Here’s a true genius for you, this guy here entertaining these lucky little munchkins. His name was Mervyn Peake. He’d have wanted you to call him an illustrator or a poet, though he wrote two of the most white-hot works of genius ever put to paper in the unique genre of Dickens-esque fantasy fiction: Titus Groan and Gormenghast.
From being a painter & illustrator in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he went on to write poetry and short stories for children as well as adults. In 2008, The London Times named Peake among their list of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’.
“As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through one’s fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination before they whip away on the endless current and are lost for ever in oblivion’s black ocean.” -Mervyn Peake
Though born in China in 1911, Peake’s family moved to England when he was 11. He was formally educated, particularly inspired and encouraged by an English teacher named Eric Drake who subsequently started an artist’s colony on the channel Island Of Sark which Peake joined later. Peake first exhibited his oil painting in 1931 with the Royal Academy. At the outbreak of World War Two, he applied to be a war artist and made a shocking, fascinating proposal to the Ministry Of Information of a way to help fight the war with his talent.
“The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in Love.” – Mervyn Peake
For the war effort, Peake proposed an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition purported to be by Adolf Hitler himself be published as a propaganda weapon. The catalogue would include paintings showing mutilated, raped or starving victims of war atrocities, as Peake imagined Hitler might have drawn them, but with mundane titles like “Family group”, “Still life” and “Reclining figure”.
“There is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or a woman for their world. For the world of their center where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.” –Mervyn Peake
Between 1943 and 1948, Peake completed Titus Groan and Gormenghast as well as some of his most notable illustrations for books by other authors, including Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By the late 1950’s he’d had at least two nervous breakdowns and was showing signs of dementia. It’s a terrible loss and shame what is so clear in the third book of the Gormenghast series, Titus Alone just comparing the writing. A fourth book in the series was left unfinished when Peake became too ill to write, though his widow’s manuscript supposedly found in the family attic formed the basis of a book of that title published in 2011.
“I am the wilderness lost in man.” –Mervyn Peake
Grailrunner launched the Past Masters series of articles recently with a combined celebration of John Berkey, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby. The idea with the series is to use AI art generators, properly coaxed with the prompts and data set options, cycled till the styles look about right and simulate works by these artists – not to pretend these works in any way approach their talent. Rather, it’s just to make us pause, take a look at what made these geniuses unique, and imagine what it would be like to see new works by them now.
Enjoy some simulated pen & ink and wash illustrations generated by the Wonder AI art generator from Codeway. Prompts included “Steerpike in the kitchens”, “Gormenghast”, “ugly man telling stories”, “grotesque man screaming”, and “fantasy explorer in an airship”:
I hope you enjoyed these and are inspired in some way to find out more about Mervyn Peake. He’s worth your time.
“In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.” –Mervyn Peake
Till next time,