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Review of Mervyn Peake by Tim Connell, Times Literary Supplement, July 8th 2011
This week sees the centenary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, the artist, illustrator, poet, writer and dramatist whose work encompasses such a wide range of media, styles, techniques and creative outlets that he almost defies classification. His work was sometimes at odds with the spirit of his time - much of it was published late in his life, or even after his death - and this situation was not helped by his lack of commercial astuteness or a considered approach to the market. When offered a choice between a farthing royalty or a £10 one-off payment for the head that appears on the logo of Pan books, he opted for the latter (though this is said to have been on the advice of his friend Graham Greene). He was above all a man driven by his art in all its forms and the development of his own intellectual space.
The son of medical missionaries, Peake was born at Kuling (now Lushan) in China but bought up in Tientsin (now Tianjin, 70 miles south-east of Beijing). Western missionaries used to go up to Kuling for the hot season, via the Yangtze River and the by palanquin, an indelible experience for a small boy, that informs Peake's first published piece, 'Ways of Travelling', which he wrote at the age of ten and a half, and which appeared in News from Afar for The London Missionary Society. Clearly his early memories remained with his in later life, not so much the European compound or attendance at a grammar school in what must have been the most exotic location in the world, as what an observant child might have seen or heard around his farther's hospital in Tientsin in the time of the warlords or from odd snatches of conversation overheard in kitchens and markets. (Peake grew up speaking Mandarin and had classes in Chinese calligraphy.) The family returned to England in early 1923 via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Mervyn and his brother Leslie attended Eltham College in south-east London (a school for the sons of missionaries, where they both made lifelong friends) before Mervyn went on to Croydon School of Art and then the Royal Academy Schools. His artistic ability was spotted by his English master Eric Drake, who went on to found an artists' colony on the isle of Sark, where Peake and his wife Maeve spent a few happy and productive years both before and after the Second World War (their daughter Clare was born on the island in 1949).
Factors drawn from his own richly textured life and from his own imagination tend to intermingle. Despite the many dark elements in his work, he does not appear to have been a tortured or angst-ridden soul and his family gave him a strong element of stability, and even normality, which is far from common in an artist's world. As a responsible family man in later life, he was conscious of the need for a regular income, something which drew him into his disastrous experience with writing for the theatre and which may have contributed to his final premature decline.
The traumatic elements of his wartime experiences also show clearly. Peake was called up in early 1940, just after the birth of his first son Fabian. He got off on the wrong foot (a sergeant exclaimed, 'You look like a bloody poet!'). Peake summed up his feelings in 'Fort Darland':
My feet smash the gravel and hands abhor
The butt-plate of the rifle that I clench.
It was generally agreed that he was a liability in an anti-aircraft unit, as he had an unfortunate tendency to drop live 60 lb artillery shells. He had a short spell as a driving instructor and was transferred to Blackpool, where he was joined for a while by his wife and son. However, when she gave birth to another son, Sebastian, Peake went AWOL to be with them. Quite what happened when he returned to his unit is unclear, but he had a nervous breakdown not long after, and by 1943 the army had decided that it had no place for him. His final posting had been with an understanding CO who allowed him to write, and Peake started to do some work for the Ministry of Information. Had he stayed with his original unit, he may well not have survived the war, as it saw service in both the Western Desert and Italy; had he been killed in action he might have been vaguely remembered as yet another loss to his generation, along with other young poets such as Timothy Corsellis, killed at the age of twenty while serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary.
Peake was not accepted by the War Artists' Advisory Committee until 1943 (despite support from Augustus John and acquaintance with Kenneth Clark, who chaired it), but he was used by the Ministry of Information, for whom he produced The Glassblowers (drawings and a long poem). He also drew bomber crews, though less successfully. Another collection, which only appeared in South America as a propaganda exercise, took the form of a supposed art exhibition by Adolf Hitler with titles like 'Family Group' (a huddle of refugees) or 'Dutch Interior' (showing a dead woman inside a bombed house). The influence of Goya is evident, as is the influence of Peake's own formal artistic training.
