Saturday, 7 October 2006

PEAKE DISTRICT

It was Lewis Carroll who introduced me to Mervyn Peake: my fascination with the Alice books prompted me to start collecting illustrated editions and one of the earliest ones I stumbled across was illustrated by Peake.

Unlike almost every other artist who had ventured into Wonderland and Looking-glass World, Peake succeeded in throwing off the shackles of John Tenniel and produced pictorial visions for Alice’s adventures that matched the bizarre, often disturbing, text which they accompanied… Who else but Peake would have thought of giving the Carpenter a wood-grained face and, literally, finely chisled features?

Peake’s Alice led me to his illustrated editions of Grimm’s Household Tales and those sea-faring sagas, The Hunting of the Snark, The Ancient Mariner and Treasure Island (below).

My delight in these drawings prompted me - with the impetuosity of youth - to write to the artist’s widow, Maeve Gilmore; and, to my great delight, I was immediately invited to tea at the then Peake home at number 1 Drayton Gardens.


After tea, Maeve took me into Peake’s workroom, pulled open a drawer and allowed me to browse through folder after folder of her husband's original illustrations.

It was while we were looking through the illustrations for Alice that I discovered that several the illustrations, as first published in Stockholm in 1946, differed from those in the 1956 British edition of the book with which I was familiar. Being at the time, Secretary of the Lewis Carroll Society (and editor of its newsletter, Bandersnatch) this was a fascinating discovery that I was eager to write up. Maeve, sensing my enthusiasm suggested to Peake’s publishers that I be invited to edit what was the first definitive edition (right) of the Carroll-Peake Alice.

This assignment led to more afternoon teas and a deepening friendship with Maeve who - over the Earl Grey - coerced me into joining the Mervyn Peake Society (of which I would eventually become first Secretary and then Chairman) as well as encouraging me to discover Peake the writer as well as the artist.

I went away and read The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, Shapes and Sounds and Mr Pye and, inevitably, turned my footsteps in the direction of that mournful mountain of masonry - Gormenghast.

Nothing I had ever read prepared me for that world of ruination and ritual; a realm of endless corridors burrowing through a sprawling edifice of broken, ivy-eaten stone; a cloistered universe inhabited by characters hopeless in their complacency, lost in their self-absorption or burning with the fire of ruthless ambition.


When I became Chairman of the Society of Authors’ Broadcasting Committee and had regularly to attend meetings at their offices at 94 Drayton Gardens, I saw Maeve more frequently: having lunch with her in the basement kitchen that she had entirely decorated (down to the Potterton boiler) with murals or enjoying generously measured gins-and-tonic in the back-parlour - or, as she called it, the petite salon.

It was Maeve who encouraged me to offer the BBC a radio dramatisation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast and whilst she didn’t live to hear the Sony Award-winning production with Sting as Steerpike and a star-studded cast, she listened intently as I read her the scripts in the petite salon, and - after refreshing my G&T - offered insights and suggestions and generally guided me through the labyrinthine task.

We often talked about how to get more of Mervyn Peake’s work back into print and looked many times through those folders of drawings and paintings filled with so many dazzling examples of her late husband’s stunning draughtsmanship - such as his then unpublished illustrations to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House with such brillaint pieces as the portrait of the icy and imperious Lady Deadlock, illuminated like a player in a Toulouse Lautrec theatre…


…and the haunting picture of poor, downtrodden Jo the crossing-sweeper with his fear-filled eyes and poverty-pinched features…


Maeve would have been thrilled that so many of those drawings and illustrations are now collected in a 200 page book, Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by her eldest son, Sebastian Peake, with Alison Eldred and G Peter Winnington, and published this week by Peter Owen.

It is a volume stashed with examples of Peake’s multi-faceted talent: his daringly eclectic range of styles, his fearsome command of every media from the pencil-box and ink-bottle to the paint palette and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for perceptive characterisations that capture the comically absurd, the darkly macabre, and the sensually seductive…


The book was launched on Tuesday at Chris Beetles Gallery in London, where a selling exhibition of Peake’s work is currently on show.

