Monday, 3 October 2011

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake at the British Library

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake exhibition at the British Library drew on their recent acquisition of the Peake archive to provide a portrait of the writer, artist, poet and playwright in all his imaginative prolixity. It took us through his life and work by creating a series of discreet biographical boundaries and geographical divisions (geographies both real and imaginary – although the borders between the two are sometimes ill-drawn). Reducing a life to such a neatly compartmentalised form obviously ignores its complexities and continuations, but it serves for an exhibition constrained by space and helps to illustrate how Mervyn’s experiences fed into his work, and how his work shaped his experience, his way of seeing things. Gormenghast is the thread which is traced through all the stages of his life – an entire world within a vast, self-contained edifice of crumbling stone, a construction of the mind built up from the imaginatively transformed materials of experience, be it direct or artistic.

The first section took us to China where Mervyn was born and spent much of his childhood. His father, Dr Ernest Peake, a missionary doctor, wrote a memoir of his time in China, which remains unpublished. We saw it here, open to a page in which details his arrival in the heart of China, and his nervousness as to how he would be received in a territory still largely closed off to foreigners. Mervyn’s own notes for sketches, notes and idea lists for his own memories of his time in the country, written much later in his life, were also included, with the tentative title ‘Chinese Puzzle’, suggesting the degree to which these early experiences continued to haunt his imagination and memory. The earliest known story which Mervyn wrote, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs, which he started when he was in China, was here in all its immaculate joined up handwriting and relaxed spelling and grammar (spelling was never his strong point, apparently). We also got to see a copy of the London Missionary Society’s paper News From Afar, which contains Mervyn’s first published piece (although he had had a letter printed in a previous issue) called Ways of Travelling, which he illustrates with small pictures of various modes of transport he’d seen in China. These both showed that he his creative impulses were evident from an early age. Dr Peake’s photographs of the Spirit Way to the Eastern Imperial Tombs, with their great, paired statues of noble beasts lining a rough road through an otherwise featureless, rubble-strewn plain would seem to have a definite bearing on the Hall of Bright Carvings in Titus Groan, the first room in Gormenghast into which we zoom after the long and medium shots describing the exterior of the castle and its details. Some of Peake’s notes for a putative 50s stage adaptation of Gormenghast were included here, written in a more individual and freely flowing hand, and adorned with his sketch of the Hall’s indifferent curator, Rotcodd, dozing in his hammock, slung between two of the exquisite sculptures (which you can see on page 8 of the new illustrated Gormenghast edition).

From China we travelled to Sark, the small Channel Island to the east of Guernsey. Mervyn was, from 1933-4, part of an artists’ colony established here by his old Eltham teacher Eric Drake, and returned on many subsequent occasions. Indeed, he lived there with his wife Maeve and their children for a magical interlude between 1946 and 1949, finding it a haven within which to recover from the shocks of the war. His 1953 fable Mr Pye was set on the island, and we saw one of his notebooks with sketches for the book, one of them seemingly elucidated from the Rorschach blot of and ink stain and smudge. A poem is also included, Love Has Left Us (which I can’t find in the Collected Poems volume), which presumably comes from the post war period in which his poetry expressed feelings of self-doubt and distance akin to post-traumatic numbness. A sketch of a pirate from Captain Slaughterboard indicated the fascination which all things nautical, and in particular piratical, had for Peake throughout his life (which made him such a perfect choice to illustrate Treasure Island and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). His 1944 book of illustrated nonsense verse Rhymes Without Reason was open here to How Mournful to Imagine, with its pensive and melancholy elephant incongruously reclining on a tropical island against a backdrop of a sky richly composed of searing oranges and yellows as it imagines the huge flaps of its ears being used ‘by pirates in some purple bay’. The elephant reclines against a palm tree, whose air of exoticness appealed to Peake. He insisted on buying one to plant outside their house on Sark, and wrote a semi-autobiographical short story, I Bought A Palm Tree, in about 1948, which we heard his son Sebastian read at a listening post (it is included on the British Library CD of readings from the miscellany Peake’s Progress, edited by Maeve after Mervyn’s death). In her introduction to the story in Peake’s Progress, Maeve records rather regretfully that the subsequent tenants chopped the tree down.