Peake began to receive an increasing number of outside commissions with topical materials such as Adventures of the Young Soldier in Search of a Better Life or All This and Bevan Too by Quentin Crisp, and he began working more systematically on illustrating famous works, which indicates that he was in the mainstream, but not prominent (despite an article about him in the Christmas 1946 edition of Picture Post). The Gormenghast books may also be seen as a by-product of the war in two ways: Peake's experiences in both France and Germany, and the fact that he was writing as a distraction from the war and a private protest against the meaningless ritual and brutality of army life, sending exercise books to Maeve as he filled them up. (He did not envisage a trilogy from the outset and the complete work was written over a period of nearly twenty years.) He also illustrated the manuscripts as he went along, though the full set has only been published this year.
There was scope for fantasy writing (for want of a better word) in the post-war period, as demonstrated by the success of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings was dramatized on the wireless in 1955, paving the way for Titus Alone in 1959. Comparisons can certainly be made with Lewis and Tolkien, though the Oxford Mail did wonder why it had taken so long for the Tolkien generation to come to Mervyn Peake. Lewis in fact wrote a letter of appreciation to Peake in 1958: 'It has the hallmark of true myth i.e. you have seen nothing like it before you read the book, but after that you see things like it everywhere'.
Perhaps it was Peake's artistic eye that lent him such deep insights and perception. Many artists supplement their income with teaching, but Peake's experience of life-drawing classes at the Westminster School of Art (where he also met Maeve, nee Gilmore, who was the inspiration of his life in so many respects) was crucial. It shows through in much of his work, even where the figures are highly stylized. In The Craft of the Lead Pencil he focuses on the artist as draughtsman and simply and clearly outlines the skills involved. No more than a few pages long, it provides one of the few insights into the way in which he worked, referring to the advance from virtual blindness to a state of perception that is half rumination and half scrutiny: 'The end is hypothetical. It is the journey that counts'. Peake's was an original and even idiosyncratic style, despite the fact that he was well placed to observe artistic developments around him, as a tutor and through his acquaintance with a wide range of figures in the artistic world. Peake himself acknowledged the influence of Blake, George Cruikshank, Durer, Gustave Dore, Goya, Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson all of who may be detected in different works.
London was an important location for Peake, who studied people carefully and at random, sketching on odd pieces of paper and picking out subjects in the street (his wife used to comment on the girls who had 'a good bone structure'). He also had to be near toy publishers and the art market, and he was fairly successful with exhibitions where he was noticed by luminaries such as Eddie Marsh, whose patronage of the arts dated back to Oscar Wilde. But there was no real influence from other groups, notwithstanding Sometime Never: Three tales of the imagination, written in collaboration with John Wyndham and William Golding, or his acquaintance with key figures ranging from Louis MacNeice to Graham Greene (who advised him on Titus Groan). Peake's connection with the stage began before his own attempts to write for it, with commissions to paint portraits of leading figures such as Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft for the London Mercury.
Peake's intellectual life appears to have been based on a constant enlargement and refinement of his many talents. He was fiercely independent, and on the rare occasions when his work was seen as derivative (as was the case with his dramatic verse, which was thought to echo Christopher Fry), it was a failure. He developed his technique in a range of media, all of which show striking variations in the styles he employed, even between individual pieces of work, and this was as true for his writing as for his art. Peake rarely allowed his own interpretation of a work to be constrained by the more limited field of illustration, where the pictures might be expected to tie in with the text. He preferred to interpret the text visually and complement the work as a whole. It was a technique in which he excelled. His commissions varied enormously, ranging from classics (The Hunting of the Snark) to more idiosyncratic items such as Witchcraft in England. In some his workmanship is self-evident (The Ancient Mariner, the Alice books), which other projects demonstrate his originality of style and such a range of techniques that he cannot be identified immediately as the creator (from Ride a Cock Horse to the Hindu epic The Quest for Sita). His key techniques cover the single line (he did an enjoyable draft for a television cartoon in the early 1950s called 'Just a Line'), cross-hatching, texturing and the use of stippled dots; apart from his beloved pencil, he also used Indian ink, but rarely worked in oils.
