Thursday, July 8, 2010

Take A Peake At The Twentieth Century's Optimum Alice

Mervyn Peake's 20th Century Update Of Alice.
(All Images Courtesy Of The Estate Of Mervyn Peake and The British Library.)

Is there anything more difficult for an artist than to reinvent, or even try to improve upon, a classic? Sensible creative types (and that's not necessarily an oxymoron) know better than to risk it. Daredevils who choose to attempt it will turn tail and run after watching one shockingly bad example: Gus Van Sant's inexplicable shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

But every once in a while a unique talent with a fresh point of view really can make something old new again. Such an artist strikes the perfect balance between reverence for his source and relevance to his audience. A new exhibit at Yorkshire's Sheffield University Library displays 22 pen and ink drawings and 5 rough sketches which prove that tweaking the traditional can, very rarely, result in a modern masterpiece.

Peake's Rough Sketch Of Alice
Graduating From Pawn To Queen.

The exhibit, Mervyn Peake's Alice, is one of the first to feature material from an archive acquired by the British Library in April of 2010. Author, illustrator, painter, and poet Mervyn Peake is perhaps best known as the creator of the three-volume Gothic-Fantasy tour-de-force, Gormenghast. But Peake also illustrated the work of authors he admired, such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, and, of course, Lewis Carroll. A complete set of his original pen and ink drawings for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was part of the voluminous collection of letters, manuscripts, notebooks, sketches, and typescripts, obtained by the library from the Mervyn Peake Estate.

Alice Meets
Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Peake was already a successful painter when he was asked to illustrate Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark in 1941. As a student of fine art, he turned to the masterworks of other illustrators, including Hogarth, Cruickshank, Durer, Blake, Dore, Goya, to perfect his own technique. Peake's illustrative style is noted for its fluid lines, subtle plays of light and shadow, and exacting use of stippling and cross-hatching. There is nothing hackneyed , broad, or leaden in his work. And as a writer himself, he maintained complete respect for the text he had agreed to enhance. The illustrator, he said, should "subordinate [himself] totally to the book, and slide into another man's soul."

Tenniel's Alice Goes Through The Looking Glass.

When he set out to illustrate Alice's Adventures In Wonderland in 1945, Peake knew he had more to deal with than embellishing Lewis Carroll's prose. John Tenniel's wood-cut illustrations for the 1865 first edition of the book were created in close concert with the author. They were so integral to the text that all 2,000 copies of the first printing were recalled when Tenniel found their reproduction of his illustrations to be of inferior quality. A second print run was ordered, and the book became an instant best-seller. Peake was well aware that Tenniel's work was inextricable from Carroll's text for many readers: "He is inviolate, for he is embedded in the very fabric of childhood memories."

Peake's Alice Goes Through
The Mirror Crack'd.

But Peake had tremendous faith in his artistic talent. He was willing to gamble that his 20th century painter's eye could bring a fresh perspective to Carroll's Victorian text. Tenniel's view of Alice was colored by the manners and morals of his age, and by his background as a cartoonist. He was a master of the style of illustration favored by the 19th century upper crust, and his conservative political cartoons were a regular feature in Punch. His Alice is quite a proper, if unusually adventurous, young lady. Peake's Alice is very much a creation of the 20th century.

Peake's Rough Sketch
Of The Queen Of Hearts.

Mervyn Peake's artistic vision was shaped by his exposure to three distinct cultures. He grew up in a walled compound built for English missionaries in pre-revolutionary China. As a young man he returned to England, in the twilight of the empire between the two world wars. Finally, he was a post-war artist, acting as an illustrator for journalists documenting conditions in battle-scarred Europe. One of Peake's first post-war assignments was a 1945 stint in Germany. Here he witnessed first hand the bombed-out rubble which was all that remained of what had been the city of Bonn. As Peake observed in a letter to his wife: "Terrible as the bombing of London was, it is absolutely nothing – nothing compared with this unutterable desolation." But there was worse to come as he continued his travels through the ruined nation.

