The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake
- Extra Reading
Often described as the ultimate Renaissance Man, Mervyn Peake was just eight when his father, a medical doctor, arranged for a Mandarin expert in calligraphy, to teach him the art. Soon he was able to form many of the six hundred plus characters that make up the language. At the age of twelve, Mervyn left the Orient for his boarding school in England, where his talent at drawing was noticed by his art master, and frequently in demand from fellow pupils. The Royal Academy followed a short period at Croydon School of Art, and from his early twenties onwards was producing illustrations for magazines and other publications. The decade that followed the end of the war, was perhaps the greatest period of artistic power, and while living on Sark in the Channel Islands from 1946 until 1949 produced a non-ending stream of illustrations to many of the classics. These included: Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark, The Ancient Mariner, Grimm's Household Tales, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As well as these commissions he was also writing and illustrating his own books at the same time. From 1950, an interest in the theatre developed with several plays being written some of which were staged, but mostly not. It is only now that this less well-known area of his eclecticism is gaining audiences, in staged productions. His painting and drawings can be seen at many institutions across Britain, including the National Portrait Gallery, the British Library, Imperial War Museum, Manchester City Art Gallery, the Wordsworth Trust (Dove Cottage) Cumbria, the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery, and several others. Mervyn Peake died near Oxford after a long illness in November 1968 and is buried in the graveyard of the 11th century St Mary the Virgin church at Burpham, near Arundel in Sussex.
5 October 2011
The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake
Thank you very much indeed for coming here today. I hope that by the end, the disparate nature of my father’s work will be a little clearer.
Vis-à-vis writing, illustration, poetry and art, his record stands for itself, as you will see, concurrently, at three exhibitions, which unfortunately have just come to an end this weekend. There was one marvellous one in Guernsey, in which the 50 drawings he did on one day in July 1948, when the Dame of Sark came to the Sark Fete to hand out the prizes for the best-dressed fancy dress children, and I won first prize! It is the only first prize I have ever won in my life,except winning a wine competition once, and they gave me a free trip round the world on Concorde. Unfortunately, I do not fly, so I gave it to my ex-wife, who did fly round the world and wrote a book about her adventures. My favourite first prize was winning the prize from the Dame of Sark, who handed it over to me. One of the pictures in Guernsey at the moment shows the diminutive figure looking up at this long-legged woman and accepting the prize.
This story begins, however, not in Sark, but in China, where my grandfather was a doctor for 25 years. He operated on the son of the man who ran Tientsin, a big city in China, and the cataract operation was so successful that, the following day, my grandfather looked out of one of the windows of the hospital that he ran, called McKenzie Memorial Hospital, and there were about 200 blind Chinese, each holding the pigtail of the one ahead, all blind, and his job was to tell the putative blind Chinese that he could not operate on all of them because cataract takes different forms.
My father grew up in the surroundings of a hospital. The originally American-run, McKenzie Memorial Hospital, built in 1840 in Tientsin, but disappeared under the weight of its crumbling, and was not revivified until my grandfather took over in 1912.
These first few photographs that you will see are contemporaneous life in China, as my father would have grown up within it. So, here is a street scene in Peking and much of the life that was teaming around China happened just outside where my grandfather and his wife, and my uncle and father, were brought up.
At the beginning of the story of “Titus Groan”, we are introduced to the teaming life which is just outside the juxtaposition of this teaming life and the towers of Gormenghast, set the scene not for English middle-middle-class background, in which I was brought up, but the teaming life of the Chinese world.
So, as he grew up, he remembered all the Chinese life, the donkeys and the camels, and the fact that the mule and the camel hate each other with such a vengeance
that, when he went to school on his mule, he had to pass camels coming in from
the Gobi Desert. The hatred between these two animals, which is a fact, was recorded as a young man. The vigorous hatred that emanates from the faces of these two animals came out later in youthful drawings.
So, China then, to repeat myself, is the motif that really runs through much of his art and much of his life.
The palace here, for instance, he would have been taken to, as a young boy, on many occasions, and he would have watched these funeral processions, which of course would have made their entrance into aspects of his later writing. He would have noticed the sedan chair and the people dressed in their garb for various
In 1912, when he was about a year old, he was here, with the son of the director of the hospital, called Lei, and my father learnt to speak to Chinese. When my brother
and I were naughty, he would say [speaks Mandarin], which, as we all know, all being Mandarin speakers in the room, means, “I’m going to count one to ten,” [speaks Mandarin], which is “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” and if you do not behave, you are going to get hit. But China then, therefore, is also predominant in my life, in the way that [repeats one to ten in Mandarin] was a recurring theme.
