Uncanny Ink: The Weird Illustrations of Beardsley, Niffenegger, and Gorey

Over a blank white paper come a smirking, creeping, posturing devil horde of things, grotesque, weird, macabre, sinister, misgiving and alarming, before which the creatures in Comus and The End of Elphintown retreat abashed. And then with a seeming flick of his faery hand, we see only a harmless fop of George I, a charming little lady at her toilet, or a poor dead doll. 

R.A. Walker begins the introduction to his 1948 edition of The Best of Beardsley by describing the artist — as well as his pen and ink drawings — as paradoxical. Aubrey Beardsley (1872−1898) was in tune with the Victorian zeitgeist: like Oscar Wilde, with whom he was acquainted, Beardsley was an aesthete, a dandy who paid almost as much attention to his frocks and accessories as he did his art. He was too cool for trends, so (of course) wound up setting them. He was, in many respects, a late 19th century hipster. But as Walker points out, Beardsley’s imitators never really grasped what it was that made his style — in art and fashion — so striking, so bold, so memorable.

On the one hand, Beardsley’s work and tastes were beautiful. Google ‘Art Nouveau’ and tucked between the photos of swirling balustrades and Mucha reproductions you’ll find a peppering of Beardsley’s black and white images: dark-haired ladies with stylised peacock dresses; strong patterns on covers of The Yellow Book; dramatic men holding lanterns in manicured gardens. Early in his career, Beardsley illustrated Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in lush woodblock designs; there were over 350 pictures, each reminiscent of Morris’s elaborate, ornamental prints. Yet, among all this loveliness — or perhaps in reaction to it — an increasing preoccupation with the grotesque and the macabre was manifested in Beardsley’s work. It is this beautiful ugliness, the sinister allure of mundane subjects, to which Walker refers in the epigraph above. And it is this paradox that makes many of Beardsley’s illustrations so appealing — and more than a little bit weird.

Fast-forward roughly a hundred years and we encounter a similar tension between aesthetics and horror in the illustrations of two American artists, Edward Gorey and Audrey Niffenegger. Like Beardsley, Gorey is famous for working in black and white — his Gashlycrumb Tinies perhaps the most notorious of his books — and both men seemed to relish designs that rely more heavily on the latter rather than the former. In The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress, two of Niffenegger’s “novels in pictures” (her term), the palette is only marginally broader: shades of rust and ochre, for example, accent otherwise monochromatic schemes of navy blues, blacks, greys. All three of these artists create artworks that are exercises in restraint. Restricted colours, economic use of line, and flattened perspectives are all recognisable features of their illustrations. As a result, these images are striking. They are pretty. They immediately catch the eye. Even so, they are undeniably weird.

Sure, the subject matter in many of these pictures is enough to make them unsettling. Simply reading the title of Beardsley’s ‘Lucian’s Strange Creatures’ (fig.1) tells us that much; looking at the bizarre collection of carnivalesque beings confirms that they are — or Beardsley was — in fact, strange. Gorey drew umbrella-toting goths, and children dying in dozens of ways. Niffenegger’s aquatints capture ghosts, heartbreak, separation, melancholy. So, yes — in many cases the stories these artists relate are weird ones. But that alone isn’t what makes their illustrations Weird with a capital ‘W’.

When it comes to chilling a viewer, art and death have much in common. It all comes down to the graphic style of execution.

Tyranny of Space Meets Oppression of Detail

One of the cornerstones of gothic imagery is the ancient, brooding castle; its crumbling mortar threatens to trap unsuspecting victims in dark, cobweb-filled rooms with walls so thick no one will ever hear them scream… However, living in Australia gives one an appreciation for the tyranny of open spaces — out in the desert, without a single wall in sight, crushed by the weight of all that sky, no one can hear you scream either. Too much space, in other words, can be as freaky as too little. A quick glance at two illustrations Beardsley made for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) reveals pages almost overwhelmingly white. In ‘The Woman in the Moon’ (fig.2), strong curves delineate sky from ground and figures from sky, but each element nevertheless seems flimsy. In an image where the heaviest, most solid blacks represent ephemeral objects — hair and clouds — the whites read as emptiness barely contained. We are unsettled because it seems as though the moment that man moves, he will slide down the slope of his partner’s dress and into the nothingness beyond her hem. The weight is concentrated at the top of the composition; as a result, everything appears to be on the brink of floating away. It’s vertigo in reverse.