The manuscript for an unpublished and unperformed play called An Escape from 1951 was an attempt at a satirical comic dystopia, a lighter offshoot of 1984’s extrapolation of post war British and world society. The island once more becomes a place of refuge for dissidents and outcasts, as it would in the moving conclusion to Maeve Gilmore’s recently published continuation of her husband’s work and resolution of her own feelings towards him after the years of his lengthy decline, Titus Awakes. The notebook for Maeve’s memoir A World Away was displayed here, open to her description of her first visit to Mervyn’s art strewn flat in Battersea, richly and colourfully decorated and painted so that you almost failed to notice its essential squalor. ‘It was the most romantic place I’d ever been’, she writes in the notebook, a sentiment which is slightly expanded upon in the finally published version to ‘the most beautiful and the most romantic place I had been to. I can remember nothing of that first visit, except that I knew that I must and would return there’. Maeve wrote the memoir in pencil in a swift and flowing hand with no corrections (at least on this page), directly and powerfully setting down the unedited flow of vivid and painfully felt memory. Sark could be found in Gormenghast, too, or rather outside it. One of the notebooks in which Peake wrote the books was displayed, this one written in pencil and open to the chapter The Roses Were Stones (found on page 137 in the illustrated edition). This details Flay’s exile from Gormenghast, his intitially reluctant communion with nature as he becomes a wild man in the Twisted Woods. The caves he finds bored into the slopes of Gormenghast Mountain and which he makes the bedchambers of his new home are, we imagine, transposed from the shores of Sark.

From Sark we plunged back in to the literary world of London. The original self-made booklet of The Dwarf of Battersea, a mock ballad which Mervyn made for Maeve in 1937, recalls their early years in the capital when they lived at 163 Battersea Church Road. Mervyn was delighted to discover that this was opposite St Mary’s church, where William Blake had married his beloved Catherine Boucher. We saw the cover, from which the titular critter gurns out with a gap-toothed leer, and the title page, all carefully written out in his neatest cursive handwriting. It declares itself to be ‘Ye olde Ballade concerning ye yellow dwarfe of Battersea, being a true and trustworthy account of his death at ye hand of ye repulsive artist Master Mervyn Peake when defending ye gloriously beautiful and beguiling charmer Maeve in the year of Our Lord 1937’. It is, in effect, a peculiar sort of love letter. Peake’s love of the grotesque is also evident in his illustrated article London Fantasy in a copy of World Review from 1949, which was displayed here. ‘What a city for a head hunter’ he declares, his term for the delight he took in observing and sketching passers by who had interesting features. He always referred to heads rather than faces when capturing such fleeting faces on paper, and many of his most memorable characters have interestingly shaped bonces, with correspondingly expressive hair. In the article, Peake goes on to outline his interest in ‘the misfits, the loafers, the overflow’. These are the kind of people who drift down into the underground world in Titus Alone, ‘a habitation under the earth…under the river’ where we find ‘the beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits…the dreamers and the scum of the earth’ (Titus Alone p.132). Dylan Thomas undoubtedly fell into one or more of the above categories, and was acquainted well-enough to send a begging note to Mervyn and Maeve (principally Maeve, who he evidently felt was more receptive) which was included. Hurriedly scrawled on a scrap of paper, it read ‘My dear Maeve will you please lend me coat and trousers for a day’. Needless to say, they were never to see the suit again, and probably didn’t expect to. There’s also a letter from Larry from 1952 in which he regretful announces his rejection of plans to stage Mervyn’s play The Wit to Woo. It was part of a luvvie round which the play made, with vague promises made and hopes raised before being dashed again, a process which did much to erode Mervyn’s spirits. Sketches from his Wit to Woo notebook are made in brown ink (ink that’s faded, presumably) including Old Man Devius sitting in his elevating bed, which was intended to rise above the stage floor with the actor in it. The earliest of the books in which Peake wrote the Gormenghast books is open to its first page, which includes a sketch of the tower of flints and is dated October 3rd 1940. Rather charmingly, there is a message written in this inside cover reading ‘if found please return to..’. The address given is Warningcamp, Arundel, Sussex, the village near to Dr Peake’s house in Burpham to which Mervyn and Maeve moved in early 1940 in time for the birth of their first son, Sebastian. At the listening post, we were able to hear an extract from the 24th August 1964 BBC broadcast of the epic narrative poem The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a myth of the Blitz and a definite inspiration for Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, one of the great novelistic hymns of praise to the city. This was a dramatic reading by Marjorie Westbury and Marius Goring, the latter familiar to me from his parts in classic Powell and Pressburger movies such as The Spy in Black, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes. The spiky Bartokian score, with its piano, winds and restless percussion, was composed by Tristram Cary, whose music for the first Doctor Who Dalek story was heard in the same year. An excellent compilation of his music from a wide variety of sources (‘works for film, television, exhibition and sculpture’ as the subheading has it) was recently released on Trunk Records, with the title It’s Time For Tristram Cary suggesting that recognition is long overdue.