My grandfather arrived in China in 1899 and spent three months going down the
Yangtze, 600 miles, finding an arbitrary spot, where he set up his log cabin to
take his first patients on, he was called [speaks Mandarin], which translates as White Devil or White Spirit. It was repeated all the time, until he got to know what it actually meant, and he thought he had better learn Chinese so he could actually respond.
But the other thing he always heard every day was [speaks Mandarin], which was “Have you had your rice today?” Last year, in San Malo, at an art festival, there was a famous Chinese artist who does the front covers for Time magazine on a regular basis, and I said, “Do you still say [speaks Mandarin], when you meet a stranger?” “No, no,” he said, “no, no, very old, very, very old.” I said, “Well, what do you say now, instead of “Have you had your rice today?”” We say, “Hello!”
So, here is my father as a young chap. Already, his eyes opening out to that
extraordinary vision in which he was able to see things in a way that was beyond the ordinary, I suppose.
Bottom right, as far as you are looking at it, is my father, and my uncle, my father’s
brother, who, as a juxtaposition of jobs, could not be more different, because my father became a writer and artist and my uncle became the Chairman of Price Waterhouse. So, it was an extraordinary [French phrase] of propensities, and my grandfather, up at the top, with his wife, who died quite young, in China.
Here he is, as he starts the world of writing, in one of the houses he lived in, in Surrey. The ideas were bombardments. They were bombardments, in the sense that
the ideas for art, literature, poetry, came at him from all sides, almost like a type of bombardment – when is he going to put down the work because there is so much of it coming in? How does he filter out those things that are really significant?
In 1933, he went to Sark in the Channel Islands, which, at that time, had a population of about 300, 60% were Patwa, Norman-speaking Patwa. Now, today, the population is about 5% and nobody speaks Patwa. It is a very sad place now, Sark – I do not recommend going to it because it is now practically owned by the Barclay twins, who own the Daily Telegraph and the Savoy and the Ritz and various
things, and they want to put a golf course on it and they want to put five-star
hotels, they have tarmacked the roads, and the whole character will have gone.
At the time my father was there, in 1933, it was the most idyllic scene of rural, almost insular, beauty, and he stayed there for two years, and built the Sark Gallery, which is now the Sark Post Office. This was a radical piece of architecture in 1933, absolutely extraordinary! It was almost a revolution on the island. The money from the American benefactor produced a wonderful art gallery, and they had regular shows there, and they were so successful, they exhibited in Bond Street and in Paris amongst other places. There were five artists, of which my father was one, and he grew to absolutely love Sark.
Sark was made up, at the time, of a lot of fishermen, and the fishermen would go out from Creux Harbour. The Maseline had not been built at that time. They had people like the lobster fishermen here, my father was about 21 at the time, so this was an early venture into oil painting. The Sark fishermen were not very happy with it because he is not drinking beer – he is drinking about half a litre of absinth. Absinth, which was allowed until about 1951, was a very intoxicating, wild spirit, and the Sark fishermen used to drink it. When this painting was finished, the Sark fisherman said, “I would like to see what I look like,” and went over, and was so unhappy about the way he had been portrayed that he hit my father on the face, knocked him out, and he was out for some time before he came to – the man
was so infuriated with being shown not as the romantic fisherman who would be
ploughing the shores of the Channel Islands, but as a boozing drunk who did not
like the way he was portrayed.
An early painting shows that the incipient understanding of paint was there, even from a very young age. He had been to the Royal Academy, but he left after two years of a four-year course, unfortunately, and he went to Sark with the idea of
really learning how to paint.
This was Sark Church, as it is today, seen from a field across which he lived in the
Even by the age of 22, he was well known enough in London to have Punch and various other very popular magazines at the time doing portraits of him, and here he is as the bedraggled artist wandering around with his canvasses.
In the event, he was not at all the sort of idea we sometimes have of the artist, with
paint on his trousers. He was always very keen on what he looked like and he was very well dressed. Later on, my mother used to dress him, because he had a predilection for putting a pink tie on with a green jumper or blue trousers with a corduroy cap, a juxtaposition of materials which sometimes did not quite work, despite his artistic desire for them to.
I think he saw himself as a romantic. He has just completed his first selection of poems, which, I am pleased to say, have all come out in a big volume called “The Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake”, of which there are 245 of them, only two-thirds of which were published during his lifetime, and the other third published subsequent to his death.
His drawings of my mother, which were prolific, in pencil, paint, oils, in everything, were absolutely legion, so, in this particular sketch, he sees her as the blonde Irish girl that she was.
The fact that my uncle and my father had such very different jobs is also seen in my
mother, who was the youngest daughter of an Irish doctor, brought up in Brixton, in Acre Lane. At the time, Acre Lane was so-named because everybody owned “an acre” – that was why it was called Acre Lane. So my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, had his practice in Acre Lane, Brixton, which is where she was brought up, but she was not particularly keen about the name Brixton at the time, and so, sometimes when I used to say my mother was brought up in Brixton, she would make it quite clear that she preferred where the blue plaque is currently, at No. 1 Drayton Gardens in South Kensington. It has a nicer twang to it than Brixton, now. But Brixton, at the time, was a very different place altogether.
