Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art
I was looking for something else on the library shelf and suddenly our eyes met, from across an empty aisle. Then I was clutching in my arms the most wonderful book in the world: Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art [amazon]
The text is fascinating. I didn’t know Peake was born to missionary parents in China. Here are recollections of his son, Sebastian Peake:
In the compound there were six grey-stone houses for the staff, all in a line, and in my father’s memory, they looked as though they had been flown over from Croydon. He lived in the fourth, at the tennis-court end, and he ‘loved that great grey house with two verandas, upstairs and down’. The compound where he played was his world, his ‘arena’, ‘a world surrounded by a wall. And on the other side of the wall was China.’ In one corner there was a tree under which he read Treasure Island. It remained his favourite story for the rest of his life. But the world of the compound and the child that in memory he could see ‘leaning over the warm handrail of the high veranda’ was severed from him for ever. It seemed almost not to be a part of him, like ‘some half-forgotten story in a book.’
He was sent to a British Concession grammar school, then home to England. Decades later he produced his wonderful illustrations for Stevenson’s novel - you really owe it to yourself to get your hands on this one [amazon]. Here’s a detail:
Peake plus Treasure Island adds up to one of my favorite books. (I remember, about 15 years ago, Daedalus books had it remaindered for $3 and I bought 15 copies and gradually gave them away to deserving souls.) Except of course my very favorite books are the Gormenghast novels.
In his contribution to the volume, Michael Moorcock makes the China connection. Gormenghast:
This could be the China of Mervyn’s boyhood translated to England. In that China the poor committed suicide on teh surgery steps of doctors unable to cure them, and ancient wealth was displayed against a backdrop of dreadful social suffering. It was a hallucinatory imperial twilight, common to all declining empires, which obscured the hardships of the many from the undemanding eyes of the privileged few - a light Mervyn detected in England, too. He was in many ways a conventional patriot, but he was also amused, frustrated and infuriated by the follies of the English ruling class. His own wartime experience of bureaucratic folly and the ignorant arrogance of leaders, the casual decisions which affected the lives and deaths of thousands, informed the pages of Titus Groan as he wrote it in various barracks, railway stations and transit camps while the army tried to make a gunner of him.
There’s a funny appreciation by John Wood, who applied to be a student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1954, just so he could take drawing with Peake. “It was always a joy to see him enter the life classes, quiet as a ghost, and melt into the background. I don’t think that half the students knew who he really was.” Apparently he looked like just the sort of person who would draw like Mervyn Peake.
But what is best, by far, is the high quality of the art itself. I’ve seen a lot of this before. (Zoë picked up the book, lying on the bed: ‘Hey, this is by the guy who drew Captain Slaughterboard.’ Wise 6-year old. I have grounded her in the essentials.) But I’ve never seen it like this. All those long-familiar Gormenghast illustrations, printed on that crappy paperback paper, they are jumping out at me like new. I don’t think I’ve ever had this experience before of having nothing, for years, but crappy versions of adored art. And now I actually get to see it. It’s even better than I had hoped. And there’s so much I didn’t know about. Landscapes. Portraits, caricatures, caricatures. He even illustrated Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, only my favorite ghost story of all time. And Dickens. And Jekyll and Hyde. And there are these amazing line drawings he did for a thing I hadn’t heard of: Quest for Sita of Hanuman and the Divine Vultures Jatayus and Sampati. Here is his Sita:
Sorry that you have to make do these crappy web-versions. That’s why you should get the book. A few more under the fold.
First, the Knave of Hearts:
Second, Hyde, looking at himself in the mirror:
And Mrs. Guppy, from Bleak House:
Thanks for all this, John—fabulous stuff. I have been wanting to find a place for Peake in one (or more) of my classes for years, but haven’t done so. Maybe this is my prompt.
You are most welcome, Alan.
Cruel of you to taunt us Yanks with this book, only semi-available in the US.
Your views on my book, and my father’s wider art, is most flattering, thank you.
You are most welcome, Sebastian. You are an honored visitor to our humble blog.
