The Worlds of Mervyn Peake

Think of that one story you wrote when you were ten, the one your teachers asked for in creative writing class, that one story about pirates or fairies.

Now think about how strange it would be for musty old academics in tweed jackets to pore over it through a glass case 50 years from now. The ghost of Mervyn Peake must feel very strange indeed.

I’m not sure how well-known Mervyn Peake is. Writing around the same time as Tolkien, he is most closely associated with the Gormenghast series: fantasy-less fantasy novels. An exhibit at the British Library, tucked away behind pillars and dimly lit, chronicles his chaotic, manic and sometime melancholy life.

Peake was born in China, in 1911 to a pair of missionaries. His talents as a writer and painter had been noticed in school, encouraged, and eventually honed by formal education. Some of his early writings are displayed: uneven scribbles peppered by thin-lined sketches of people, animals and ships. Peake was, ostensibly, a children’s writer; Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a 1939 book, has been opened to the scene of pirates arriving at a beach. Although the premise is altogether innocuous, the yellowing pages and the faded typewritten letters give it a sinister air, like a porcelain doll left out in the rain for too long. Anything becomes creepy when left to the rot of time.

Around 1946 Peake had been working on illustrating Alice in Wonderland. His characters are diverse and creative in appearance and fit well with Lewis Carroll’s illogical, demented universe. The drawings are extremely detailed, sketched with a slender quill, almost etching at the surface. Peake was a fan of nonsense poetry, and his drawings often draw on visual puns (a pair of pears, inexplicably decked out in pantaloons). He seems like a fun uncle, the one surrounded by children at Christmas begging to draw them a puppy or tell them a story.

But, between the silly pictures and poetry, lie hints at the difficulties life throws, particularly in consideration for the time period. Letters to his wife, Maeve, are here – his handwriting more even by this point, more controlled and sharp. An article for The Times rests in a glass case, discussions on the hell wrought by Hitler and the Nazi regime. Careful typesetting on a wall informs visitors of his mental breakdown in 1942. Gormenghast haunts the exhibit like a needy hallucination.

Mervyn Peake may not be someone you’ve ever heard of, or maybe you’ve seen his drawings in an ageing book but never knew their source. Perhaps you’ve grown up being whisked away into the worlds and adventures of Titus Groan. In any case, have a wander through the exhibit if you happen to be passing through, if only to snake through the chronologically-arranged artefacts and wonder about the trails of happiness and sadness we all leave behind when we leave for good.

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake runs until September 18 at:

The Folio Society Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road
King’s Cross

Tel: 020 7412 7237

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