She was the youngest daughter, as I said, of six, and her maternal grandmother was Lady Carr, who owned the News of the World, with her husband, Sir Emsley Carr.
This strange confluence of money and poverty, almost, runs also with my father, who never had a bean, and did not even earn £1,000 in a whole year ever in his
entire life. Part of the reason I have been proselytising about his work for the last 25 years is that on one particular day, at the nadir of his fortunes, my mother took a selection of his great Ancient Mariner and Alice in Wonderland drawings to the Tate Gallery, and she met the Director there, and she offered the drawings for sale because they had no money. My father’s entire output was valued at £1,500. This humiliation was such that my mother packed up the things and walked along, back to where we lived, in tears, and vowed never to ever offer his work for sale again. I have kept up that as well, that desire of hers, because there is essentially something very humiliating when you are at death’s door and you go along and somebody humiliates you with an offer like that, when one considers what today things are like.
My mother, here, shown wearing a towel, was a painting sold last year in Bond Street for a substantial sum, and it was called “Lady in a Turban”. It is actually my mother who has just washed her hair, but we can all make mistakes! Here, choosing his pencils and pens at an artists’ shop no longer there, in King’s Road, another one of the 300 fashion shops in the King’s Road, which has obliterated all the idiosyncrasies of Chelsea, was there at the time, and he would go and choose his paints and his brushes and his various instruments, and then come back and see his wife doing a painting of her own.
She, at the end of her life, decided that, with the Titus books having now been translated and available in lots of copies, she wanted to end, or to finish off, in a sense, what he had begun, but not aping, not parroting his language, but trying to go back into the life he might have had had he not got Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 42, and Encephalitis Lethargica, and died of a hideous illness at the age of 57. What would have happened, she wondered, whether, if I had told the story backwards, and so the story that was published about two months ago, called Titus Awakes, takes my father not on a journey towards what he might have written, but how he might have been had we turned the clock back completely. So, we start at the end, and we come forward, and at the end of the book, in this extraordinary denouement, which was so beautifully portrayed on the BBC a couple of weeks ago, on the Classic Serial, she gets him, as it were, to come back to his youth again, and that is what is so extraordinary. So, if anybody does buy or ever does think of buying the book, do not think that it is a continuation of the Titus book – she certainly would not have been arrogant enough to feel that she could possibly have done that. However, it does take the reader through what might have happened.
My mother here at the age of nineteen, when she had just been accepted for the Westminster School of Art in Victoria, and then she meets him [my father] on the very first day that she is at that college.
Here he is at about the same time…
I show you these pictures hoping that you do not see this as an exercise in narcissism manifest, but more to see the disintegration of the spirit and the physical man, as we see later on.
My mother used to knit these jumpers for the family, and she knitted hundreds of them. They had no backing – I’m sorry, I do not know the technicalities of knitting,
but anyway, she knitted them so if you turned them inside out, you can see all the wool. What that is technically called, I will leave to somebody else. So, they came out in these hundreds of little bright colours, and we used to wear them, and when my mother was buried, in 1983, my three daughters and my son and everybody else came along and we all had our respective knitted jumpers, as a sort of remembrance.
Babies are not necessarily the most beautiful things on Earth, and so, as in this example of myself, at the age of about a week, is one of hundreds of drawings that he did. For the first six months of my life, he did a drawing every single day, so I have got that thick of drawing, so if I really was a narcissist, I could sit there or lie there in bed every day, and just flick through these and say, “My God, didn’t I look marvellous?!” or “Didn’t I look like the back end of a bus?!” which most babies do actually look like. But he has got in this, in the understanding of the structure of the face, the structure of the skull, the way in which the lips move, the nostrils flare, the eyes seeking for something that they do not understand, being so very young. He captures this mood in which the boy, which I do become a year later, can put on his Army cap when back from leave in the Army.
My father was not a good soldier. He remained a private all the way through his career. He was never, until he went to Germany, elevated to officer status, but here,
he has come back from one of many forays into a different part of the country.
He was seen to be rather good at art, so, one day, he went into the barrack square in Gravesend in Kent, and he saw a big, wooden, portable lavatory. The sergeant major said, “Now, let us see what you can do with this – I want you to write “For officers only” on the outside of this little box thing.” He did, and they were so pleased with what he had done that, the following day, he came out and found that the Army had delivered 130 more. The sergeant, luckily enough, was aware that my Dad was unlikely to take on Rommel, and so he was given leave to sit at the back during the theodolite lessons. He did not know how either to spell theodolite or what a theodolite was, so he was allowed to sit at the back of the class, where he
began his magnum opus, Titus Groan, in publishers’ dummies, books filled with empty pages. It was really through the largess of his commanding officer that
he even was able to write the book in the first place.
