvard, California State University San Diego). Throughout some 70 envelopes (some on loan from others), the viewer can examine “close-up” Gorey’s ingenious artistry in making a letter fascinating before it has even been opened. Their book, The Floating Worlds, illustrates the envelopes, but by necessity reduced in size. In the many glass cases at Gorey House you see the real thing. These letters are also a treasure because most of Gorey’s work is in black ink and these are in beautiful color.
NEA: Much of Gorey’s work could be described as ominous, dark, or bleak. Are these atmospheric qualities reflected in the house at all?
JONES: Yes, many of his works are dark, but they are also ironic, nonsensical, and humorous. These latter qualities are reflected more in the house than the former. Rather than being ominous, the many objects in the house, both personal and produced, make it intriguing and inviting for visitors. His house is like his work: a bit creepy and strange but also whimsical and captivating.
Rick Jones in the Edward Gorey House. Photo courtesy of the Edward Gorey House
NEA: What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about Edward Gorey?
JONES: The biggest surprise to Gorey House visitors seems to be their shock at how much artistry was created by Gorey. He wrote and illustrated over 100 publications, illustrated close to 100 works by other authors (many famous, including Nobel and Pulitzer Prize authors), illustrated for magazines and newspapers from the age of 13 until the time of his death in 2000. There remain thousands of examples in his archive which provide rich opportunities for many Gorey exhibits well into the future. Gorey House visitors return frequently; there is always something new, amusing, provocative, and even mysterious.
NEA: What is your personal favorite part of the house and why?
JONES: The must-see of the house is the annual changing exhibits. This year’s exhibit displays Gorey’s envelope art. Another favorite is The Gashleycrumb Tinies scavenger hunt. Each child from the book is represented throughout the house in one form or an other, be it the legs sticking out from under a rug in the main room for “G is for George smothered under a rug” or a small boy peeking out the window of an upstairs room for “N is for Neville who died of ennui." The scavenger hunt is a great way to engage children and adults alike in one of Gorey’s books come to life.
NEA: Why did the Edward Gorey House register with Blue Star Museums this year?
JONES: We hope to make the museum more accessible to those in the armed forces as a way to recognize the sacrifices that they and their families make to protect our country. We wish to give back in some small way to show our appreciation for what they do. It should also be noted that Edward Gorey served in the US Army during WWII from 1943 until 1946, when he was discharged and enrolled at Harvard as a member of the class of 1950.