Though already developing as a painter, Mervyn Peake established himself as a writer and illustrator in 1939, with Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a comic fantasy intended for children. This revealed that he had an outstanding talent for the grotesque, and was ready to align himself to Romantic tendencies in British art. He applied that talent to a broad range of visual and verbal forms, central to which was his ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, an extraordinary imaginative achievement detailing a parallel world. Mervyn Peake was born on 11 July 1911 in Kuling, Central Southern China, the summer residence of his father. He was the younger son of the missionary doctor, Ernest Cromwell Peake, and his wife, Amanda (née Powell), a missionary nurse. In the calm following the Communist Revolution, the Peake family settled in Tientsin (now Tianjin), close to Peking.
Apart from a sojourn in England during the First World War, Peake spent all his early years there, so that its landscape and way of life retained a strong hold on his imagination.
In 1923, the family finally settled permanently in England, and Mervyn attended Eltham College, Kent, where he excelled at drawing. He then studied at Croydon School of Art (1929) and the Royal Academy Schools (1929-32), where he won the Arthur Hacker Prize (1930). While still a student, he exhibited for his one and only time at the Royal Academy (1931). He then joined an artists’ colony on the Channel Island of Sark, in order to write and paint. He exhibited with the group on the island and, in 1934, in London at the Cooling Galleries.
On his return to England in 1935, Peake spent three years as a part-time teacher at the Westminster School of Art; while there, he held his first solo show, at the Calmann Gallery (March 1937), and married a student of the art school, the painter, Maeve Gilmore (in December of the same year). Their three children – Sebastian, Fabian and Clare – would appear frequently in his drawings.
In 1939, Peake published his first book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, an illustrated comic fantasy. This revealed him as an illustrator with an outstanding talent for the grotesque, ready to align himself to Romantic tendencies in British art.
While serving in the army, from 1940, Peake concentrated less on painting than on writing and illustrating, and began to work on Titus Groan, the first novel of his famous Gormenghast trilogy. Following his discharge as an invalid, in 1943, he completed the novel and published his acclaimed illustrations to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1943). He was soon considered ‘the greatest living illustrator’ (John Watney, Mervyn Peake, London: Michael Joseph, 1976, page 121). His illustrative projects from this time include Witchcraft in England by Christina Hole (1945) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948) and contributions to Radio Times and, of his own writings, Rhymes without Reason (1944) and Titus Groan (1946). In 1945, he also visited Germany for Leader magazine to record the war-time devastation, and made drawings at Belsen which profoundly affected his later work.
Peake then returned to Sark, with his family, for a period of three years (1946-49), during which he wrote Gormenghast; published in 1950, it received both the Heinemann Award for Literature and a prize from the Royal Society of Literature in the following year. The final volume of the trilogy, Titus Alone, was published in 1959. Through the 1950s, he taught drawing at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. But, from the middle of the decade, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease which made work increasingly difficult. He completed his illustrations to Balzac’s Droll Stories (1961) and his own The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962) only with his wife’s help and encouragement. He died on 17 November 1968 after spending the last four years of his life in hospital.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Imperial War Museum; and the Wordsworth Trust (Grasmere). The Mervyn Peake Archive, which includes original drawings, is held by the British Library.
Further reading: John Batchelor, Mervyn Peake. a biographical and critical exploration, London: Duckworth, 1974; Colin Manlove (rev Clare L Taylor), ‘Peake, Mervyn Laurence (1911-1968)’, in H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 43, pages 269-271; John Watney, Mervyn Peake, London: Michael Joseph, 1976; G Peter Winnington (ed), Mervyn Peake. The Man and His Art, London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2006; G Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies. The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake, London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2000; Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life, London: John Murray, 2000