Writer / Illustrator Mervyn Peake: Drawing a vivid darkness

Inevitably I have come to Mervyn Peake. Mervyn Peake! That name casts a shadow. Have you read Titus Groan, or Gormenghast? Did you realise he was well known as an illustrator for such classics as Alice in Wonderland, and Treasure Island?

If you have not read him yet, Mervyn Peake is the master of true, dark goth. His creations live below the page, he sculpts his characters and crosshatches them with words. No one else writes, or draws, like Mervyn Peake.

For an excellent overview of his life and work, you can look at this page at the Scriptorium . His son has created a website that showcases both his writing and his work. Some of the images in this post are from that site.

I have a copy of Treasure Island that is illustrated by him. Here is Jim, in the hands of the dreadful blind beggar Pew:

Robert Louis Stevenson describes the moment:

I held out my hand, and the horrible, soft-spoken, eyeless creature gripped it in a moment like a vice. I was so much startled that I struggled to withdraw; but the blind man pulled me close up to him with a single action of his arm. “Now, boy” he said. “Take me to the captain.”

And this image of the moonlit pirates first view of Treasure island:

Peake is best known for his Gormenghast trilogy. Gormenghast, the castle populated with characters grotesque and hyper real. The author allows us to examine each character from all angles, like a specimen in a bottle, but he has a detached tenderness for each strange creature. His characters are caught in a web of tradition, in a endless void between great events. The sheer weight of time is extraordinary.

From Sebastian Peak’s website: some images from Gormenghast: Here is a portrait of young Fuchsia, and the villian of the piece, Steerpike. Fuchsia is fifteen, bored and lost in romantic dreams, and Steerpike is quick to take advantage of her gullibility:

From Sebastian Peak’s website

And from then there is Flay, the servant:

From Sebastian Peak’s website

Mervyn Peake describes Flay:

Mr Flay appeared to clutter up the doorway as he stood revealed, his arms folded, surveying the smaller man before him in an expressionless way. It did not look as though such a bony face as his could give normal utterance, but rather that instead of sounds, something more brittle, more ancient, something dryer would emerge, something perhaps more in the nature of a splinter or fragment of stone. Nevertheless, the harsh lips parted. ‘It’s me,’ he said, and took a step forward into the room, his knee joints cracking as he did so. His passage across the room – in fact his passage through life – was accompanied by these cracking sounds, one per step, which might be likened to the breaking of twigs.

You simply have to read the books. But you cannot rush them. They are great, slow book books, and cannot be rushed or skipped through.

And to end this post, in the words of his widow Maeve Gilmore:

Words were shapes and sounds to him. He saw them, as if he were listening to an unknown language, in shapes.

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