Germany effectively means the war, and although Peake was never able to fully to put his talents to use as a war artist, despite his best and continual efforts to offer his services, he did get a commission from the journal The Leader to travel over to Europe with the writer Tom Pocock and provide sketches detailing the state of Europe in the immediate aftermath of VE Day. This section had as a backdrop a blown-up picture of Mervyn sketching in front of a bombed out building in his military greatcoat. There were several pages of his letters home to Maeve, which detailed some of his experiences, including his encounters with German children who had been members of the Nazi Youth. ‘It is a new thing for me to see hatred so manifest’ he wrote, and observes in particular a ’16 year old one-legged boy with grey hair’. He sounds like the Byelorussian boy in Elem Klimov’s war film Come And See, who by the end looks like an old and wizened man with a child’s body. He illustrated Tom Pocock’s article Hitler’s Problem Children with a sketch labelled as ‘Veteran Hitler Youth’, which appeared alongside several others of German street children. He witnessed the trial and sentencing in Bad Neuenahr, of four men accused of shooting a US airman who had bailed out of his plane and landed in their village (which he had shortly before been machine-gunning). They were all condemned to hang, and Peake sketched one of them, Peter Back, in his cell. His hunched and slightly deformed figure resembles the sketched portraits he’d made of Steerpike (as you can see on pages 96, 126 and 638 of the Illustrated Gormenghast). In a letter which was on display here, he confesses that ‘however wicked the person one feels the loneliness that a condemned man must have’. Tom Pocock, in a 1978 Times article produced in the display, remembered Peter Back as being ‘a pathetic little man with a club foot’ whom Peake had reluctantly agreed to sketch, realising that it was his duty to do so. In Pocock’s eyes, Mervyn ‘was essentially the gentle bohemian, the pacific humanitarian’. The red notebook in which he pasted his poems includes The Consumptive, Belsen, which records his feelings as he sketches a dying girl in the camp, and his horror at his own detachment. In his questioning of the very purpose or point of art in the face of such obscenely industrialised eradication of life he echoes Theodor Adorno’s assertion that ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’. His failure to feel sufficient empathy for the dying individuals induces feelings of guilt, and an implicit sense of complicity which would continue to haunt him (and many others) after the war. The poem has been crossed through with blue crayon, as if he had at some point wondered whether to erase it completely, and perhaps thus also erase the feelings which it attempted to articulate. The poem pasted opposite The Consumptive is The Palmerworm from 1938, one of his paeans to the prolixity of the inner worlds of the imagination which, in this juxtaposition, seems to hark back to a time of innocence forever lost. His promise not to betray the ‘last weak cough of her small, trembling head’ is realised in the sketches displayed, Girl Coughing and Dying Girl in Blanket, which are painfully intimate but, in their observation of detail, don’t rob these people of their individuality in their final moments. The large black eyes of the girl in the blanket recall the description of the abused young woman Black Rose in Titus Alone, whose ‘pupils gaped like well-heads’, and who is surely drawn from the people Peake saw in Belsen.

