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Mervyn Peake

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Mervyn Laurence Peake (July 9, 1911 - November 17, 1968) was a British modernist writer, artist, poet and illustrator. He is best known for what are usually referred to as the Gormenghast books, though the Titus books would be more accurate: the four works that exist were the beginning of what Peake conceived as a lengthy cycle, following his protagonist Titus Groan from cradle to grave, but Peake's untimely death interrupted the cycle at what is now commonly but erroneously called a trilogy. They are sometimes compared to the work of his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, but his surreal fiction was influenced by his early love for Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson rather than Tolkien's studies of mythology and philology.

Peake also wrote a number of nonsense poems, a children's story "Letters from a Lost Uncle", a radio play and "Mr Pye", a relatively tightly-structured novel in which God implicitly mocks the evangelical pretensions and cosy world-view of the eponymous hero.

Peake first made his reputation as a painter and illustrator during the 1930s and 1940s, when he lived in London, and he was often commissioned to produce portraits of well-known people. A collection of these drawings is still in the possession of his family. Although he gained little popular success in his lifetime, his work was highly respected by his peers and his friends included Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene. His works are now included in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Imperial War Museum.

Contents

Biography

Mervyn Peake was born in Kuling in central China in 1911 of British parents; his father Ernest Cromwell Peake was a doctor and Christian missionary. Oriental influences can be detected in his work, not least in the castle of Gormenghast itself, which in some respects resembles a Tibetan lamasery more than the Gothic castle it is meant to be. However it is likely that his early exposure to the extreme contrasts between the lives of the poor and the refined, highly structured lives of the Chinese nobility also exerted a strong influence on the Gormenghast books.

Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family returned to England in 1923. His education continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923-1929), where his talents were encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake. He completed his formal education at Croydon School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools from 1929-33, where he first painted in oils and wrote his first long poems. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy and with the so-called "Soho Group" in 1931.

His early career in the 1930s was as a painter in London, although he lived on the Channel Island of Sark for a time. He first moved to Sark in 1932 after visiting his former teacher Eric Drake, who lived there with a group of other artists. In 1934 he exhibited with the Sark artists at the Cooling Galleries in London and in 1935 he exhibited at the Royal Academy and at the Leger Galleries in London.

In 1936 he returned to London and was commissioned to design the sets and costumes for Insect Play and his work was acclaimed in the Sunday Times. He also began teaching life drawing at Westminster School of Art where he met painter Maeve Gilmore, whom he married in 1937. They had three children, Sebastian (b. 1940), Fabian (b. 1942) and Clare (b.1949).

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 (based on a story he had written in around 1936) was first published in 1939 by Country Life. In December 1939 he was commissioned by Chatto & Windus to illustrate a children's book, Ride a Cock Horse and Other Nursery Rhymes, published for the Christmas market in 1940.

After World War II began he applied to become a war artist in 1940 but this was initially refused and he was conscripted to the Army, where he served first with the Royal Artillery, then with the Royal Engineers. The Army didn't know what to do with him. He began writing Titus Groan at this time.

In 1942 he was sent to Southport Hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown. The next year he was invalided out of the Army and began working for the British Ministry of Information as a graphic artist. In 1943 he was commissioned by the War Artists Commission to paint glassblowers making cathode ray tubes for the early radar sets at a Birmingham factory.

The five years between 1943 and 1948 were some of the most productive of his career. During this period he finished Titus Groan and Gormenghast and completed some of his most acclaimed illustrations for books by other authors, including Ride a Cock Horse, Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Brothers Grimm's Household Tales, All This and Bevin Too by Quentin Crisp and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 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 "oustanding". In 1945 he was commissioned by a magazine to visit France and Germany shortly after the war had ended. With writer Tom Pocock he was one of the first Britons to witness the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen. He made many drawings of the scenes he encountered, but not surprisingly he found the experience profoundly harrowing.

In 1946 the family moved to Sark, where Peake continued to write and illustrate and Maeve painted. Gormenghast was published in 1950, and the family moved back to the mainland, settling in Smarden, Kent. Peake taught part-time at the Central School of Art, began his comic novel Mr Pye and renewed his interest in theatre. His father died that year and left his house in Wallington, Surrey to Mervyn. Mr Pye was published in 1953, and he later adapted it as a radio play. The BBC broadcast other plays of his in 1954 and 1956.

In 1956 Mervyn and Maeve visited Spain so that Mervyn could convalesce after an illness, and the novella Boy in Darkness was published. He placed much hope in his play The Wit To Woo which was finally staged in the London's West End in 1957, but it was a critical and commercial failure. This affected him greatly -- his health degenerated rapidly and he was again admitted to hospital with a nervous breakdown.

By 1958 he was showing unmistakable early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and over 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. Among his last completed works were the illustrations for Balzac's Droll Stories (1961) and for his own poem The Rhyme Of The Flying Bomb (1962), which he had written some fifteen years earlier.

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 Gormenghast books in particular, became much better known and more widely appreciated after his death, and they have since been reprinted in many languages.

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). After his death there were two other publications, Selected Poems - Mervyn Peake (1972), and The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1973).

Dramatic adaptations of Peake's work

In 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast two 90-minute plays based on Titus Groan and Gormenghast, adapted by Brian Sibley and starring Sting as Steerpike and Freddie Jones as the Artist (narrator). A slightly abridged compilation of the two, running to 160 minutes, and entitled Titus Groan of Gormenghast, was broadcast on Christmas Day, 1992. BBC 7 repeated the original versions on 21 and 28 September, 2003.

In 1986 Mr Pye was adapted as a four-part Channel 4 miniseries starring Derek Jacobi.

In 2000, the BBC and WGBH Boston co-produced a lavish miniseries, titled Gormenghast, based on the first two books of the trilogy. It starred Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike, Neve McIntosh as Fuschia, June Brown as Nannie Slagg, Ian Richardson as Lord Groan, Christopher Lee as Flay, Richard Griffiths as Swelter, Warren Mitchell as Barquentine, Celia Imrie as Countess Gertrude, Lynsey Baxter and Zoe Wanamaker as the twins, Cora and Clarice, and John Sessions as Dr Prunesquallor. The supporting cast included Stephen Fry and Eric Sykes and the series is also notable as the last screen performance by comedy legend Spike Milligan, (as the Headmaster).

The 30-minute TV short film A Boy In Darkness (also made in 2000 and adapted from Peake's short story) was the first production from the BBC Drama Lab. It was set in a 'virtual' computer-generated world created by young computer game designers, and starred Jack Ryder (from Eastenders) as Titus, with Terry Jones (Monty Python's Flying Circus) narrating.

Irmin Schmidt, founder of seminal German 'Krautrock' group Can wrote an opera called Gormenghast, based on the novels; it was first performed in Wuppertal, Germany, in November 1998. A number of early songs by New Zealand rock group Split Enz were inspired by Peake's work.

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