I’m sure you all know of him, but I thought I’d post anyway: Jeff VanderMeer. Just finished reading his *Shriek* and *City of Saints and Madmen*, and was deeply impressed by his world-fashioning. Peake’s is the name that crops up in any discussion of VanderMeer (along with Nabokov), but sadly I’ve never read Peake due to a knee-jerk fear of anything labelled “fantasy.” But now that Peake’s name has come up, like, ten times this week in my life, I think the cosmos is telling me to get over my anti-fantasy snobbery. Thanks, John.
The Hyde is especially good. I swear to god those shoulders are moving.
Clearly I’m going to have to buy this. Thanks for posting it.
Nice of you to mention the quality of the repro John! Thanks, it’s not easy for a small independent publisher to get a large fully illustrated book like this out. We did it thanks to the enthusiasm of Sebastian Peake + family and the invaluable, expert contributions of Alison Eldred and G.Peter Winnington. What would normally have been an impossible production job for us (I was determined it should be full colour throughout and had to lean heavily on both the boss and the printer!) was made a reality by everyone involved, not least the designer, Ben Richards, working well over the hours they were paid for! It was worth it though. Like you John and for the same, misguided reasons, I had always been guilty of snobbery towards Peak’s graphic and literary work. Not now though. This book and a small illustrated paperback we’ve recently published,
Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, have turned me into a fan and made me see what a master of word and line he really is!
And no, I don’t work part-time in the sales dept. – I’m writing this in my own time ‘cos I wanted to acknowledge a nice comment about a book I spent a lot of time and effort with!
You’re welcome, Nick. Thanks for the link. Yes, you are to be congratulated on insisting on the reproduction qulity. It really changed the way I see his art.
And I do encourage you to check out “Gormenghast”, Luther. Funny story: my mom is a bit of an anti-fantasy snob. Well, not exactly a snob. Just figures it’s not for her. She picked up the first book in a condescending mood, one afternoon and, somewhat to her surprise, ended up reading all three volumes.
I know that I should resist iteration-plus-one of the fantasy vs. SF divide, but since it’s been mentioned several times—the Gormenghast series isn’t fantasy, it’s SF. Titus Groan, the third book, has unequivocal SF elements, and with them you redefine the castle as not an exemplar of a world-wide Dark Ages but rather as a sort of ultimate backwater. That’s important, I think, because the series is clearly designed to have a bildungsroman quality in which leaving the castle is leaving childhood, and that doesn’t work if the entire world is one large Gormenghast.
People seem to think of it as fantasy because of its Gothic qualities. But there were many Gothic books that resolved the mystery through SF, not fantastic, means. For instance, Verne wrote a (minor and pretty bad, at least in translation) Gothic book called “Carpathian Castle” or something like that, in which all the mysterious haunted house goings-on are caused by a mad scientist and his control of electricity.
Can anyone say how much of this volume overlaps with peakes’s progress or boy in darkness and otherstories, and which volume is the most essential? I’ll probably aquire all of them eventually.
Peake the illustrator is as good as Peak the author, his work is hard to find on the web, the only place I’m aware of is this:
His Snark was pretty good and I believe that he did it for the grand sum of 5 pounds. Huzzah for the unrelenting cupidity and genuine cruelty of certain publishers! On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any contemporary publishers taking a chance on Gormenghast, so it probably evens out, somehow.
Keep up the good work, very interesting magazine you have here!
David Weman asks “how much of this volume overlaps with Peakes’s Progress or Boy in Darkness and other stories.” And the answer is nil. Completely different contents. As to “which volume is the most essential”, it depends on what you are looking for: MP: man and art gives you the life with hundreds of reproductions of his art, whereas P’sP brings you all his shorter prose, many poems and some of his plays, with a few pictures.
Clearly I’m going to have to buy this. Thanks for posting it.
What does Peake use to draw his illustrations and art with? Is it pencil, biro, can anyone help?
He used pen and ink. A dip pen, don’t know whether crowquill or whatever.
I must confess that as a child I loathed his Ramayana … still do. But his cross-hatching is superb