ENTRY: Peake, Mervyn
Mervyn Laurence Peake (b. July 9, 1911 – d. November 17, 1968)
was a British fantasy writer, artist, poet and illustrator. He is best known for
what are usually referred to as the Gormenghast books
Peake also wrote poetry and nonsense verse, and short stories for adults and children.
Peake first made his reputation as a painter and illustrator during the 1930s and
Mervyn Peake was born in Kuling in central China in 1911 of British missionary parents.
He attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family returned to England in 1923.
His schooling continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923-1929). He then went
on to Croydon School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools from 1929 to 1933,
where he first painted in oils and wrote his first long poems.
His early career in the 1930s was as a painter in London. He began teaching life drawing
at Westminster School of Art where he met painter Maeve Gilmore, whom he married in 1937.
They had three children.
He had a very successful exhibition of paintings at the Calmann Gallery in London in 1938,
and his first book, the self-illustrated children's pirate romance
Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939).
At the outbreak of the Second World War he was conscripted in the Army, where he
served first with the Royal Artillery, then with the Royal Engineers.
He began writing Titus Groan, part of Gormenhgast, at this time.
The five years between 1943 and 1948 were some of the most productive of his career.
He finished Titus Groan and Gormenghast and completed some of his most acclaimed
illustrations for books by other authors, including
Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark
and Alice in Wonderland, romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
the Brothers Grimm's Household Tales, as well as producing many original poems, drawings, and paintings.
A book of nonsense poems, Rhymes Without Reason, was published in 1944 and was described
by John Betjeman as "outstanding". Shortly after the war ended in 1945 he was
commissioned by a magazine to visit France and Germany. With writer
Tom Pocock he was among the first British civilians to witness the horrors
of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen, where the remaining prisoners,
too sick to be moved, were dying before his very eyes.
He made several drawings, but not surprisingly he found the experience profoundly
harrowing, and expressed in deeply felt poems the ambiguity of turning
their suffering into art.
Gormenghast was published in 1950, a fantastic trilogy set in an ancient and sprawling castle,
with marked gothic and surrealist influences - although lacking the use of magic and mysticism that
marks out most fantasy fiction. After the publication his family settled in Smarden, Kent, and
Peake taught part-time at the Central School of Art.
In the late 1950s he was showing unmistakable early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease,
and the next few years he gradually lost the ability to draw steadily and quickly,
although he still managed to produce some drawings with the help of his wife.
Titus Alone was published in 1959 and was revised by Langdon Jones in 1970 to
remove apparent inconsistencies introduced by the publisher's careless editing.
Peake died in November 1968. His work, and the gothic fantasy of Gormenghast in particular,
became much better known and more widely appreciated after his death, and
they have since been translated into many languages. His gothic and spiky artwork was influential in keeping
alive the tradition of art of pen & ink work in England, at a time when photography was undermining
the market for illustration.
Four collections of his poems were published during his lifetime;
Shapes & Sounds (1941), The Glassblowers (1950), Poems & Drawings (1965),
and A Reverie of Bone (1967).
Titus Groan (1946)
Titus Alone (1959)
Selected Poems (1972)
A Book of Nonsense (1972)
The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1974)
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