Mervyn Peake – British Library acquires his Visual Archive

Mervyn Peake will be best remembered as the author of the Gormenghast trilogy, those wonderful novels full of eccentric characters populating a bizarre fantasy world. What’s less known is that Peake was an acclaimed artist, regarded as one of the best children’s illustrators of his day. The British Library has just announced that it has acquired his visual archive of more than 300 original illustrations, that will now join the library’s collection of his papers.

Peake began his career as a painter, having studied art first at Croydon School of Art and subsequently at the Royal Academy Schools. Visitors to Manchester Art Gallery and London’s Imperial War Museum may have seen some of his works in their permanent collection.

It was as an illustrator though that he excelled, placing him in a great tradition of author-illustrators that includes William Blake, Percy Wyndham-Lewis and Edward Lear. He not only drew scenes for his own books but for others too, particularly those that seemed to chime with his own idiosyncratic mindset such as Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, Alice in Wonderland and the Brother’s Grimm Household Tales (topshot).

Illustration for Our Lady’s Child, from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm

This example above, from that same Brothers Grimm collection, encapsulates his ability to create for children a sense of delight, wonderment as well as fear. Here the tiny child is alone in the dark in a wood in which the claw-like branches of the trees seem to be clutching at her.

Despite his originality, Peake’s fondness and respect for the work of other artists is evident in the archive, from the influence of Hogarth, Doré and Blake to Dickens’ illustrator Phiz and Boys’ Own artist Stanley L. Wood.

Israel Hands Falling from the Mast, from Treasure Island

The archive contains some 27 illustrations and preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Peake’s favourite book, Treasure Island. There’s a watercolour depiction of some of the book’s characters made when he was only 15. The rest were drawn for the book’s 1949 edition.

According to the Library’s Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives, Zöe Wilcox, his Treasure Island illustrations are among the best art work he ever did. “They’re really good examples of the cross-hatching style he developed. He used line in an innovative way, close-drawn broken lines to create atmosphere and background, and that comes through strongly.”

Captain Slaughterboard and his Pirate Crew from Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor

Peake’s love of pirates extended to his own books including Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor from 1939. It’s been credited as being ahead of its time as a book about a pacifist pirate who strikes up a relationship with an ambiguously-gendered Yellow Creature. The illustration above is typical. Its characters are all grotesque but full of humour complemented by the script. Peake has left out the Yellow Creature itself here, instead allowing the reader to use their own imaginations. Peake liked in-jokes. If you look carefully at the neck of the pirate on the far left, you can just make out three tattooed faces. They’re of his wife (the painter Maeve Gilmore), his father and his best friend.  

Peake wanted to become a war artist on the outbreak of World War II. After being turned down, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Then, at the end of the war, he was among the first civilians to witness the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated by the Allies. 

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books

The following year, 1946, saw the publication of his novel Titus Groan, followed by Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959. His archive includes 10 illustration of his Gormenghast characters including Steerpike above. 

His books have inspired writers and artists in many different genres, from Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, to The Cure and Natalie Merchant. 

As a collection, they represent a hugely imaginative oeuvre, full of eccentricity and humour.  According to curator Zöe Wilcox, “He was always true to himself. He was idiosyncratic, one of a kind. He wasn’t afraid to be different to other people and perhaps that came from his childhood and his feeling that he was slightly on the outside of things, growing up in China, son of a missionary doctor in a walled compound where he grew up…but he followed his own path and had an enormous imagination that you see in all of his work.”

 The archive will be available for research once it has been catalogued by 2022. However, there will be opportunities to view highlights from it in forthcoming British Library exhibitions. In the meantime, the library already holds an early version of Captain Slaughterboard that’s available to view on the Discover Children’s Books section of the website at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/captain-slaughterboard-drops-anchor-by-mervyn-peake 

All images are © Estate of Mervyn Peake, courtesy of the British Library

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