Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gorey Details

My fondness for Edward Gorey began in a grade school library, when my friend Mary and I happened upon his illustrations in Edward Lear's poem The Jumblies. It solidified at the start of college, when Mary sent me a postcard from a page of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies, stating that "K is for Kate who was struck with an axe".  After checking my mailbox several times a day during Freshman Orientation, I was overjoyed to receive a piece of mail, even one that forecasted my demise.  Naturally, I glued it to my dorm room door.

Just imagine, if we'd had technology 'way back then, Mary might have sent me a text message instead of the postcard.  How sad.

The Boston Athenaeum is hosting a Gorey exhibit: Elegant Enigmas.  I dragged my favorite oculogyrist (who is now so long of limb, so deep of voice, and so thoroughly and adolescently dour, that I am tempted to refer to him as Lurch) with the promise that he'd appreciate Gorey's humor.

It's a small exhibit, but nicely done: there are a couple of rooms with drawings from Gorey's books, as well as illustrations he did for other authors; there are some amazing envelopes that he decorated (letters to his mother, I believe--good boy!), and--and this was my favorite part--his sketches and rough drafts. It was very instructive to see the "seeds" of Gorey's finished work. His drawings are so painstakingly perfect, done in superfine-point pen, that it is hard to imagine that Gorey ever needed to make a rough draft. But he did, and we can all take comfort from that knowledge.

In addition to his artistic talents, Gorey had a curious way with words. The Athenaeum exhibit has a study for a piece called Nursery Frieze, in which a line of creatures (his rough draft shows rhinos, but these look more like wild pigs) march across letters of the alphabet while saying random words like gavelkind, ophicleide, corposant, wax and jequirity. His cartoons feature characters with whimsical names like Lord Wherewithal, Mr. Earbrass, and Miss Skrim-Pshaw.

If you are not already a fan of the Boston Athenaeum, you should be. It is a membership library with research facilities, as well as a committment to outreach and community. I called them for information and a friendly, helpful HUMAN BEING answered the phone--on the first ring!  It's a lovely building, too, with large light-filled rooms, tucked into the top of Beacon Hill at 10 1/2 Beacon Street (Lurch was reminded of Platform 9 3/4, and thought I was making the address up to tease him). The Gorey exhibit is open to the public--suggested donation is $5 (you must give SOMETHING, says the sign, but give what you can) and although small, Elegant Enigmas is worth at least that.  If you find yourself in the area--lobbying at the State House, enjoying a meal downtown, or whatever--stop by and see for yourself. Lurch and I give it four thumbs up.