Unsettling Palette

05.25.15 10:45 AM ET

Cover Story: Edward Gorey’s Best Book Jackets

Famous for his droll, macabre illustrations and stories, nearly all in black and white, Edward Gorey was also a master of color, as he proved repeatedly with his book jacket designs.

Edward Gorey thought in black and white, he said. He was helpless when it came to color. “With color,” he told his friend Clifford Ross, “I have a tendency to wish to blow my brains out at some point or other.”

We know Gorey—who didn’t blow his brains out but who did die (of natural causes) in 2000—from his little picture books, mock cautionary tales set in the England of frock coats and gramophones and narrated in a deadpan parody of Victorian moralizers. In keeping with his stories’ anachronistic setting, he illustrated them in a sharp-nibbed, obsessively crosshatched style that’s as convincing a counterfeit of 19th-century engraving as is humanly possible with pen and ink. Naturally, they are, with very few exceptions, in black and white.

Which is why it’s so startling—and wonderful—to see his deft, deliciously offbeat use of color on some of the 200 paperback covers and hardcover jackets he illustrated, a tasting menu’s worth of which is served up in Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art & Design (Pomegranate) and in the exhibition “From Aesop to Updike: Edward Gorey's Book Cover Art & Design,” at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts (through December 27). Those whose knowledge of Gorey begins with his animated opening titles for the PBS series Mystery! and ends with The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a Gothic abecedarium in which 26 children die preposterous deaths, will be rocked back on their heels by the sumptuous colors of Miss Clafooty and the Demon (1971), a young-adult novel by J. David Townsend. A froglike imp stomps on the trailing hem of Miss Clafooty’s Edwardian dress, pinning her in mid-step; his purple skin is color-coordinated with the violet and pale lavender bows on her enormous hat, and harmonizes with its vermilion feathers. Against all the reds and purples, the off-key note of Miss Clafooty’s gravy-brown dress is weirdly pleasing, somehow. By contrast, Gorey’s cover for the Doubleday Anchor edition of The Awkward Age (1958), by Henry James, is a masterpiece of understatement, from the monochromatic men in black tie to the femme fatale in a mauve evening gown to the light taupe background.

The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Courtesy of Pomegranate Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Brown and vermilion, mauve and taupe: signature Gorey combinations. We see them, and other, equally eccentric visual harmonies, on his covers for Anchor Books, the Doubleday imprint where he worked as an illustrator and designer from 1953 to 1960. As Steven Heller, the design critic, notes in his insightful introduction to Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art & Design, Gorey’s arch, antiquarian style was far removed from the sleek, Don Draper-goes-Bauhaus Modernism of the moment, typified by Paul Rand’s covers for Knopf. But it was no less innovative, in its own radically retro way.

Gorey’s book covers draw, for their economy of line, on Tenniel’s sharply incised Alice in Wonderland illustrations (and, equally, the Brothers Dalziel, who engraved Tenniel’s drawings) and on the proto-Modernist minimalism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. His use of subtle washes of watercolor to tint his line drawings is reminiscent of the Japanese artists he loved, ukiyo-e masters of the woodblock print such as Hokusai, and of English illustrators like Edward Ardizzone and Edward Bawden, whom he admired. He was influenced, more generally, by British book design. “I was aware of British book jackets because I bought a lot of British books at the time,” he told Heller, in a 1999 interview.

Gorey was at heart a draftsman, most at home with line, as the black-and-white aesthetic of his little books suggests. Yet his color sense is assured, if slyly, subtly askew. When I interviewed her for the Gorey biography I’m writing for Little, Brown, Diana Klemin, the art director at Anchor during Gorey’s time there, recalled his “very refreshing use of color.” Heller—who as an art director at The New York Times often hired Gorey for freelance illustration assignments—uses his technical expertise to walk us through the workings of that mastery. “Flat color-printing inks for Gorey are like the melodramatic extremes of light and dark for the noir cinematographer,” he points out. “The deliberate choice of hue is both design tool and dramatic device and is used to focus the viewer’s eyes on a character.” Gorey’s cover for the Anchor edition of Thérèse (1956), by François Mauriac, is a case in point:

The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Courtesy of Pomegranate Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Color heightens anxiety in Gorey’s cover for ... Thérèse, about a woman who has poisoned her husband and reflects on her reasons, spending the novel recalling her deed. It is dominated by two shades of sienna, one for the ground, the other the sky. The viewer’s eye, however, is directed to a crimson hat and coat on a woman sitting joylessly (or maybe not) alone on a small bench with her thoughts. Color washes over the minimally expressive line work and imposes a sense of sorrow over the entire vignette. The viewer is encouraged to question what came before and what comes after this frozen moment.

For Heller, this open-endedness, this invitation to participate in the act of making meaning, is an essential aspect of what makes Gorey Gorey. I’d agree, noting his revealing remark that “if you create something, you’re killing a lot of other things. And the way I write, since I do leave out most of the connections, and very little is pinned down, I feel that I’m doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in a reader’s mind.”

Gorey’s work, he always insisted, wasn’t in the gothic mode; he saw himself in the Victorian tradition of nonsense verse, of which Edward Lear was the unquestioned master. Existential Nonsense: that’s what we’ll call Gorey’s art about the horrors of everyday life and the capriciousness of a cosmos that brains you out of the blue, like Lord Wherewithal “crushed beneath a statue blown down from the parapet” in Gorey’s story The Other Statue.

The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Courtesy of Pomegranate Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

His colors are part of that sensibility. Like the man himself, who may have been gay or may have been asexual but when pointedly asked said, “Well, I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly,” his palette of disquieting, ambiguous colors—a “sort of lavender, lemon yellow, olive green, and then a whole series of absolutely no colors at all”—makes a philosophical point: The world is full of ambiguity and mutability that elude the snares of language, and the best art “is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else.” In some ineffable, lavender, lemon-yellow, olive-green way, his book covers capture that feeling.