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From the Cape, a view of Edward Gorey

Remembering an artist of gleeful contradictions

Rick Jones, the director and curator of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, with items in Gorey's collection. Rick Jones, the director and curator of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, with items in Gorey's collection. (Steve Haines for the Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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YARMOUTH PORT — Collecting had its own inherent wisdom for Edward Gorey, the master illustrator of morbid humor. In his old captain’s cottage on the town common here, the late artist created installations from his voracious clutter — arrangements of dozens of old cheese graters, or Coptic crosses, or pill bottles.

“If he collected something,’’ says Helen Pond, who met the artist through her work as a set designer, “everyone who saw it wanted to collect it, too.’’

But Gorey, the author of such twisted children’s books for adults as “The Unstrung Harp’’ and the A-Z reader “The Gashlycrumb Tinies’’ (“A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs’’), collected much more than mere objects. He craved textures, odd perspectives. Most of all, he accumulated the bottomless absurdities of life as he saw it.

Gorey’s celebrated work is the subject of a new exhibition, “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,’’ opening Wednesday at the Boston Athenaeum. The show was organized by the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania.

Before his death at 75 in 2000, Gorey made thousands of drawings, wrote endless verse, and published more than 100 books. And he created a home in Massachusetts.

After serving in World War II, the native Chicagoan attended Harvard in the late 1940s. For decades, he spent summers with his aunt, uncle, and cousins in a family home in Barnstable, where the artist kept a lair in the attic. His contribution was to decorate and furnish the place from his exploration of flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops.

In 1979, after receiving a windfall from his set and costume design for the Broadway production of “Dracula’’ (for which he won a Tony Award), he purchased the old captain’s cottage in Yarmouth Port. The place was a mess. Poison ivy grew through the windows; the shingles had weathered like old elephant skin.

Gorey, of course, loved it. Within a few years, he’d given up his rent-controlled apartment in the Murray Hill section of New York to live on the Cape year round. Soon there was nowhere to sit at “Elephant House,’’ as he called it, so visitors gathered in the kitchen. Then the kitchen ran out of space, too.

Pond, who met Gorey at a cocktail party at the Cape Playhouse, says she and her husband spent plenty of time with the artist over the years. He adored their black Lab, Lucky. When his own cats stood on the kitchen table, he passed crackers by reaching underneath their bellies. He came to one gathering wearing a shirt-style mink, Pond recalls, accompanied by the actress Julie Harris.

Gorey stopped wearing his trademark furs at some point in the 1980s, says Ken Morton, the son of Gorey’s cousin Skee (an inspiration for “The Deranged Cousins’’ of his 1971 story). The artist’s deep affection for four-legged creatures — he lived with six well-fed cats, and his estate has been set up in a charitable trust for animal welfare — eventually led him to denounce fur as a fashion statement.

But he hung onto the rest of his purposefully mismatched affectations — rugby jerseys and yellow sweaters, excessive necklaces, a beard worthy of the ancients, flip-flops or tattered Keds on his feet. He was a man of gleeful contradictions, says Morton, 44, whose first memories of “Ted,’’ as he knew his summertime housemate, involved the dispensation of five-dollar bills, so the boy could ride his bike down to the arcade and get out of the artist’s close-cropped hair.

Though Morton’s youthful infatuation with the new “Star Wars’’ movies annoyed Gorey to no end, as he grew older (and stopped playing light-saber games) he developed a bond with the artist over their mutual love of the movies. Gorey’s well-documented catholicity when it came to entertainment — he could sit for hours on the floor of the Parnassus Book Service, just down the road from his house, discussing soap opera plots with the cashier — was a natural extension of his inbred skepticism.

“I spent years trying to figure out why he liked what he liked,’’ says Morton, who edits the Massachusetts Political Almanac. “I finally came to the conclusion that what he really loathed was pretense.’’ If a movie, or a TV program or a book, made its crassness plain, he had no problem. “But if you put on airs, or tried to overreach . . .’’

Gorey’s settings are often described as “gothic’’ or “Victorian,’’ and the preponderance of skulls and dark, elaborate wallpaper in his work makes those assessments all too easy. His animated, black-and-white introduction to the PBS series “Mystery!’’ certainly fits the mold.

But it would be misleading to suggest that the artist was mired in a bygone era, or in a gloomy mindstate. He loved “Cheers’’ as much as he did the ballet.

In Yarmouth Port, he had a sweet spot for the doughnuts at Fleming’s, and he ate nearly every morning at Jack’s Outback, the community’s beloved breakfast joint. Rick Jones, a co-owner who befriended the artist, is now the director and curator of the Edward Gorey House.

At Elephant House, fans are encouraged to fill out a “Gashlycrumb Tinies’’ scavenger hunt, searching the house for the peach that choked Ernest and the leech that doomed Fanny. The front room includes a small gift shop selling prints, books, mugs, and calendars. The permanent collection includes an old stuffed prototype of the penguin-like creature based on the title character of “The Doubtful Guest,’’ a Gorey classic which was announced a few years ago as a potential feature-film project for the late Jim Henson’s production company.

“He didn’t care if things were marketed,’’ says Morton, who often watched over Ted’s shoulder as he drew. “He was very generous with his art.’’

Whatever else it was, art wasn’t precious to Gorey. When Alexander Theroux — an acquaintance who wrote a short biographical study, “The Strange Case of Edward Gorey,’’ after the artist’s death — once asked him whether he planned to visit an upcoming Picasso exhibition, Gorey waved his hand.

“I’d rather die,’’ he replied.

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.

ELEGANT ENIGMAS: The Art of Edward Gorey Feb. 9 through June 4 at the Boston Athenaeum, 10 Beacon St. Recommended donation $5. www.bostonathenaeum.org.

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