Gormenghast is an imaginary realm, but as we have by now realised, one which includes many elements of the real, of experience, emotion and transfigured memory. There were several of the original notebooks in which it was first written here. Most are accompanied by sketches and marginal doodles, as if Peake needed to visualise the characters and settings about which he was writing in concrete form. In a manuscript written in pencil, with several crossings out and corrections, we see a picture of Flay in the midst of a lanky-legged stride, his knees muffled by bandages (page 300 of the Illustrated Gormenghast) alongside a sketch of Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan. In another, in ink this time, there is a sketch of the Prunesquallors with a cheeky cherub hovering above (page 544 of the Illustrated Gormenghast), and the dialogue is all indented on both sides. Another contains The Reverie of Alfred Prunesquallor (p.283 in IG), which sounds like a parody of TS Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, and is one of several passages of individual reverie written in the unpunctuated stream of consciousness style of the final chapters of Ulysses. Ink spattered corrections wind in from the margins and there is a sketch of who’s sitting where around the table at Titus’ first birthday breakfast (p.280, IG). In a significantly larger book, written in the now familiar faded brown ink, is a section of chapter 39 of Gormenghast featuring Barquentine (‘he had been sitting with his only leg drawn up to his face’ – p.566). In a manner which suggests that Peake’s imagination tended to be roving in all sorts of directions whilst he was writing, there are several surrounding sketches, some of Barquentine, including one of him looking out over a tower and roofscape (p.235 IG), one of a woman’s face in the margins, and a framed one of a raven. There’s also a poem written along the bottom page edge, at right angles to the main text, called The Flight in which, appropriately enough, Peake observes how ‘my mind sped/Suddenly far/From me; it ceased to be mine,/It fled’. Reactions to Gormenghast were included. Peake had sent his first draft to Graham Greene, an acquaintance who was one of the directors at the publishers Eyre and Spottiswood. Greene’s response, written on fine blue letter paper, addressed as being sent from the Reform Club (straight from the heart of the Establishment), is neatly written and pulls no punches in its harshly admonitory tone. His initial response to early extracts had been positive, but here he declares ‘I was very disappointed in a lot of it and frequently wanted to wring your neck because it seems to me you were spoiling a first class book by laziness’. Peake was taken aback by Greene’s criticism, but respected his opinion, and set to making some extensive revisions and cuts which were probably necessary and gave greater shape and form to his initial imaginative outpourings. Another letter here from 1958, some years subsequent to the publication of the first two books, was written by CS Lewis, who praises Peake in a somewhat pinched and formal style. ‘May I make as free as to tell you’, he enquires with immaculate politeness, ‘what a profound impression your Titus Groan and Gormenghast are making on me’. He goes on to make a few remarks about the eclipse of imaginative writing in the face of the kitchen sink movement towards realism in the late 50s. ‘People all seem to want a “slice of life” or a “comment on life”’, he hyphenates with evident distaste for such things. Gormenghast, on the other hand, ‘has the hallmark of a true myth’. There were tentative attempts at bringing this myth to the stage in the 50s, which never came to fruition, but we could see here a sketch which Peake made of Swelter for the project. From the BBC’s millennial attempt to bring the first two books to the small screen, there were production sketches of the castle by Christopher Hobbs, which show the influence of classical Chinese architecture which he explicitly drew upon for the adaptation.