He grew his hair a bit too long, and so, one day, the sergeant major said, “Come here!” and so up my father came, and he said, “Get your hair cut – you look like a
bloody poet!” He had just published his first volume of poems, so it was very appropriate. He did not get his hair cut, but he did stay at the back of the hall.
Here is another vision of what father and son looked like at that time…
Here, capturing the malevolence of Der Fuhrer, he gets into the eyes, into the vision, into the bestiality of the German leader to such an extent that we are taken back through time, as it were, to understand the horror that both the Germans themselves of course and we and everybody else under his aegis had to go through.
This was one of ten drawings that can now be found at the National Archive in Kew, and from April this year, are now on permanent display. They have been out of sight since the end of the War, and now, they are on show, so you can actually go and see them. They were called “Drawings by Adolf Hitler”. Of course, they were not
by him, but my father thought it would be a good idea to do a spoof, and this was an exercise that the British Army had given him so that they could be littered about or dropped about like leaflets in different parts of Europe. So, instead of it being photographs or just written, these actual horrifying drawings, very prescient drawings in the sense that they were done in 1940, and they show people who have just been bombed – they have lost legs and arms, and the destruction all around is absolutely terrible to behold. As a type of warning, a premature warning, he was asked to do these. Unfortunately, the only country that actually did accept them was Argentina, which was not even in the War and was 6,000 miles away anyway.
These are the Biggin Hill bombers, who have just come back, and they are having a
debriefing, he was allowed to go into and capture the mood of these airmen, who, worn out after reccies and sorties over Germany, come back and they flop down on their seats and have their cup of tea, before being asked to go off again.
“Dr Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain” of course shows a completely
different mood, whereby the cross-hatching, which he was so very proficient at, is utilised here in the shading behind the strange doctor, and in his trousers and in his top-hat, and his whole physique is of a man who is actually soaking, looking forward to getting onto dry land again.
“Old King Cole is a merry old soul”, again, the cross-hatching, which became a trademark and which Gerald Scarfe recently told me that was his guide, in a sense. When he is doing his illustrations, he always thinks back to Mervyn Peake’s cross-hatching. How he was able to do it, I do not know, but I used to watch him as he was doing this cross-hatching, for the Ancient Mariner for instance, which are all in Dove Cottage. If you happen to be in Cumbria, they are all on show at Coleridge and Wordworth’s House in Grassmere.
These cross-hatching edifices, or homages to cross-hatching, were done not over weeks and weeks, but were often executed within as little as three days, so that the evolution of the characters could be seen not from work-ups to the final, finished picture, but work-outs, as you will see later for Treasure Island, in the general shape. The general shape would take its form, manifest its form, and then as the manifestation of the form came about, the total would then become a reality, after several workings.
“Gormenghast” was written in this sun veranda place, in Sark, and he would sit out there when it was sunny and compose. The compositions would go on mostly at the weekend because he taught at the Westminster School of Art during the week, and then would get a boat back from Weymouth back to Guernsey and then off on another boat to Sark, so it was a big fiddle, and when we lived there, between 1945 and 1950, this to-ing and fro-ing between London and the Channel Islands became a bit too much and so he moved back to London. But this is really the epicentre of where his book was written, in this room.
This is what it looks like today, owned by a 92-year-old Scottish female doctor, and I often wonder whether, if only she knew what was underneath her chrysanthemums or her roses, if we could take the clock back to see this masterpiece, now translated into 35 languages, was written.
Fuchsia, the great goddess within the story, he took as his template the French expression “jolie laide”, which is the point at which beauty can transfer itself over to ugliness, or ugliness can become beauty. That point at which beauty becomes ugliness was really his raison d’etre in illustration: how far can you take ugliness before it becomes beauty, or inversed. So, Fuchsia therefore has these haunting dark eyes which bewitch great blubbery lips – are they too big, dark, her suit, head of hair, the look, the whole feeling of Fuchsia, the character, to whom Steerpike, the evil mal, gives his heart and soul. In the story, of course we realise what happens to them, and they come to a very sticky end, both of them.
In the television series, which came out in the year 2000, I was sitting next to Stephen Fry at the read-out. He was on one side, Spike Milligan was on the other, and I asked them both, through the read-through at Pinewood Studios, what was it that they liked about the “Gormenghast” books, what was it, and why did they even say, yes, they wanted to be respectively two of the characters?
