Mervyn Peake: An Illustrator and Writer Ahead of his Time
*all pictures by Mervyn Peake unless stated.
If as Aristotle stated “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance then Mervyn Peake’s illustrated Gormenghast trilogy is one of the 20th century’s greatest examples. Re-imagining the feudalistic China of his youth inside the dark maze like corridors of Gormenghast castle, he creates an atmosphere all ready ripe for the violence and corruption that unfolds in his first two books. While Titus Groan, the trilogy’s main character, escapes this stifling existence in the final installment, he can never forget it. Like with Mervyn Peake’s own experiences as a war artist the madness and death he witnessed shadows his each and every one of his thoughts and actions.
In 1916, at the age of five, Peake moved with his missionary parents from the mountain Chinese resort town of Lushan to the semi-feudal, semi-colonial city of Tientsin. Every weekday morning for the next 7 years he would hop down the steps of his family house, climb onto his donkey and trot from the French concession where he lived onto the narrow roads of the city proper. Weaving through the streams of street beggars and traders he would pass temples, pagodas and shacks before finally reaching the colonial building of his British grammar school.
Yet while Tientsin was the China he knew and loved it was his father’s descriptions of the fortified Chinese capital of Beijing (he kept a detailed journal of all his travels through China) that formed the basis of the feudalistic society he depicts in the world of Gormenghast.
Very little communication passed between the denizens of these outer quarters and those who lived within the walls, save when, on the first June morning of each year, the entire population of the clay dwellings had sanction to enter the Ground in order to display the wooden carvings on which they had been working during the year. These carvings blazoned in strange color, were generally of animals or figures and were treated in a highly stylized manner peculiar to themselves. (from Titus Groan)
When his father first visited the city at the turn of the 20th century, Beijing was divided by walls into four parts – the inner city, the outer city, the imperial city and the forbidden city. Which part of the city a person lived in depended both of their status or on their ethnicity. The Han Chinese – a more than 90% majority – lived in the outer city – or the areas outside the city walls – while the recently dethroned Ming Chinese lived in the inner city. The Imperial city and the Forbidden city was reserved for those connected with the ruling Quing dynasty. After the Xianhai revolution in 1911, and Emperor Puyi’s subsequent abdication, Peake’s father was one of the first foreigners allowed access to the palace’s outer courts. What he saw is immortalized in Gormenghast’s Hall of Bright Carvings.
In 1922 the 12 year-old Mervyn Peake stepped onto English soil for only the second time. It was a different universe. Cars had replaced mules, gray Christian churches had replaced the gold Buddhist temples and simple handshakes had replaced the complex rules and rituals of the Chinese greetings.
Peake was always going to find it difficult to settle in England and it was no surprise that, that at the age of 23, he left the mainland to join an art colony on the British Isle of Sark. With only 300 people – most of them fisherman – living on its 5km2 of granite rock, Peake could again return the outsider’s life he had so enjoyed in China.
Living on Sark gave him the freedom create such works of art as this oil painting of a Sark fisherman.
Writing and illustrating the children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939)
and ultimately develop a following that would lead to the publishing company Chatton and Windus commissioning him to illustrate such classics as Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark(1941)
and S. T Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1943)
Yet while these pictures prove his style was already very intense and self-expressive, it would be his work as a war artist at the Belsen concentration in the aftermath of the Second World War that would give it that dark grotesque edge we see on the pages of each of his Gormenghast novels. One has to remember he wasn’t shooting a photograph of a dead or dying person and then moving onto the next one. He was sitting down, observing them, sketching out draft after draft before finally finding the best way to depict and represent their suffering. You only have to look at the following illustration, descriptions role of the following characters of Gormenghast to understand the effect it had on his imagination.
Flay, Lord Sulpchrave’s, loyal servant, is so bony his knees creak as walks the castle’s corridors. At the end of the first book the countess banishes him for throwing one of her pet cats at the evil Steerpike, but that is not the end of his character. In the second book he comes back to help save Gormenghast from Steerpike’s evil schemes.
Fuschia is Lord Sulphrave’s daughter. After witnessing her father’s decline into madness and falling for murderous Steerpike’s charms, she jump off her window sill and into the castle moat.
Charming, yet evil, Steerpike’s determinate rise from kitchen boy to ruler of the castle leads to the deaths of Lord Selphcrave, Sourdust, Barquentine and Fuschia and the twins. Titus Groan eventually stabs him to death after an epic chase though the castle.
Mervyn Peake had planned to write a series of Gormenghast books. Unfortunately, while writing Titus Alone, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. By the late 50s he could only draw or write with the help of his wife. By the 60s he couldn’t even hold a pencil. On November 17th 1968 – unaware of his books’ growing cult status – Mervyn Peake passed away in a care home run by his brother in law, leaving behind a wife, three children and one of the most influential fantasy trilogies ever written.
A self portrait of Mervyn Peake.