What you see: Cat Fancy, a cover illustration created for The New Yorker magazine by the late Edward Gorey. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.
Do we know why Gorey only did two covers for The New Yorker, and why the commissions came so late in his life? He seems like a good fit for a cover illustrator for that magazine. Was he considered too well-known to commission? Gorey’s relationship with The New Yorker was a long and curious one. His first real review and introduction to the wider public, and certainly the New York cultural elite, appeared in the magazine’s pages in its December 26, 1959 issue. The great literary critic, Edmund Wilson, an admirer of Gorey’s work, wrote an appreciation titled The Albums of Edward Gorey. His relative obscurity, he felt, was due to his working mainly to amuse himself. In 1950, around the time of his first commissions, when he was drawing for the Harvard Advocate and smaller humor magazines, Gorey actually submitted his work to The New Yorker. Then-Cartoon Editor Frank Modell rejected it, suggesting that “less eccentric drawings might draw a more enthusiastic audience.” It would take 43 years before the sensibilities and ironic humor of the magazine, under Tina Brown’s editorship, finally embraces his irreverent, camp-goth style.
How did the magazine use the artwork commissioned from Gorey under Tina Brown’s editorship? Lot 188 is among the three pieces he submitted in 1993. Instead of being used as a cover, it was used as a memorial postscript in The New Yorker when he died in 2000.
Why was this Gorey illustration, Cat Fancy, not used by The New Yorker until 2018? Art editor Françoise Mouly explained in her Cover Story that The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, asked if they had any unpublished work by Gorey in their archives to accompany an appreciation of him by Joan Acocella for their December 10th issue. Mouly was delighted to find a file of this original artwork and used it on the cover. The original artworks were sent back to Gorey’s agent, John Locke, after they had been digitized.
Do we know why The New Yorker didn’t use it back when they commissioned it, in the early 1990s? There’s no indications about why they didn’t use it, but in general, The New Yorker doesn’t like to use the same illustrator in a calendar year. They did one in December 1992, the first time Edward Gorey was on the cover, of a fantastic image of a denuded, stick-like Christmas tree with a family enthusiastically wrapping it with holiday-themed wallpaper. Maybe other covers came in, and it sunk to the bottom of the pile.
How often do Edward Gorey originals come up at auction? Pieces do come up a few times a year. We’ve handled upwards of 60 originals.
So, they’re out there, but at any given time, what’s out there might not be the Goreys you’d want most. That’s true, and Gorey appeals to people in different ways. Some like his Goth style. They want Dracula, and they want anything related to his Mystery! drawings for PBS. Those two works tend to set the highest prices.
You’ve got eight Goreys in the June 4 sale. Is that an unusually high number? We’ve had as many as 12 in a single sale. It varies. We’ve had sales with no Goreys, and sales with three to four. Three to four is more typical.
What’s the record for an original work by Gorey? In March 2017, we sold a piece I named Skeletons and Hiding Figures. We believed it’s an illustration for PBS’s Mystery! series, circa the 1980s. It’s not terribly large and it’s unsigned, but it’s clearly in Gorey’s hand and it contains all his types–obelisks, hiding figures, mustachioed men in a garden setting. It sold for $18,750.
Where are most of Gorey’s originals? Are they in a library or another institution? The majority of his pieces are owned by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. When Gorey died, anything in his possession became property of the trust. It has them at an off-site property and loans them to the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.
Cat Fancy looks elaborate. Do we have any notion of how long it might have taken him to finish? His attention to detail is so strong, I imagine it took him several days. He drafted parts of it in pencil, then he went over it with ink, and then he colored it in with watercolors.
Could we talk about how this piece will appeal to Gorey collectors? What details does it have that Gorey collectors prize? First and foremost, its subject is cats. Gorey adopted several in his lifetime and thought of them as family, and as kindred spirits. They served as artistic inspiration, and sometimes he referred to them as people. His signature “Gorey Cat” pranced on the scene in 1972 with the publication of Amphigorey, his first anthology. Other works featuring cats include The Sopping Thursday, Category, Fletcher and Zenobia, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and his famous ballet cats. Their style changed throughout the years, but they remain among his most popular. Cat Fancy also reflects his love of Victorian and Edwardian interiors—the overstuffed fussiness and detailed fabrics. It shows his skill and love of line work, much of which was influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, the Surrealists, and the ink work of English artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ardizzone. His favorite colors were lemon yellow, olive green, and lavender, and this piece contains them in varying hues. In short, it hits on all cylinders.
Are there aspects of the illustration that the camera doesn’t quite capture? When you get up close to the artwork, you can see the flowers contain little insects. Not all of them–here and there throughout the quilt. Gorey loved insects. He often worked insects into his artwork.
Are there other aspects the camera doesn’t pick up? It draws you in. The composition, while incredibly complicated and busy, but part of its enchantment is that you find yourself, like the cats, getting lost in that big, soft bed.
Why will this illustration stick in your memory? I had an inkling where the two New Yorker pieces were, and I am thrilled to be able to be able to shepherd them from one appreciative owner into the hands of new, excited collectors. And I’m a Gorey groupie. I’m a book person, I adore cats, and lounging places, and it has my favorite color, so you’re making me want to bid on it! [Laughs]. It’s a terrific piece.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Christine von der Linn has appeared before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a spellbinding 1938 Wanda Gág illustration for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; an Arthur Rackham illustration of Danaë and the Infant Perseus, a Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick and original Erté artwork for a 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover.
The Edward Gorey House has a website.
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