The Dancer’s Reward’ (fig.3) is also predominantly white, and so every black detail is emphasised. The executioner’s floor-length robes. John the Baptist’s wild tresses. The blood dripping from his severed neck. And perhaps most disturbing of all, a pair of slippers neatly placed in the bottom right-hand corner. The domesticity of footwear in this context is gruesome — it’s weird. There is no visible explanation for their inclusion in the scene. Were they taken off to avoid blood spatter? Are they the dead man’s shoes?

In the Salome illustrations, there is an obvious focus on outline. Clear boundaries push out the surrounding emptiness even as they trap some of it inside. At the same time, these contours separate but also encompass sections of impenetrable black. A similar effect is achieved in Niffenegger’s ‘Haunted’ (fig.4) — like the Salome drawings, this deceptively simple image is unnerving, and not just because of its subject matter. The oatmeal ground is empty, yet it is simultaneously filled with lines. The figure’s huddled form is a puddle of shadow pinned down by twisted white hands; its opaqueness and contorted shape draw us in. It curves awkwardly, as though in retreat from the oppressive repetition of all those ghostly faces. Likewise, the eyeless little girl with the locket in Gorey’s ‘The Hapless Child’ (fig.5) is in a vulnerable position. She is obviously threatened by the figure strangling the chain from her neck — but she seems equally attacked by the artist’s multiple pen strokes. A brick wall occupies our field of vision and prevents us from looking beyond the girl; as if that weren’t enough, a flurry of diagonal lines directs our gaze from the top left-hand corner of the page, over to the girl and her assailant. The whole composition is flat, yet alive with disturbing motion.

This flatness is another uncanny element in Beardsley, Niffenegger, and Gorey’s illustrations. There are no obvious sources of light — consequently, no shadows. Pervasive darkness without highlights, without even the attempt at three dimensions. Gorey’s girl with the locket is about to sink into a black hole; just as the women in Beardsley’s ‘Les Passades’ (fig.6) and ‘Night Piece’ (fig.7) appear to be emerging from one. In these images, light is absorbed — and given form — by darkness. In ‘Night Piece’, the whiteness of the woman’s face and décolletage emerges from the black as though her head and bust have just bobbed to the surface of a midnight lake. Meanwhile, her elongated neck is severed by a ribbon, which gives viewers the impression that, like a Barbie doll, her head is detachable. This is no real person, then, but a toy. The women in ‘Les Passades’ are even more unsettling. Their bodies have all but disappeared (or perhaps have failed to properly materialise) and like conjoined twins, they seem to share one full-skirted dress. The rational part of our minds convinces us that they are indeed two separate people; however, the positioning of their smiling heads makes one appear to be the creepy doppelganger of the other. This uncanny effect is also evident in Gorey’s ‘I is for Ida’ (fig.8) from the Gashlycrumb Tinies. Here the concept of the pale girl emerging from / descending into darkness is made literal. The girl and her reflection are equally planographic in style, neither gouged into nor raised out of the surrounding wash of black. The child in the boat is as flatly rendered as the child in the water. As a result, there appear to be two children in this picture, both of whom are reaching dangerously out into the unknown.
Distorted, Disturbing Figures

It isn’t just the flatness of these illustrations that makes them seem so uncanny. It’s the people. While most of us won’t — and probably shouldn’t — expect black and white cartoonish characters to look realistic, there is nevertheless something inherently disturbing about images of overly-elongated and/or grotesquely compressed human forms. At some point in their careers, most artists will encounter the set of ‘golden rules’ for measuring an average person’s proportions: eyes equidistant between chin and crown; adults 7.5 heads tall, children between 4 – 6 heads; feet the same length as forearms; hands large enough to cover faces, and so on. Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ exemplifies these measurements — and Beardsley, Niffenegger and Gorey’s subjects break this idealised mold in nearly every respect.

