October 05, 2017


The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book. Pomegranate. $16.95.

Edward Gorey Coloring Book. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     Predictably, the adult-coloring-book fad – perhaps now better called a trend – has brought forth a wide variety of offerings of exceptionally variable quality. The usual 80/20 rule applies: 80% or so of the books are all right but nothing special, 10% are pretty awful, and 10% are genuinely interesting, involving and even beautiful. Pomegranate’s The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, based on a fantastically lovely edition of Chaucer now in the British Museum, and Edward Gorey Coloring Book, featuring the astonishingly intricate drawings for which Gorey (1925-2000) was famous, are very definitely high-end. The Kelmscott Chaucer is named for Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891 by William Morris (1834-1896). Brought to fruition in the last year of Morris’ life, the Chaucer edition included 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) as well as 32 border designs by Morris, who also created decorative frames and initials in the mode of medieval manuscripts, which the Kelmscott Chaucer was specifically designed to emulate. Originally printed in black and red, the book is one of the most beautiful of the past 150 years, elegant and intricate and typeset with a new typeface designated (what else?) Chaucer. The book contains not only The Canterbury Tales, for which Chaucer is best known, but also The Romaunt of the Rose, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Cressida (on which Shakespeare based his own play of the same name), and other works. Thus, The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book also contains illustrations from all this material. Some of the illustrations are shown as they appeared in the original books; in other cases, what is seen here is only a detail. But what details! Everything here is created with such tremendous attention to each portion of the illustration that it is quite easy to get lost in simply following and appreciating the page borders as well as Burne-Jones’ marvelous pictures. Chaucer’s language sings forth everywhere as well: each page of this book includes the text that originally appeared with the specific illustration shown. So those who know Chaucer can delight in the mellifluous sound of his perfectly rhymed Middle English, even as they look for ways to color the gorgeous illustrations while staying in tune with the text (if they so desire). Those not familiar with Chaucer’s language will find it tough going here and may prefer to tackle these works at some other time – but even they will be captivated by the detailed lushness of what Burne-Jones produced. The cadence of Chaucerian English is everywhere apparent: “Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a man/ Which that was holden povrest of hem alle;/ But hye God som tyme senden kan/ His grace into a litel oxes stalle.” Burne-Jones’ illustrations resonate with the words and produce a cadence of their own, which will bring joyful involvement in beauty to anyone lucky enough to own The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, even before he or she colors a single part of a single page.

     The joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book are of a somewhat different type. Gorey’s pen-and-ink drawings really require no color at all, and in fact there are some in this book that will be nearly impossible to alter substantially from the black-and-white in which they are presented. Even when the drawings here are taken from literary works that Gorey illustrated, the words of those works are not offered – this is purely a feast for the eye and the hand that holds the coloring object (pencil, marker, what-have-you). True, a few of these pieces simply cry out for colorful elaboration, such as the one in which a child is watching TV in a room whose shelves are crammed with literally hundreds of books – all having blank spines, each of which could conceivably be colored differently. However, the very next page, on which a man dressed in Gorey’s typically Edwardian clothing stands behind a large plant, watching a couple sitting on a bench nearby, is so jam-packed with dots and lines and curlicues and shading and cross-hatching that it seems impossible to figure out where to put any color at all. But no matter. Whether picturing Edward Lear’s nonsense verse or the machinations of a bizarre conspiracy of some sort, Gorey always had a uniquely outré sense of humor that one can enjoy in any color, or no color at all. Simply puzzling out the pictures is one of the joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book – for instance, the illustration in which an ice-skating alligator is being ridden by two children while two ice-skating ghosts are nearby and five apparently living people are being served an elegant outdoor tea by a nattily dressed waiter, even as wintry winds blow various objects hither and thither. Colors that accentuate the weirdness of Gorey’s art, or take it to a different dimension, are equally valid here and throughout the Edward Gorey Coloring Book. The point is to have fun, whether by studying the drawings and imagining what Gorey was getting at, by coloring them in any way one chooses, or by coloring some while letting others stand starkly and attractively in their original black-and-white. One way or another, the Edward Gorey Coloring Book is a marvelous blend of beauty and the bizarre.

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