The images that follow are details from a set of sketches and completed drawings done by Mervyn Peake for a projected illustrated edition of Dickens’s Bleak House, which, however, never came to fruition. These drawings were, for me, one of the highlights of a new book, Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art; a volume which offers the fullest selection of Peake’s artwork yet published. I’ve been a Peake fan for many years, after first discovering of the Titus novels ca. 1987…
While best-known as a novelist, Peake also excelled as an illustrator, and was a fine poet and painter too. Besides the abortive commission for Bleak House, Peake also produced notable illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, The Hunting of the Snark and Treasure Island. As an illustrator, he considered his influences to be ‘Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Bewick, Palmer, Leach, Hogarth, Blake, Doré, Grandville, Dürer and Goya.’
It’s been many years since I dipped into the pages of Titus Groan or Gormenghast, but I did recently revisit the novella Boy in Darkness wherein the titular Boy (evidently Titus Groan, though not named as such) ‘yearning for freedom from his ceaseless duties as 77th Earl of Gormenghast, escapes the ancient castle and encounters the nightmare world outside the keep.’ The Boy gets lost, and is kidnapped by a pair of humanoid chimæras: Goat and Hyena, who, at length, present him to their master, the Lamb:
White. White as the foam when the moon is full on the sea; white as the white of a child’s eye; or the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost: oh, white as wool. Bright wool…wool…in a million curls…seraphic in its purity and softness…the raiment of the Lamb.
But the colours seeemed to have no effect upon the Lamb, whose wool reflected nothing but itself, and in one other particular, and that was in the matter of the eyes. The pupils were veiled with a dull, blue membrane. This blue, dim as it was, had nevertheless a disproportionate effect, for the surrounding features were so angelically white. Set in this exquisite head, the eyes were like two coins of bruise-blue smoke.
The breast of the Lamb was like a little sea—a little sea of curls—of clustering curls or like the soft white crests of moonlight verdure; verdure white as death, frozen to the eye, but voluptuously soft to the touch—and lethal also, for to plunge the hand into that breast would be to find there was no substance there, but only the curls of the Lamb—no ribs, no organs; only the yielding, horrible mollience of endless wool.
The nightmarish quality of Boy in Darkness is intensified by what is, for the most part, its patiently avuncular narrative tone: like that of a father carefully explaining something disturbingly scary to his child.
Peake’s poetry has its memorable moments too, as in the verses of A Reverie of Bone or in some arresting epigrams & short lyrics:
The vastest things are those we may not learn.
We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
Nor how to burn
How pitiful is our enforced return
To those small things we are the masters of.
And I thought you beside me
How rare and how desperate
And your eyes were wet
And your face as still
As the body of a leveret
On a tranced hill
But my thought belied me
And you were not there
But only the trees that shook,
Only a storm that broke
Through the dark air.
Click on the images to see them enlarged, and in full; they are Copyright © the Mervyn Peake Estate, and are reproduced here without permission, only for as long as no-one objects to their presence on this site.