The answers were interesting, in the sense that it was not, in a way, just the literary tour de force that it is, and was, to them, but it was the fact that the ability to get lost within the jungle of the words was the thing that they wanted, subsuming themselves within the words, rather than being an observer of them. I think that, of the eight teachers who appear in the book, in the film as well, there was only one who had not read the books.
What I liked most was Spike Milligan, who had read it three times when he was in the British Army in Singapore, and he said, “I used to take it to bed with me – I loved the book so much.” As he was, to my mind, one of the funniest people who have ever lived and I am not wild about comedians at the best of times, but he was one of the funniest people I had ever heard, so it came as a lovely surprise that he was so excited by it.
“Titus in Umbra” was the title of one of the books that he thought he might elaborate on. This is when we were in Sark. It says “Sark 1948”, the very year of course of the great fate, and here, as an example, as you will see in the vintage edition of the illustrations which are at the British Library. In the illustrated “Gormenghast”, one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was to place 125 illustrations in exactly the point within the text where the description was of the mountain or of the girl or of the rock or of whatever it was, but it was an exciting enterprise. This is what one would have to have looked at. All these works – there are about 10,000 pages, which, if you have nothing to do next Thursday, you can go to the British Library and sit in the students’ room and read a few of them. They are extraordinary really. They are very fragile, the paper, but many of them have these little drawings and little illustrations. He did those either to help him in the description that was about to come or describe it and then do the picture. It was not uniform. It was sometimes this and sometimes that.
The White Rabbit rushing down the tunnel here, with the message “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” says he, as he comes along, these were all done on Sark, and these are all to be seen next month at a big exhibition in Rennes in Brittany, and in the month after that, they will be, if you want to see them, they are in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle.
So, these drawings were all done in Sark, and a lot of the characters that he drew were picked up from wandering around and seeing people, so he would extrapolate from somebody’s face and make it into a rabbit.
Here, my father and myself and my brother are on a trip to Guernsey. We did not have a bath in Sark; we did not even have any electricity until 1948, so my father used to take us over on the boat. We would dress up as well as we could, we would come over, and what he would say was, “Come on boys!” and we would walk straight into the best hotel on the island, and the concierge would salute, we would go upstairs and have a lovely bath at the hotel’s expense, walk down, get on the boat and go home again! But he always felt he should look rather dapper when he was doing that, considering he was getting it on the house.
A mystery that has been with me for many, many years was where a particular photograph was taken. The Guernsey Evening Post sent out somebody in St Peter Port to find out where a picture was taken, and it was taken at where that red spot is now, in St Peter Port, and we were on our way to the building (bottom right) which was the Guernsey Cinema, now pulled down because they were in need of another 250 car spaces. This was taken in 1948, so it was a different scene.
This is the house we were brought up in and where the books were read. Here is my
mother, my brother and I. And here is my mother again, with my brother and myself, proudly holding our bicycles.
My mother was, as I said, the sixth and youngest of an Irish Catholic background, and felt that she should support her husband, and she did, through thick and thin,
to the very end, until she herself contracted multiple cancers and died at the age of 65, in 1983. She was assiduous in the promotion of her husband’s work, and she did that until the very last moment. She was a very good artist and she was a very good writer, but she gave herself to her husband which was wonderful, and here she is, looking at her very best.
She used to have her dresses sent over from Paris or from London by a special courier, made by one of the top designers at the time, and then she would put them on sometimes and then my brother and I would walk around the dusty tracks on Sark, and my mother would sometimes be walking towards us, and the local boys would say, “I don’t want to say anything to you but your Mum’s coming along – she don’t half look a bloody treat!” So, in their broad Sark accents, they would give us a little bit of a warning, because although I loved my mother very much and always will, there is something about your mother walking along in a top couturier dress along a dusty track in post-War Sark which was less than usually happened.
As a juxtaposition to that though, my father, who had a penchant for dressing up in
women’s clothes, whether it was her clothes or not, I do not know, but anyway, I followed suit and I used to put on skirts. He had no embarrassment at all, and sometimes, local Sarkees would come along and say, “I have got some nice conger eels here – you want any, Mervyn?” they would say, and he would say, “Yes, thanks very much.” So the chap would come along with the conger eels and hand them over to my father, who was wearing a dress, which was not the average artist’s penchant, even at that time.
But he did not wear dresses all the time. I have to assure you, anybody who might be wondering about his sexuality, he was very much predisposed towards the
One of the great disappointments in my life, I suppose, was when I was eight and I
wanted to give visitors trips around the island on a carriage, and so my father bought me a donkey, Judy, who was very old. She was 35 when she died. Here I am, just about to get hooked up to a cart, which my father is in the process of buying, so that I can take the people around the island. I did so well, at the end of the day, I earnt two and sixpence, which means nothing today, but was roughly the equivalent of £25, which, to me, as an eight year old, was an awful lot of money. My mother did not like the sort of commercial smack inherent in my going around saying, “Anybody for a ride on Judy?” and so it came to an end within about a week. So, instead of running ICI, I just sold bottles of wine for a living, which is a great shame really, because I think I should have run ICI, I believe it be a great shame that it was not to be! Anyway, here I am, and that is the donkey. I obviously was very attracted to the donkey because I am seen on it in ubiquitous fashion.