Mervyn Peake Sketches
Amidst The Ruins Of Germany. (1945)

In a heart wrenching letter home, Peake wrote of the Cologne Cathedral, the lone building left standing in a sea of wreckage and debris: "Bonn was nothing to Cologne from the point of view of destruction. It is incredible how the cathedral has remained, lifting itself high into the air so gloriously, while around it the city lies broken to pieces, and in the city I smelt for the first time in my life the sweet, pungent, musty smell of death. It is still in the air, thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating… But the cathedral arises like a dream – something quite new to me as an experience – a tall poem of stone with sudden, inspired flair of the lyric and yet with the staying power, mammoth qualities and abundance of the epic. Before it and beside me stood a German soldier, still in his war-worn, greeny-coloured uniform. His face betrayed nothing. Cologne lay about him like a shattered life – a memory torn out."

The Comsumptive, Belsen 1945.

But a final memory from Germany haunted Peake most of all. He was one of the first civilians to enter the just liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. His harrowing sketches of the victims who survived unimaginable horrors there are the human equivalent of the Cologne Cathedral. They are the last bastion of humanity left standing in a hell on earth where men, women, and children were routinely and relentlessly murdered; reduced to anonymous corpses dumped in mass graves, or incinerated into piles of ash. Like the cathedral, the survivors of this ultimate evil "arise like a dream" from a human wasteland rank with the "thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating" smell of death.

Peake's White Rabbit
In His Nightmarish Wonderland.

Peake's experiences in post-war Germany, along with witnessing the fall of the Imperial China as a child and the decline of the British Empire as an adult, had a profound effect on his art. This shows most notably in his own dark creations, but is no less omnipresent in his illustrations for the works of other authors. It is readily seen in the Alice In Wonderland illustrations now on show in Sheffield. Peake's Alice is a dewy-eyed gamine set adrift in a very dark and dangerous Wonderland.

The Duchess And Her Baby:
Two Of Wonderland's Grotesques.

Unlike Tenniel's Victorian lass, with a moral compass forever set to return her to the true North of proper society, Peake's Alice seems far more capable of succumbing to the topsy-turvy, dog-eat-dog anarchy that reigns in Wonderland. The reader feels a genuine fear for her safety in a sea filled with monstrous grotesques, where she may or may not be able to keep her head above water--or even attached to her shoulders. Mervyn Peake's Alice both enriches Carroll's text, and illuminates it in a way impossible for a 19th century artist. This Alice starts out as a naive English rose, but her exposure to the winds of Wonderland teaches her the necessity of growing thorns. She's a survivor of a trip to the netherworld, one of the lucky few who make it out alive but lose their innocence and illusions in the process. She returns from Wonderland a wised-up, clued-in sophisticate--impossible for a straitlaced gentleman like Tenniel to imagine, much less depict.

The Mad Tea Party:
Fiddling While Wonderland Burns.

Mervyn Peake was praised by Graham Greene as "the first artist since Tenniel to recast Alice in a contemporary mould." Later acclaimed author Will Self remarked that Peake's version of Carroll's fantasy world was "as valid a depiction of Wonderland as Tenniel's, and arguably the best one achieved since his." Peake's son Sebastian, who opened the exhibition and manages the Peake Estate, including two excellent official websites, said: "I'm sure that had my father been alive he would have been delighted to see his illustrations to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland displayed in such glorious surroundings. With ample space for each drawing to be seen as a separate work within the collection, each of the characters depicted can come to life, reminding the viewer that the basis of any interpretation is vision."

Readers are invited to examine Mervyn Peake's work in person at Sheffield University Library or online at the British Library, and to contemplate what the finest 21st Century artist's vision of Wonderland might look like.

Previously On Booktryst:
200 Rabbit Holes Await At Canadian Library
Peake Archive Takes British Library To New Heights


  1. THis is VERY cool! I love the combination of cartoonish sweetness and horrific nightmare Peake evokes. I never liked anyone's Alice but Tenniel's until now. Thank you for this!

  2. Hello Nancy! I'm learning so much from BookTryst! I linked BookTryst, this post and the 200 Rabbit Holes post on my blog. Looking foward to reading more of your informative and interesting posts.


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