The price-list is not reading matter for the faint-hearted or lily-livered, but even if you can’t afford to buy, it costs nothing to look and to marvel at the skills of a unique craftsman whose reputation is deservedly being rediscovered and rightfully celebrated…


However - as is normal in the world of fine art - it is depressing to contemplate the vagaries of fame: remembering that Peake was an artist who, again and again throughout his life, was strapped for cash but who, if he were but alive today, might expect a healthy cheque from Mr Beetles at the end of the show…

It also occurred to me - as I looked around at the champagne-drinking chatterers attending the Private View - that, had he been there, Peake would have had his notebook out and been sketching madly…


And then I realised that he had already sketched a good few of the attendees and they were there for all to see --- framed and hung!

The room was papered with Peake’s people but it was also thronging with them too, milling around, unwittingly scrutinising their twins and wondering at their beauty, shuddering at their monstrousness, laughing at their ludicrousness…


The likenesses in line had their counterpoints everywhere: that man with the lantern jaw; this one with the parrot-beak nose; the tall woman with no chin and gimlet eyes; the dwarf with the beetling brows and tombstone teeth, the walking cadaver with the hooded eyes...

Was I fantasising? Perhaps, I thought, but then, suddenly I noticed - just beyond Jeffrey Archer - the portrait of Mr Chadband from Bleak House being intently scrutinised by none other than Mr Chadband himself!


The exhibition remains on show at Chris Beetles Gallery until 28 October; and mervynpeake.org has more information about the man, his art and his writings.


[All images: © The Mervyn Peake Estate]

7 comments:

ike2248 said...

Gormenghast - fantastic - although I only watched it as a tv series, but became absolutely hooked on the music and bought the soundtrack. The music really got to me and I use it often when I'm painting - have you heard it.??

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, the music for the TV series was excellent...

But, Ike, you really do need to hear the RADIO version (!); and one day when you've lots of time on your hands - say when you're living in Emporios on Kalymnos - READ THE BOOKS!! ;-)

Scrooge said...

Since you are too modest Mr B, I'll say it for you. The radio version of most things is better than the TV equivalent. This is certainly the case for 'Titus'

Brian Sibley said...

Far be it for me to disagree with Mr S on this matter... ;-) BUT, there are films by the great visual directors -- and, I think, also some early TV films (ironically when the medium was supposedly less technically sophisticated) by film-makers such as Jonathan Miller and Ken Russell -- which could never work on radio... For example - and just for starters - 'Battleship Potemkin', 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Strangers on a Train' and 'The Seventh Seal'...

But (again) there is no denying that radio often has - as been observed many times - better scenery and seems to have the edge when it comes to portraying fantasies or stories with casts of eccentric and curious characters...

There are always exceptions - David Lean's film version of 'Oliver Twist' for one - but Dickens (and, therefore, not surprisingly, Peake) seem to have been written specifically for the ear and the inner eye...

Scrooge said...

I can't see a radio adaptation of 'Lawrence of Arabia' working to be honest.How would it be represented ? A number of coconuts banged together at the correct moment perhaps ?

Brian Sibley said...

But would coconut shells DO for camels and would you actually HEAR them with all that sand everywhere...?

Junk Monkey said...

Currently enjoying a much belated read of the Gormenghast books - I tried to get into them when I was in my teens, failed, and have only just picked them up again 30 years later. I really can't undersstand what I didn't like about them as a kid. They're wonderful. The only trouble I'm having with them is that the copy I'm reading, a huge one volume edition published by Vintage in 1999, has loads of typos. Did Peake really write that Flay had heard "grizzly laughter" (Gormenghast Ch. 58 Pg. 651)? and the erratic capitalisation of 'earl' is driving me bonkers.

So when I've finished, and drop this book at my local charity shop, which edition should I replace it with on my shelves for the next time I read it?