Here are my parents, talking to the neighbour, while I proudly walk down the road with Judy.
If my peroration today is less than erudite, less than going into the semantics of literature or into the idiosyncrasies of cross-hatching, I make no apologies, because this is centenary year. Centenary year is a year, I feel, that one should know what the man looks like. Next year, please do come back and I will go into Gustave Dore and the influence he had on my father. Today, it is a sort of tour of photographic evidence that the man I think is particularly talented looked like while he was doing the work. So, sorry to the intellectuals, and no apologies to anybody else, because these photographs also emulate and bring the listener through to what the man was like.
He made me the French waiter’s uniform; he made my brother the clown uniform. I am still mesmerised by the fact that he put on the top of the tray that the waiter with the hat, to your left, me, is wearing is a glue that was so strong that he poured water into the pretend glass that was on the tray that I was holding, and I was still, at the age of about 50, I still could not work out how the water did not fall off. I was not an engineer, as you can realise. But I won first prize, and it absolutely astonished me. There, in the background, is the veranda where he wrote Titus Groan.
This palm tree played a big part in our life because my father phoned up the Guernsey horticulturalist, the leading Guernsey horticulturalist, and said, “I would like to buy a palm tree please and could you deliver it over to Sark?” and they said, “I am very sorry, we sell 80 types of palm tree – which do you want?” That threw him, he did not know which, so he looked up and he sent them a picture of what the palm tree looked like, and they delivered it.
I went to a Catholic boarding school called Les Vauxbelets, where they used to beat you before eight o’clock because they felt that would take you a little bit nearer Jesus than if they had not beaten you, so as I got there, into my shower every morning, and they would purposefully drop the soap into the shower so that you had to pick it up so that the Christian brother (Christian in italics I have to mention) the Christian brothers then could watch you as you picked up the fallen soap.
The hero of the College was Brother Charles. He is and will remain my greatest hero. He transcends the world because of one thing he said one day. “Boys,” he said, “I have found a German arms dump, and I am going to ask my ten favourite pupils to come with me on a night-time sortie.” The ten boys involved were going totally bonkers with excitement at the thought of going with the Brother of their
dreams on the open-bed eight-ton lorry down to Cobo Bay to go down to see the German arms dump. We went down at night.
There were no lights. He put something over the headlamps, so you just had the little tiny lamp. We went down, we followed him down the cliff, we went all the way along the beach, and we went to a great cliff, and he pressed a button on the side of the cliff and the whole cliff opened – it was on hinges, so the British could not see it when they were flying over, and there, in the most majestic sight I have ever seen, and ever will see in my life, machine guns, bayonets, helmets, insignia…everything a boy could dream of, there, in this stinking, gas-filled hole! “You can take anything you want,” said Brother Charles, “but you cannot take a machine gun.” So, we came out with our helmets and our bayonets and everything, and we went back, on pain of death of telling any of the other boys who had not been picked where we had hidden the stuff, and we waited to take them home at the end of term. The police found out, somebody snitched, Charles was arrested, and everybody had to give the police back, the Guernsey police, all their armaments, except me…because I had been over to Sark that weekend and buried them under the palm tree…where they are to this day!
And here again, I am in the middle, with my outfit, and here is a perfunctory wash
drawing he did on the very day itself. I was so pleased that I had won this prize from the Dame of Sark that she said to me, “I expect you will be going into the slow bicycle race now, won’t you, seeing as you have done so well?” “Oh yes, yes Madame, yes, yes, I will be going into that!”
So, eight of the local boys, queued up behind the line with our bikes…the pistols shot up in the air, and I shot off! Nobody could have caught me, and I got there first, and I was so in front of everybody else, it was extraordinary, and I thought, “What are these other lazy devils? What are they doing?! As I got to the end, the steward said, “Well done – you have come last!” I think I was about 18 before I worked out how I could have come first and come last. Still, I have only just about grasped it now. But anyway, so I did not win that, but I did win that.
Much more germane to his vision, in a sense, is the extrapolating from a face, enlarging it, bringing out aspects of the human physiognomy, and forcing ugliness, in a sense, forcing it until it eeks out into a type of strange, Dore beauty.
Here, this clown, captured in a design produced by Bertram Mills Circus in 1950 shows what can be done if you take a face and enlarge it to such an extent.
Bedtime was always good because I would be read, by my mother and my brother, the latest books, as I read my grandchildren.
