Buck Kiechel didn’t expect to be bringing a box of illustrations by the Granddaddy of Goth back to Lincoln a few weeks ago. Nor did he realize exactly what he had when he opened the box a few days later.
Kiechel, who operates Kiechel Fine Art, is one of the country’s most prominent dealers of 20th century American regionalist art. He's worked with the estates of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry and has found works by Nebraskan Dale Nichols and Iowa’s Grant Wood.
Pursuing works by Wood is what put Kiechel on the road — out of state — when he found the illustrations by Edward Gorey.
“These were part of a family collection,” Kiechel said as he flipped through the illustrations and laid them out on a table in his O Street gallery. “The owner’s mother was friends with Gorey and also with Grant Wood. I went over there for the Grant Woods and stumbled upon the Goreys.
“They were just in a box, not matted, not anything. They actually remained in the box in my print cabinet for a while.”
Once he started looking at the 26 tiny ink drawings — the largest of the bunch are on 5-inch-by-6¼-inch paper, and the images are not more than 2 inches wide and 3 inches high — Kiechel didn't know exactly what he had, but he knew the find was noteworthy.
“A lot of it is being able to identify quality,” he said of purchasing the illustrations. “I knew who Edward Gorey was, but I’m not a 20th century illustration expert. It’s also very helpful to have a staff of very smart people who can do research.”
Enter Kiechel curatorial gallery associate Karissa Johnson, who set out to figure out exactly which Gorey illustrations had made their way to Lincoln -- along with when and why they were made.
Gorey, a master of the comic macabre, wrote and illustrated more than 100 books in his nearly 50-year publishing career, becoming a goth cultural icon with his dark drawings of children that used the out-of-fashion Victorian style.
But the illustrations at Kiechel weren’t from any of his books nor are they depictions of children. They’re largely drawings of priests and monks, some in full color, with Latin inscriptions often found on the walls behind them.
There are a few other oddities — men in 1920s-era bathing suits at the beach, a pair of characters watching a train passing by — and a couple disturbing images, a color drawing of Jesus with blood spurting out of the holes in his body, becoming a river in which he is standing, and one of a man impaled on an old-style bottle rack, his body hanging along with the empty washed bottles.
The key to unraveling the approximate date of the work, however, wasn’t the illustrations’ subject matter as much as the figures’ onion-shaped heads.
That was the style Gorey used in the late 1940s, after he’d completed his education but before he went to work in 1953 doing covers and sometimes illustrating texts for books as diverse as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” and poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
“They were done after his time at Harvard and the Chicago Art Institute and before he started at Doubleday,” Kiechel said. “They have to be for something, but we don’t know what yet. Eventually it’ll get figured out what these were for.”
There’s no mystery as to how the illustrations could have disappeared for 70 years. They were given to a friend by an artist just starting his career, put in the box and literally forgotten — largely because they were too small to be noticed.
“When you were an illustrator for magazines, you’re usually not like Norman Rockwell and making big canvases, you’re making small pieces,” Kiechel said. “You can throw a big group in a box and let it pass through the decades.”
While Gorey, who died in 2000, isn’t a household name, his work is immediately recognizable thanks to his animated titles for the PBS series “Mystery!” and his books, including the hilarious “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” an alphabet book in which children meet gruesome ends, and the best-selling “Amphigorey.”
Gorey, who last year was the subject of a lengthy biography — “Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey” — has been cited as a primary influence by authors Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, and filmmaker Tim Burton, whose “Corpse Bride” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” are straight out of Gorey and his eccentric personality.
“He definitely has a strong cult following,” Kiechel said. “The fact that these were probably unknown makes them that much more interesting.”
In fact, the illustrations drew immediate attention from Gorey scholars and were so desirable, they were never shown at Kiechel Fine Art.
A few days after getting them professionally matted by David Clark Framing, Kiechel sold the lot to an out-of-state collector.
“It was good to have them for a little while,” Kiechel said. “But you’ve got to pay the bills.”
Kiechel and his staff aren’t finished with the Goreys, however.
“We’re going to keep trying to figure out exactly what they are and why they were made,” he said.