Alison Padley-Woods invites illustrator Imogen Foxell to tell us about an illustrator who has inspired her

A grinning figure of Death in an elegant undertaker’s outfit shelters twenty-six rather bewildered children under a giant umbrella. This is the cover of  The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey – the illustrated deaths of an alphabetised series of Edwardian children, accompanied by a charming rhyming text: “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears,” etc. – Gorey perfectly parodies the alphabet book and the old moralizing stories for children, in his own inimitable style – lightly macabre, darkly hilarious, oddly moving.

I first encountered Edward Gorey on my eleventh birthday, when my American godmother sent me a copy of The Doubtful Guest. I don’t think I was ever likely to grow out of picture books, but here was a perfect example of a picture book creator who defied the tradition that illustrations are only for little children – Gorey is loved alike by adults and kids of the right ghoulish disposition. 

The Doubtful Guest,
by Edward Gorey,
published by Bloomsbury

There are so many reasons Gorey is appealing – but most of all, he is just a great artist. Nearly all his work is exquisitely detailed pen-and-ink (he would buy a whole lot of Gillott Tit Quill pen nibs, so delicate that many of them would break immediately). He has the knack of capturing the perfect moment. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Amy is forever frozen in time, suspended above her shadow on the brink of an endless cross-hatched staircase. 

The Gashlycrumb Tinies,
by Edward Gorey
© Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

He’s also the master of understated storytelling. Basil is walking away from two enormous bears with just a hint of insolence in his minimalist expression – one bear tentatively raises its claw…

The Gashlycrumb Tinies
by Edward Gorey,
© Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

I could continue through the whole alphabet, but my absolute favourite is “N is for Neville who died of ennui”. We see the top of Neville’s tiny face – just his two glazed eyes gazing out of a rectangular window in a rectangular building. A tree branch consisting of two black twigs is all that breaks the monotony. I love the choice to include the most boring picture in the world right in the middle of this series of dramatic deaths.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies,
by Edward Gorey,
© Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Gorey actually worked in the second half of the twentieth century, but his work is set in a pseudo-Edwardian era, where repressed (but beautifully dressed) men, women, and children move through a series of elegant drawing rooms and dismal landscapes. They are accompanied by various strange beasts (like the “doubtful guest”, a sort of penguin in sneakers), as well as a lot of cats. His world is therefore immediately recognisable and entirely his own. Perhaps its closest relations are the owls, pussycats and pobbles of Edward Lear’s poetry which Gorey illustrated, and the motley residents of Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley.

Those of us who love Edward Gorey feel like honorary members of this distinctive world. Of course, he’s actually extremely popular, especially in his native USA, but it’s easy to believe that it’s a personal relationship, and that you’re the person who really gets him.

Gorey was born in 1925 and died in 2000. His life story (at least as I like to recall it) sounds about as strange as the worlds he creates. He lived in New York for thirty years regularly attending the ballet. When the great dancer Balanchine died in 1983, Gorey left New York and secluded himself in a house in Cape Cod, surrounded by cats named after Roman empresses and his collection of finials. I really recommend the book The World of Edward Gorey, by Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin. There’s also a recent biography, Born to be Posthumous, by Mark Dery which I am intrigued to read.

The World of Edward Gorey,
by Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin,
published by Abrams

Born to be Posthumous,
by Mark Dery.
Book design, by Marie Mandaca,
published by William Collins

Gorey has absolutely been an influence on me in my illustrating life. I am also a lover of delicate linework, and my favourite things to draw include tiny people navigating large houses or landscapes, imaginary animals, and not-necessarily-authentic historical outfits. As an artist, I attempt to learn from Gorey’s skill at framing and timing. Each of his pictures is contained in a rectangular frame and carefully depicts the optimal dramatic moment, in a way that only an illustration can. I also appreciate the bookishness of his work – these aren’t pictures to hang on a wall, but to hold right up close to your face. And the book format allows for fun with continuity – such as The Epiplectic Bicycle rolling through its bizarre two-dimensional universe as you turn the pages.

The Epiplectic Bicycle,
by Edward Gorey,
published by Bloomsbury

But as well as his particular style and subject matter, Gorey shows us all that illustration can be personal and deeply strange. It’s easy to worry about not making “fashionable” art that will sell to the target age group. But Gorey is a reminder that we can illustrate any book we feel like for any age (even a compendium of “Useful Urns”) – and if it's good enough, there will be an audience who understands it.

Header image,
The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey,
published by Bloomsbury


Imogen Foxell is an illustrator, and also writes dictionaries in her spare time. She has illustrated GCSE English revision cards for Flipsco Cards, and has worked on commissions for the Poetry Society, the Bodleian Library, and the Stephen Spender Trust. She is working on various picture books in the hope of getting published one day. She owns a small collection of useful urns.
Find Imogen at Twitter and Instagram

Alison Padley-Woods is Words and Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her on Twitter

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