Here, my father would do a drawing. He would do these drawings every Sunday, when he was back from London, and this became known as the Sunday Drawings Book, which was published in July this year, and Michael Moorcock had written the narrative, because my father did not write the story, he just did the drawings. He did 65 in all. I got fifteen and my brother got 50 because I was at boarding school, so he got far more than me.
But this is what he would look like at the time he was drawing them, and it takes me straight back down the tunnel of time into his dextrous art.
My brother, on your left, became a painter and has been a painter all his life. He is looking, in a sense, in a different way at what is evolving on the page. I am looking more, to my mind, as an observer. He is getting into the art, getting into the understanding of how the art became itself.
This is an example of one of the many drawings. The motif of a pirate is a recurring
theme. He was illustrating Treasure Island at the time, so of course it is very appropriate.
All these strange flights of fancy – the horse going through the water, with the dog
giving him directions, and the cat sitting on its tail…or the old beetroot because he knew I loved cars and so would always be doing cars. The first word I was supposed to say, at the age of one or two, was “Say beauty,” and I would say, “Car.” He would say, “No, no, say beauty!” “Car!” And so it would go on and I stuck to car and he stuck to beauty. I now know what he was talking about because beauty is a touch more interesting than car, but here is my early car, the beetroot, the flying beetroot, which is just about to zip off down the A1, and this is the cover of the book that has just come out.
Here, my brother, at about the same age, is looking slightly disconsolate, because he probably has not had the drawing that he thought he was going to get.
At about this time, as I approach towards the end of my discourse, he was interested in the way life had dished him up such terribly bad luck, in the contraction of Parkinson’s Disease, and in a sense, a highlight of the thinking, simply but philosophically, about what life is about, he wrote: “To live at all is miracle enough; the doom of nations is another thing. Here, in my hammering blood pulse is the proof - let every painter paint and poet sing, and all the sons of music ply their trade. Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing. Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade, come what may, the imagination’s heart is constellation high and cannot be weighed. Nor greed, nor fear, can tear our faith apart, when every heartbeat hammers out the proof that life itself is miracle enough.” I think he saw, as in this letter, written to my father from Graham Greene, at the time, speaking about his love of the poetry that he was reading, to a great extent at that time, poetry really lay very close to his soul.
After contracting Parkinson’s disease, he is aware of these dreadful institutions he had to go to, because there were not any other places to go to. He describes the sensibilities surrounding his art and nature: “It is at times at half-light that I find forsaken monsters shouldering through my mind. If the Earth were lamp-lit, I should always be found in their company. Even in sunlight, I have heard them clamouring around the gateways of my brain, with glimmering rags about their bruised dark bodies, bound, and in each brow, a ruby, like a wound.”
Anticipating the hideous end he comes to, physiologically, he continues, nevertheless, to see the hope and the love of his children as being something that he can propel forward in his dying days. “You walk unaware,” he writes to my mother, “of the slender gazelle, that moves as you move, and is one with the limbs that you have. You live unaware of the faint, the unearthly echo of hooves, that throughout your white streams of clear clay that I love are in flight as you turn, as you move, as you sleep, for the slender gazelle never rests in your ivory grove.”
The work-ups to the illustrations for Treasure Island were also all produced in Sark, and here we see Jim on the bow-sprit of the Hispaniola, which is worked up later into Jim finding the treasure, in what is actually there in Sark, if you were to go there, the Deca Bay. The Deca Bay looks exactly like this, so he is able to use as a background, with Jim counting the coins.
I was the model for Jim on many, many occasions, and it was sometimes a bit taxing because, as I said, we did not have any electricity until 1948, and so I would
have to stand on the kitchen table, and often it was very cold, especially in 1948, when unbeknownst to my brother and I, my father had had hundreds of tins sent from Peake Frean, appropriately, and these empty tins were filled with slush from the snow which had begun in October 1947 and had lasted until the spring of 1948. He would fill the tins with slush and put them outside in the garden. They had frozen. And unbeknownst to us, one early morning, there was a tap on the door, “Follow me downstairs, boys!” and we got out of bed, put our dressing gowns on and went down into the hideous cold January morning, 1948, went out in there, and there was a perfectly formed full-sized igloo! We walked down the tunnel of the igloo, and in the main body of the igloo were the first of the Sunday morning drawings, on a blanket, which he had put there for us. The igloo finally met its maker, the grass perhaps, in the April of 1948, having been there for over three months. It is a memory that I can treasure to the end of my days, that a father who can do that can also build an igloo!