At times he was criticized for producing illustrations that were somehow inappropriate for the subject matter. Walter de la Mare said perceptively of Ride a Cock Horse (one of Peake's early ventures) that although the illustrations showed both fantasy and the grotesque, and could be sinister, there was not a trace of the morbid. Maeve thought this the finest of his illustrations, though some reviewers raised questions about the deeper psychological elements of some of the figures. Even reviewers in the less squeamish 1970s saw some of them as a cross between fantasy and nightmare. Not all of Peake's works saw the light of day, possibly for the same reason; John Murray commissioned drawings for Dickens’s Bleak House, some of the characters from which (especially Jo the crossing sweeper) are as haggard as any of Peake's figures from Belsen, and display the same nightmarish quality.
The taste four outlandish creatures begins with the harmless and rather endearing figures dating back to schooldays and the unpublished Moccus Book, some of whom eventually surface in Captain Slaughterboard. It is interesting to note, however, that the original draft, entitled 'Mr Slaughterboard', was much darker and far less fanciful that the definitive version which appeared in 1945. The illustration of the Black Tiger (Captain Slaughtboard's ship) does include a little man hanging from the yardarm, but then Charlie Choke's tattoos (he's the one who is 'covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink') include a head-and-shoulders sketch of Maeve. Even so, drawings of sailors with pipes in their hands and bottles of rum scattered all over the deck might not be considered quite suitable for children today. Pirates were a lifelong obsession with Peake, and he felt an abiding love for Treasure Island, which he illustrated superbly. Peake did undoubtedly have a taste for the grotesque, and many of his creations (literary as well as artistic) are sinister or quite threatening. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (perhaps Peake's definitive work, even though it only contains eight illustrations), there is the odd case of the Night-Mare Life-in-Death figure which was considered by the publishers to be too frightening to be used for thirty years.
There may have been residual memories of the more unpleasant aspects of life in China (Peake's father had a photograph album which contained photographs of severed heads and other relics of the 1911 uprisings), but there can be no doubt that Peake's post-war experience of visiting the heavily bombed cities of Germany and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp affected him deeply and, according to his wife, permanently. Did the experience awaken long-standing fears? Perhaps there was a need to make sense of what he had seen, whereby a deep sense of horror interacted with earlier, more abstract ideas.
The Gormenghast trilogy (or tetralogy as we ought to call it now, as the notes for a fourth instalment were complete by Maeve and have only just been published by Vintage as Titus Awakes) demonstrates most vividly the influence of these darker imaginings in Peake's own life. His enduring taste for grotesque characters (the beggars in Titus Alone reflect his earlier illustration of the nursery rhyme 'Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark') also reflects the inhabitants of Peake's inner world. Should we describe it as gothic? That is the modern and contemporary interpretation, our take on the settings, locations, rituals and bizarre encounters that permeate the world of Gormenghast. But there is also much more than that: an element of nightmare and deep-seated fears which underlie the more whimsical and light-hearted illustrations and verse, or works such as Letters from a Lost Uncle, purporting to be the adventures of an Arctic explorer along with Jackson, his faithful long-suffering 'turtle dog', who leaves paw marks and gravy stains on the manuscript.
Peake was as versatile a poet as he was a painter. He wrote rhyming verse pieces such as 'The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb' in ballad style:
And the church leapt out of a lake of light
And the pews were rows of fire.
And the golden cock crowed thrice and flew
From the peak of the falling spire.
'A Reverie of Bone', another lengthy poem, even contains touches of Shelley:
I sometimes think about tombs and weeds
That interwreathe among the bones of Kings
With cold and poisonous berry and black flower:
Or ruminate upon the skulls of steeds,
Frailer than shells, or on those luminous wings
The shoulder blades of Prices of fled power.
