in 1931. Now in the National Portrait Gallery.
(All Images Courtesy of the Mervyn Peake Estate, mervynpeake.org )
He's been been likened to Tolkien, Dickens, Kafka, and Poe, but the work of poet, painter, playwright, author, and illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) defies comparison. Anthony Burgess wrote in his introduction to the first volume of the Gormenghast Trilogy, Peake's most famous work: "There really is no close relative to it in all our prose literature. It is uniquely brilliant..." Now scholars and readers have a chance to see the creative process of such a singular talent. In April 2010 the British Library announced it had purchased Mervyn Peake's papers, including notebooks, sketches, manuscripts, and correspondence.
Illustration first published in 1946.
The Mervyn Peake Archive includes a complete set of his drawings for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. Peake's illustrations, first published in 1946 and 1954, were praised by both Graham Greene and Will Self as being among the best since Tenniel's 1865 originals. Short stories, radio plays, poems, and unpublished material are also included in the collection acquired by the British Library. But the big prize here is the 39 hand-written Gormenghast notebooks, which include plot summaries, character sketches, outlines, revisions, corrections, ink drawings, watercolors, and decorative text borders.
"If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast..."
Peake's three volume literary magnum opus has been called a classic of fantastic literature. But if you're looking for the usual fantasy suspects, like filmy-winged fairies, wand-wielding wizards, or tiny twee trolls, Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone aren't the magical potion for you. The trilogy is closer to Shakespeare than J.K. Rowling. Peake once said he considered himself "a painter first and foremost," and it shows in his prose. This writer's alchemy lies in his dazzlingly descriptive style. "Art," said Peake, "is really sorcery."
"Titus the seventy-seventh. Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals' footprints ankle-deep in stone. Gormenghast."
Peake's canvas-like creation of the crumbling, claustrophobic, castle-keep of Gormenghast, ossified by centuries of arcane ritual yet slowly rotting from within like Hamlet's Denmark, is as demonically detailed as the nightmare world of Hieronymus Bosch. The society within the walls of Gormenghast castle is completely isolated from the outside world. It is defined by a rigid class structure, kept in place by ancient rules of law which are slavishly observed, despite having lost all meaning. Literally walled-off, and surrounded on all sides by impassable geographic barriers, the kingdom is as desolate as the highest mountains of Tibet. Such a place seems inspired by the wild delirium of a fever dream, but its roots lie in Mervyn Peake's very real exposure to three earthly locations.
Peake was an Englishman, but he was born and raised in China. His father, Ernest Cromwell Peake was a missionary doctor; his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, a missionary nurse. He spent the first twelve years of his life in the port city of Tianjin, but led a life very separate from the society around him. Mervyn Peake's boyhood home was in a compound of six gray stone houses, which he remembered as "a world surrounded by a wall. And on the other side of that wall was China."
In her memoir, A World Away, Peake's wife, Maeve Gilmore, described his "strange childhood" this way: "Congregational hymns, tea-parties, a straight-laced upbringing... outside surrounded by dragons and carvings of ancient imagination and disastrous beauty... How could it not have influenced a mind which from somewhere had a vision that finally betrayed it by its richness?" Peake remembered reading the book that would remain his favorite for all of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, under a tree in that isolated world. He later remarked that his memories of those years haunted him like "some half-forgotten story in a book."
Peake's school years in Southeast England were spent preparing for a career as a painter. He attended The School For The Sons of Missionaries, which was later renamed Eltham Collegiate School. For a short while he studied at the Croydon School of Art, and then spent one year at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Then came another sojourn in a strangely anomalous place.
"So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage. So limp of body that their purple dresses appear no more indicative of housing nerves and sinews than when they hang suspended from their hooks."
In 1933 a former art teacher of Peake's at the missionary school invited him to join an artists' colony on the island of Sark. Sark is the smallest of the Channel Islands, just over three miles long and half a mile wide. Even today it has only 600 residents, and cars have never been allowed on its shores. It is distinguished by a craggy coastline of cliffs so steep that railings were erected around them to keep children from being blown into the sea by high winds.
Sark is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and officially a British Crown Dependency, but the island was ruled by the Seigneur (or in the rare case of a woman, the "Dame") of Sark. The title was hereditary, although it could be sold with the permission of England's ruling King or Queen. From the time of Queen Elizabeth I through the time of Queen Elizabeth II, over 440 years, Sark remained a fiefdom, essentially ruled by a monarch and 39 landowners. It was officially the last European territory to abolish feudalism in 2008.
Mervyn Peake's two years on Sark, 1933 to 1935, were idyllic. (He loved it so he returned to live there with his wife and two children in 1946, and his third child was born there.) But he had to be aware of the island's bizarre legal code, which had remained virtually unchanged since its enactment in 1565. For example, all landowners were required to give their ruler one chicken every year, and legal claims were instigated by going down on one knee, reciting the Lord's Prayer in French and announcing before a witness (roughly translating from the French): "Help me my Prince, someone does me wrong!"
"A girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red. For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch."
The final location which clearly influenced Peake's creation of the society in Gormenghast, is the source of its darkest and most grotesque aspects. In 1945, as a war artist, Peake was one of the first civilians to enter the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. He had already begun work on the what became his trilogy by this time, but his biographer, John Watney, wrote, "For years he had drawn strange worlds. Now he was seeing, in its reality, a monstrous world more terrible than any he could have imagined...."
Peake did not set out to write a trilogy based in the strange world he created. He would have written at least a fourth volume, and perhaps more, had illness not made that impossible. And for an artist, the illness that afflicted Peake, and from which he ultimately died, was especially cruel. In the late 1950's he began to show signs of mental and physical deterioration, and was thought to have some form of dementia. After undergoing unnecessary electroshock therapy and brain surgery, he was finally properly diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Twelve years of long, slow decline followed. Peake confided to a friend that he could no longer write, and could barely draw, and that: "It feels like everything is being stolen."
Peake's Gormenghast books were out-of-print at the time of his death. They only became successful when reprinted in paperback by Penguin in late 1968. Though the trilogy had been published to fine reviews, its genius was recognized by the public too late for Mervyn Peake to know of it. Having Peake's papers in the British Library will once again shine a light on the darkly brilliant world he so vividly brought to life. Peake once described the goal of his life's work more eloquently than anyone else could: "It is one’s ambition to create one’s own world in a style germane to its substance, and to people it with its native forms and denizens that never were before, yet have their roots in one’s experience."
Note: Some minor changes were made in the biographical information in this piece, thanks to a most gracious e-mail from Mervyn Peake's son, Sebastian. He is the keeper of Peake's official website and of the official Gormenghast website, both of which are extraordinary in their design and detail.