from "Makers of Modern Culture"

edited by JUSTIN WHITE


PEAKE, Mervyn Laurence 1911-68
English novelist and artist

Mervyn Peake was born the son of a missionary doctor in Kuling, China. He attended Tientsin Grammar School and, on his family's return to England, Eltham College in Kent; subsequently he trained at the Croydon School of Art, and 1929-33 at the Royal Academy Schools.  For much of his life he practised as a painter and illustrator, as well as writing poetry and plays, but his reputation as a major figure is based on the three Titus novels: Titus Groan  (1946), Gormenghast  (1950), and Titus Alone (1959; revised edition edited by Langdon Jones, 1970).

Peake is the most accomplished Fantastic Realist in modern English literatue, having more stylistically in common with Dickens than with any of his British contemporaries.  The world of Gormenghast and its inhabitants is the exaggerated one of dreams and nightmares.  Where Dickens was eccentric, Peake is entirely grotesque.  His only rival in scale is Tolkien whose work, if better known to the public, lacks the inexhaustible invention and depth of Peake's.  Perhaps his nearest contemporary parallels were not writers at all but the Fantastic Realist painters of Vienna: Fuchs, Brauer, Hutter.  Like theirs, his work is surreal in its conceptions and yet rendered with a meticulous technique and a concern for detail that is almost pathological in its intensity.  It induces in the reader to an exceptional degree that 'subtle attitude of awed listening' which was H. P. Lovecraft's test for success in fantasy. 

Peake's own outlook he described in a radio talk, 1947: 'As I see it, or as I want to see it, the marvels of the visible world are not things in themselves but revelations to stir the imagination - to conduct us to amazing climates of the mind, which climates it is for the artist to translate into paint or into words ... whether he can assimilate and build from it an original work of art depends largely on how deeply he is obsessed by his work'.

The books are concerned with growth and the search for liberation in the early life of Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh Earl, with whose birth in the ancient precincts of Gormenghast Castle the novel opens.  The narrative of the first two novels is long and complex.  The third and much shorter volume was not properly finished because of the progress of the author's Parkinson's Disease.  None the less Titus Alone  in its revised version is an extraordinary book.  After the incestuous density of its predecessors, the space and speed of the third is one of fiction's great dislocating events.  The mind, coffered into the elaborate chambers of Gormenghast, is suddenly reeling across phantasmagorical landscapes and through settlements which belong if anywhere to the future.  This transposition from the archaic to the futuristic, without passing through a reality in any way contiguous to our own, confirms the autonomy of Peake's creation and heightens the sense of wonder.  If it is possible to put Gormenghast into a frame of mind reminiscent of the late eighteenth century's preoccupation with the Middle Ages (for this reason Peake is sometimes referred to as a gothic novelist), this is no longer tenable once the author's own mind begins to panic.  Peake's illness has introduced an urgent rhythm that is quite unexpected.  The trilogy is hereby turned into more than a brilliantly contrived other-world.  It has become the strangest kind of autobiography and an emotionally powerful work of art.

Peake is a virtuoso prose writer in the baroque style.  His syntax is never experimental but his use of words is muscular and flamboyant, his images are outlandish and transferred to the reader with a lurid three-dimensional tactility.  This power of incision is the consequence of a technically spectacular writer being perfectly focused upon his vision and therefore having the capacity to trace it in all its paralogical ramifications.  One only has to read the work of an imitator such as John Barth to be reminded of how exceptional Peake's performance is.  Since Peake, the novels of Garc’a Marquez and the stories of Borges have had much in common with him.  Peake's acclaim was posthumous and there is still no commendable biography or study of his work.


Duncan Fallowell


from 'the Craft of the Lead Pencil' Wingate 1946.



MERVYN PEAKE 1911-1968

 
1911

 

Peake is born in Kuling, Central China, son of a missionary doctor and his wife.

 

 

 

1922

 

The family returns to England and he attends Eltham College, Surrey. His talent is encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake.

 

 

 

1927

 

Attends Croydon School of Art.

 

 

 

1929

 

Entered the Royal Academy School where he first paints in oils and produces his first long poems, i.e. 'A Touch of Ash'.

 

 

 

1931

 

Exhibits for the first time at the Royal Academy and with the 'Soho Group'.

 

 

 

1933

 

Visits Eric Drake in Sark. 'Sarkese Old Man' and 'Sarkese Fisherman' survive from this period.

 

 

 

1936

 

Commissioned to design the sets and costumes for the 'Insect Play'acclaimed in the Sunday Times. Begins teaching Life drawing at Westminster School of Art where he meets Maeve Gilmour.

 

 

 

1939

 

'Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor' is published and he is commissioned by Chatto and Windus to illustrate 'Ride a Cock Horse and Other Nursery Rhymes'.

 

 

 

1940

 

His application as a war artist is refused. Called up to the Army. He begins writing 'Titus Groan'. Son Sebastian born.

 

 

 

1942

 

Second son Fabian is born. Peake is sent to Southport Hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown. The next year he is invalided out of the army and works for the Ministry of Information as a war artist.

 

 

 

1943-48

 

Peake finishes 'Titus Groan' and 'Gormenghast' and completes illustrations for 'Ride a Cock Horse', 'The Hunting of the Sark', 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Grimm's Household Tales'. He also produces many poems, drawings and paintings.

 

 

 

1945

 

Visits Belsen with writer Tom Pocock, produces much work but finds the experience harrowing.

 

 

 

1946

 

The family move to Sark where Mervyn continues to write and illustrate and Maeve paints. Their daughter Clare is born in 1949.

 

 

 

1950

 

Teaches part time at the Central School of Art, starts writing 'Mr Pye', and the family move to Smarden, Kent. Dr. Peake dies and leaves his house in Wallington, Surrey to his son. His interest in the theatre is revived.

 

 

 

1956

 

Mervyn and Maeve visit Spain trying to rest after the first signs of his illness. His play 'To Wit To Woo' is finally staged in the West End in 1957. After the failure of the play Peake's health degenerates rapidly and he is admitted to hospital with a nervous breakdown.

 

 

 

1958

 

Starts showing early symptoms of Parkinson's disease and from this point he can no longer draw steadily and quickly, but produces some drawings with the help of his wife.

 

 

 

1968

 

Dies in November of this year.

 


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