('Can he scan?' asked John Betjeman contemptuously. Yes he could.) Walter de la Mare included 'You walk unaware / Of the slender gazelle' in his 1943 anthology of love verse. Peake's nonsense poems stand comparison with Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear:
Sensitive, Seldom and Sad are we,
As we wander along through Lands Afar,
To the sneezing sea, where the sea-weeds be,
And the dab-fish ponds that are waiting for we
Who are, Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,
Oh so Seldom and Sad.
As a poet Peake was somewhat isolated and had only limited contact with the leading, Oxbridge-based poets of the period. He knew Dylan Thomas quite well (lending him clothes on more than one occasion) and they even planned a collaboration on a book about Wales, for which Peake wrote a poem on the Rhondda Valley. Some of Peake's lines ('the trouser pocket boys, the cocky walkers') have also been compared to Thomas's.
Peake had a lifelong interest in theatre. One of his first commissions (in 1932) was from a small repertory company for costume designs for The Insect Play. He adapted Mr Pye and Titus Groan (lasting just one hour) for radio in the early 1950s, but came unstuck with The Wit To Woo at the Arts Theatre in 1957. This was the nadir of his entire oeuvre, criticized for its 'flimsy plot and flowery language', and it was taken off after only a few performances, earning just £137 in royalties for the author. (Mr Pye with Derek Jacobi on television was better received. Peake was quite open to the new medium - Letters from a Lost Uncle was adapted successfully for it, for example. The various attempts at filming or dramatizing Gormenghast have not been entirely successful, though the television mini-series in 2000 was a bold and almost loving attempt which drew in large numbers of well-known names.) His foray into drama drew Peake away from the areas in which he did excel (his sketches from a visit to Spain in 1956 are superb) and appears to have affected him mentally.
His own fifties were sadly marked by Parkinson's disease; he was cared for devotedly by Maeve as she and the family watched him fade into premature senility and eventual death in 1968, just as his work began to receive the recognition it deserved with the republication of Gormenghast in Penguin Modern Classics. This included a new editions of Titus Alone by Langdon Jones, which eliminated the many errors that had crept into the original at the proofreading stage, and which made the work far more comprehensible, even to an audience which was by now more in tune with the fantasy genre. By the end, Peake was barely able to hold a pen or book, though his final work still shows his creative originality and craftsmanship as he worked in more than one medium. He had difficulties in producing the illustrations for Balzac's Droll Stories for the Folio Society in 1961, and the brush would sometimes fall from his hand while he worked on The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb. (The blurred form seems strangely appropriate for the topic, though it is odd that his final work should reflect his early Chinese experiences.)
It is only in recent years that the full extent of Peake's creative activities has come to be more fully appreciated. For his work is a never-ending surprise. He is one of the few figures in English intellectual life to have written and illustrated his own poems, along with Blake, Morris and Rossetti. Even fewer figures can be said
to have established a reputation in quite so many branches of the arts. The Royal Society of Literature prize in 1951, which put him on a par with Bertrand Russell and John Betjeman, was specifically from Gormenghast and The Glassblowers, and at least acknowledged the range of Peake's work. Why is he not better known now? (He does not even merit an entry in the 1974 edition of the Chambers Biographical Dictionary.) Even if some of his work belongs to a different age, it has retrospective value, in the it reflects the period in which he was working while maintaining his own inventiveness and his own sense of purpose, the exploration of different mediums with complete intellectual honesty. That work may well be better appreciated with the passage of time. Too many items were put to one side for further work or final revision, and sometimes only retrieved by chance, years later, when tastes and the artistic mainstream had moved on. The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, though written in 1947 (when it would have been a smash hit), was not published until 1962.
Peake does not, as some have said, defy classification; rather, he is beyond classification in any single genre, and therein perhaps lies his genius. In his centenary year it is to be hoped that the latest surge of interest in his enormous range of work will finally help to place him in his rightful position as one of Britain's most brilliant, original and creative figures.
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