December 05, 2006


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…

Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mr. Guppy;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'

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.’

Detail of another drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mr. Guppy;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'

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:

Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Jo;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'
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.
Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Lady Dedlock;' an illustration for a projected illustrated edition of 'Bleak House.
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.
Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mrs. Pardiggle and brood;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'
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.
Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Miss Judy Smallweed;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'

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:

Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mrs. Guppy;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'
The vastest things are those we may not learn.
We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
Nor how to burn
With love.
How pitiful is our enforced return
To those small things we are the masters of.
Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mr. Skimpole;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'
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.
Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Mr. Turveydrop;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'

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.

Detail of a drawing by Mervyn Peake of 'Old Smallweed;' intended as an illustration for an edition of 'Bleak House.'


Posted by misteraitch at December 5, 2006 06:01 PM

MisterAitch, your blog is a secret history of art.

Posted by: C. Rancio on December 5, 2006 11:45 PM

Ah! Exquisite. I really enjoyed the sinister Lamb and the poem.

Posted by: Loxias on December 6, 2006 08:55 AM

Marvellous. His picture of Blind Pew from Treasure Island probably scared me as much as anything else when I was a child, and still gives me the willies today.

Posted by: on December 6, 2006 01:30 PM

Now you have thrilled me! My mother had the wisdom to give me the Gormenghast trilogy in high school. It messed, rather severely, with my young mind. I only regret that I knew none of his illustrations as a child. Oh, to have been rendered senseless by his Blind Pew from the great Treasure Island!

I have a book of Alice illustrators that I bought at the British Museum when I was 20, and I still love to ferret through it and find the Peake pictures. They seem to have a little something of Carroll's own (interesting) illustrations that Tenniel thought so poor.

The poetry quotes are fascinating; I don't know his poems. Are there more in the book?

And is this book another sign that his weird star is in the ascent?

Posted by: marly on December 6, 2006 03:36 PM

marly@2—only a handful of Peake’s poems are included in The Man and His Art. And there are a few here. I have a copy of the very slender volume of his Selected Poems which was published by Faber & Faber (and which I daresay has been out-of-print for a while, but is worth tracking down if you’re interested).

I would guess that the recent TV adaptation of the Gormenghast books would have raised Peake’s profile as high as it has ever been (at least in the UK)…

Posted by: misteraitch on December 6, 2006 04:05 PM

Yes, and there was an Overlook Press version of the Alice books recently. I just looked and the book you talk about hasn't hit these shores.

I feel in such a good mood after seeing these Bleak-ish, Peake-ish characters.

Thanks for the link to poems--I shall go peruse them right now.

Posted by: marly on December 6, 2006 04:19 PM

These imaginary portraits are remarkable. I love the Mrs. Guppy. The Coleridge illustrations are good too. As far as Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark goes, I am afraid it is impossible to top Henry James Holiday’s drawings—some of the finest and weirdest illustrations ever published, in my opinion (see the complete text with illustrations).

Posted by: Michelangelo on December 7, 2006 03:57 AM

So good to see a celebration of Mervyn Peake's work. No longer an underrated artist, but still a somewhat neglected one. 'Titus Groan' - a repository of fabulous simile. The cook Swelter's voice described as sounding like a great mouldering felt bell!

Thanks for this. Mister H.

Posted by: Dick on December 7, 2006 12:22 PM

Come think of it, in Letters from a Lost uncle, (the only book by Peake I have ever read) he goes on about the whiteness of the lion's mane—sort of like the lamb in the passage you quoted; the effect was dear to him, I guess.

Posted by: Michelangelo on December 10, 2006 01:46 AM

I'd never seen any of the poetry before; must look out for more. The TV series (which I liked) got pretty poor ratings, but I think Gormenghast continues to work it's spell on adolescents of all ages (meant nicely!).

Posted by: JohnB on December 14, 2006 08:46 PM
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