The Blagger's Guide To...Mervyn Peake
A great talent as writer, illustrator – and father
Sunday 19 June 2011
*Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast, by Clare Peake, is a tender tribute to her parents by Mervyn Peake's youngest child, which will be published on Thursday by Constable (£14.99).
In it, she describes falling asleep under a tent of canvases in Peake's studio as friends including Augustus John, Stevie Smith, Dylan Thomas, and Laurie Lee came to visit. Graham Greene once brought a pistol to the studio and suggested a game of Russian roulette after smoking opium. And then there was the time when Greene and Peake threw a party for everybody they could find with a name associated with bottoms....
*This month, the centenary of Peake's birth, also sees the publication of Titus Awakes – a sequel to the trilogy of Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, which was started by Peake on scraps of paper and completed by his wife Maeve Gilmore after he died. After Maeve's death in 1983, it lay forgotten in an attic for nearly 30 years until it was discovered by their granddaughter and published by Vintage (£7.99). The novel is somewhat autobiographical, suggesting echoes of Peake's slow and distressing death from Parkinson's Disease, which saw him in and out of hospitals for the last 12 years of his life.
*The British Library Publishing Division is also republishing Peake's Progress (£25), a selection of the prolific Peake's eclectic works. It contains a work from his childhood, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs, the early Mr Slaughterboard, which foreshadows the "Titus" books, as well as two plays, short stories, poems, nonsense verses and drawings.
*Peake was saved from expulsion from Eltham College, Kent, by the art master, who spotted his talent and argued that expelling a future famous old boy would do nothing to enhance the school's reputation.
*He studied at the Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy. Among his best-loved illustrations later in life were those for the Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Household Tales, by the Brothers Grimm and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island.
*Sapper Peake, Gunner 1597577 was called up in July 1940. He left the Army in 1942, but visited Belsen as a war artist two months after it was liberated, and wrote the harrowing poem "The Consumptive, Belsen 1945".
*Titus Groan was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1946, after Graham Greene read the manuscript and recommended it to a publisher there, who read it over a weekend and decided immediately to publish. But Greene's advice wasn't always so sensible. When Peake was commissioned to design Pan Books' logo, he was offered either £10 or a percentage of every book sold. Greene told him that "the paperback book was just a temporary solution to the paper shortage" and Peake chose the money. "Regret, luckily, was something neither of them went in for," writes Clare Peake.
*Peake died in 1968, and is buried with his wife in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, at Burpham, near Arundel, West Sussex. His daughter, Clare, writes: "I knew him as a father, and as a father his talents were as great as any line drawing he ever sketched or sentence he ever wrote."
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