In technique and style, Niffenegger’s aquatints have much in common with Japanese nishiki‑e (woodblock prints), as do many of Beardsley’s illustrations. Their figures are also often reminiscent of (flattened) netsuke sculptures — either lanky things with knobbly joints and skeletal feet, as in Niffenegger’s ‘The Letter’ (fig.9), or squat, contorted little beasts with bulbous bodies and tiny heads, as in Beardsley’s ‘Lucian’s Strange Creatures’ and also his ‘Messalina’ (fig.10). In 16th century Italy, Parmigianino famously played with proportion in an attempt to make the Virgin Mary more graceful in his painting, ‘Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome (now commonly known as ‘Madonna with the long neck’). Mary’s neck is swan-like; her body creates such a sinuous ‘S’ curve that if she were real, the baby on her knee would instantly tumble to the floor. Even so, Parmigianino’s Mannerist manipulation has resulted in a figure with heightened, stylised beauty — a supermodel for the Renaissance world. By contrast, Beardsley and Niffenegger’s netsuke people are attractive largely because they are so ugly.

Human heads are far too small, or far too big, in these illustrations, which gives the people depicted therein a sinister appearance. Gorey’s characters are also stunted, top-heavy creatures (not unlike Richard Dadd’s hideous fairies in ‘The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke’) with squashed heads and eyes set unnervingly high on their brows. Heads are sometimes replaced altogether, as in Niffenegger’s ‘He Read Her Mind Like a Book’ (fig.11). Once again, we are confronted with overwhelming blackness from which the central figures emerge, without casting any shadows. The woman’s book-head is, of course, unusual, and it is presented from a peculiar perspective — but even more uncanny is the not-quite-real depiction of the human form in this picture. The mannequin stiffness of the woman’s body. Her straight left arm and stiff legs. The unnatural not-bend of her hips. The man’s bulbous head contrasted with his dainty hands (which, in their placement on the woman’s shoulders, seem to hold her down instead of merely rest there). The skewed curve of his hip and knee, suggesting legs spread just wide enough to imply that her absent right arm might be busy between their bodies…

Ultimately, such warping extends beyond the frames of these illustrations.  By stretching, compressing, distorting, thinning, and flattening these figures; by dipping them into and extracting them from dimensionless backgrounds; and by playing with the physical shapes of their heads, Beardsley, Niffenegger and Gorey seriously mess with ours.


Lisa L. Hannett is the author of Bluegrass Symphony (Ticonderoga Publications), about which Publishers Weekly said ‘this is a collection for fans of weirdness, wonder, and oft-disturbing twists.’ She blogs here.

5 replies to “Uncanny Ink: The Weird Illustrations of Beardsley, Niffenegger, and Gorey

  1. Re: Beardsley’s drawing of The Dancer’s Reward, that’s Salome herself in the picture. Wilde’s stage instructions describe “a great black arm” coming forth from the cistern in which John the Baptist has been imprisoned bearing the severed head on a warrior’s shield. Wilde then describes Salome seizing the head. What Beardsley shows us is that she’s dressed again after her dance so we can assume that the sandals are also hers, forgotten in her eagerness to possess her reward.

  2. I really enjoyed this essay. In one master stroke you have nailed three of my favorite artists.

    It was interesting to read the observations about the lack of shadows and the strategy of enlarging heads. These are strategies that I also use in my work. The subtle use of distortions can be used to extremely powerful effect. It is great to see these elements discussed.


  3. Pingback: Uncanny Ink: The Weird Illustrations of Beardsley, Niffenegger and Gorey « Lisa Hannett

  4. You have given me three of my new favorite artists to explore. Thank you for this detailed essay. I have often wondered how one looks and then goes about to interpret art. Thank you.

  5. Pingback: Here’s looking at you, 2011 « Lisa Hannett