Illustration by Mervyn Peake from Treasure Island.
There is very little that I can add to what has already been said about Mervyn Peake, other than to say what a deep and enduring impact his work has had on my own. His world was revealed to me through the worn covers of the Penguin Modern Classics Editions that sat on a wire rack in my local library. I picked them up and returned them to the rack many times before I finally took the plunge. A few pages in and I was was having a retroactive panic attack. What if someone had signed the books out and lost them before I’d read them!? As a young reader, crossing the border between Tolkien’s land of elves and hobbits to the shadowed walls of Gormenghast was profound. G. Peter Winnington in his book The Voice of the Heart makes the point that edges are where Peake’s characters come to important life changes. Without knowing that, I felt a seismic shift in what I understood to be possible in my own art, when I experienced Peake’s world for the first time.
I was introduced to his work though writing and only later discovered that he was a brilliant illustrator. The list of Peake’s illustration triumphs include Household Tales, The Brother’s Grimm, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Treasure Island. The dense, beautifully worked style of these illustrations was an affirmation to me as I developed my own love of ink. Incidentally, artist P. J. Lynch did a brilliant job of capturing this aesthetic in his illustrations to Peake’s A Boy in Darkness while simultaneously expressing his own artistic presence.
Peake died tragically young at 57. We can play the game of imagining what he might have produced if he’d lived longer, but at least we have the work he did create and the better game of understanding them.
“Now that he’s dead, ‘is secrets die with him
Like some lost language, or a hieroglyph
Time-shallowed on a stone.”
The Wit to Woo.
“Without heart, Peake tells us, the work of an artist is merely mechanical, characterized by
‘the lethal stillness of good taste and moderation, that landlocked harbour where the craft of an artist can gaze at its own image in the water, year after year, its woodwork freshly painted, its canvas neat and trim, its cargo rotting.’
Winnington commenting on text in Drawings by Mervyn Peake.
- Richard A. Kirk