Another mock-up here of one of the characters, and here, I would have arrived in a
Maserati today and parked and got my chauffeur to take me off Caprise for lunch today, had my father not made a rather fundamental mistake in 1953, by choosing the wrong one in the choice of two, having won the pan-logo competition, as a little deflection to what he was normally doing. “Ten pounds, Mr Peake, or a halfpenny on every pan of all the pans we produce?” 200 million, something like
that, a year…how rich would I be?! I could buy Gresham College if he had said,
“I’ll have the royalty per pan.” He did not. He took the ten pounds, because, in mid-War, Graham Greene, his friend, the writer, said, “Who knows whether there will be paper after the War? The Germans are bombing us – who knows whether we are going to win the War or not? Take the ten pounds!” worth maybe £100 today. Take the ten pounds…he took the ten pounds.
So, here he is, at about the time of taking the ten pounds and towards the end of both my story and also his, he draws the mocker as the mocker comes up behind Christ and makes fun of him - this very much inspired by, in a sense, the questioning of goodness or the world, at why he should have been picked out to have these hideous diseases, which he never complained about. But I suppose this figure might be saying, “Why me?”
Here he is, just having contracted Parkinson’s, sitting on a bench in the house we lived at in Smarton in Kent, a Georgian place we could not possibly afford, and so only lived there for one year, so we had to sell it back at a terrific loss, which was a great shame.
Here is a picture of my mother, at the time, in pencil.
Here they are, standing outside the garage at the house that his father had built, and where I was brought up, in Wallington, in Surrey.
This picture, sold by a cousin of mine, who was absolutely mesmerised by cricket, my father did him two or three drawings and he gave them to my cousin, and this was sold, unfortunately, at a gallery in London last year, and my cousin was able to get £2,500 for a drawing that my father had just done. He needed the money because he had not got a job, and so he sold the possession that had meant more to him than anything else.
“Court and bowled, Copperknob” is the title of this picture, as the batsman slashes away at the ball which Copperknob is just about to catch. The balletics, the movement, the actual sense that the bowler is literally dancing in the air, takes this not from an arbitrary scene, in a rural cricket match, but takes you into the world of Nureyev, particularly, or takes you into the world of dancing.
Here, bowled out, the bat, with weeds coming out of it, shows that he does not take
cricket that seriously, the artist that is, not my cousin, and he, in his expression, shows that he has been caught well and truly, not knowing how to play cricket very well.
Towards the end of my father’s life, my mother started doing book covers, and this is one of the many book covers that she designed for Falcon Books.
And a late painting by my father, here, shows that oils was very much part of his world as well.
And another one here, which is at Manchester.
And, here, the onset of Parkinson’s has happened. My sister, my younger sister, is quite unaware of what that means, is also unaware of the shaking that goes on with Parkinson’s of course.
And his great friend, on his left, to you, his one and only great friend, who was an
English master at Taunton College for 50 years, once he heard my Dad had Parkinson’s, never saw him again, and I always felt that that was very much
letting down somebody, because he could not cope, he could not cope with the change in my father’s life.
Towards the end, he would draw these cursory drawings of characters he would see, and, here, becoming thinner and thinner, he is, just before the operation, which did nothing but transfer the shaking from one hand to the other.
And, later, towards the end, and this is where you will see, if you happen to be in
Kensington ever, the blue plaque. When my mother died, I had to sell this house, and Rex Harrison’s fourth wife bought this house, and the first thing they did was to get the painters and decorators in, and they painted out all the murals that were in the house. So, these wonderful murals that were in different rooms, all gone, under the brush.
This is the kitchen in Drayton Gardens, which my mother painted from top to bottom, and where she would have her cat and her various things. So she painted her cooker, and the fridge, and the Welsh dresser, and she painted my grandchildren’s playroom at the top floor.
Here he is, near the end of his life.
As a juxtaposition to the artist, surely, this can not be beaten, in which my
mother’s first cousin, Lady Carr, and Sir Emsley Carr, sitting in the middle, have just decided, that day, as a family decision, to sell their shares in the News of the World to Rupert Murdoch. Within one month, the shares had gone up four-fold, and they regretted it for the rest of their lives. This was all inspired by my eldest aunt, to your extreme right, with the white hat on, who felt that, if she did not sell the shares, everything would tumble. Had she not made that decision, I would have had two Maseratis!
This is the Mervyn Peake Awards for Parkinson’s. We get about 500 a year submitted from everybody with Parkinson’s, from all over the country, and then we give a cash prize to the winner within poetry, writing, and photography. Here is my brother and sister, and we have to go round – takes about three or four hours – to make a choice, and then we send the winner their knowledge.
At the Wellcome collection in Euston, they chose, to highlight drugs, my Dad’s drawing of the caterpillar here, and it was on all the tube stations all over London
And here, I will end with just twenty of the 37 new publications that came out in July this year, long after the man who wrote them has even the faintest idea that they even exist.
Thank you very much.
© Sebastian Peake 2011
This event was on Wed, 05 Oct 2011
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