Finally, we arrive at Titus Alone, departing from any geographical anchor. A manuscript with the opening line ‘Out of the shadows, Two Voices’ conjures up the disorienting atmospheres of the theatre of the absurd, and the sparse, decontextualised dialogue which ensues furthers this mood, and suggests an affinity with the work of Samuel Beckett, too. The manuscript includes the sketch of a mule, which engages in a savage duel with a camel early on in the story, and of Muzzlehatch, the noble headed but distant father figure of the novel whom Peake seemed to particularly like depicting. There was a 1958 letter on display from Eyre and Spottiswood, signed by ‘Maurice’ (Maurice Temple-Smith), which discusses the manuscript for Titus Alone, and expresses reservations about the introduction of a technologised tyranny. The editor suggests that ‘in general, I do think you should cut out all or nearly all the “science fiction” elements in the second half of the book’. He wanted the scientist and his death ray removed as he didn’t think they fitted in with the tone of the rest of the novel. Mervyn was too ill to put up any resistance by this stage. It had taken all his energy to finish the book in the first place. When it was published by Eyre and Spottiswood in 1959, it was in a heavily edited form, with most of the contemporary and futuristic elements excised. It wasn’t until Langdon Jones’ painstaking reconstruction for the Penguin Classics version published in 1970 that the book appeared in the form closest approximating Peake’s intentions. One of the very few pages of Titus Awakes which Mervyn wrote were here, the last glimpse of Gormenghast which he would be able to communicate before the gates slammed shut for good. It’s a skeletal fragment from which Maeve built, and which stills manages to summon such memorable lines as ‘they sang of joy, with murder in their eyes’. This page is dated, with a certain valedictory finality, July 16 1960. There is a note which she wrote, prefacing her own continuation, which reads almost as if this were some manuscript discovered by an adventurer into an unexplored region. ‘From here onwards the content and the writing becomes too difficult to decipher, and from now on, I, like Titus, will be alone in his wanderings’.

Across from the main body of the exhibition, a short film brought to life a series of frames for a proposed children’s TV programme, Just a Line, which showed what could be done with the simplest of artistic techniques and a vivid imagination. Several of Peake’s illustrations from the Alice books were hung here, too. Down the Rabbit Hole depicted the white rabbit’s initial flight down a particularly earthy corridor, the surrounding tips of roots looking like crackling forks of lightning speeding him on his way. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party has a Hatter with a very Kenneth Williams flare of the nostrils, which is undoubtedly coincidental, although Williams did go on to appear in The Wit To Woo when it finally made it to the stage in 1957. The legend here informed us that Mervyn had ‘head hunted’ his Mad Hatter in a telephone box in Kings Cross. The Duchess, described as ‘very ugly’, is another of Mervyn’s heads (as opposed to faces), with eccentrically bunched hair containing a small selection of miniature fruit adding a touch of Carmen Miranda exoticism, in addition to a choking serpentine coil of pearls. The Jabberwocky has a terrifyingly gaping avian maw with a gullet that looks like a tube tunnel. Peake made the observation that children liked to be mildly scared, as longterm viewers of Doctor Who have always attested. His Cheshire Cat certainly has a genuine look of demented evil about it. The Jabberwocky bears some of the signs of rough revision which, according to Fabian Peake at the Ways With Words festival in Dartington, he used to effect by scraping the surface of the paper away with the edge of a razor blade. Such alterations, evident in the original, wouldn’t come through in the copies, of course. There are numbers pencilled in beneath several of these illustrations (31/4, 5.5 etc) which presumably refer to the size of the reproduction. The White Knight, in all his ragged and shambolic nobility, is accompanied by a letter from Brian Sibley, who recently adapted the Gormenghast books for BBC radio, to Maeve in which he declares it to be his favourite of the Alice illustrations. There are several white corrections to some of the lines, which again gives an insight into Peake’s working methods. Queen Alice also bears signs of revision, with clouds and a skyline having seemingly been whited out. The Red Queen, resting its chin on Alice’s knee, most definitely looks like Kenneth Williams, albeit in drag and with a curly-haired wig.

Echoes of Goya - Landscape With Figures
There was more Peake across town in the display rooms of the National Archives at Kew. These were some of his wartime propaganda pictures, which he produced speculatively in 1940 in the hope that they might be used by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. This never happened, and they have languished in the Public Record Office ever since. They take the form of an artist’s portfolio as produced by Adolf Hitler (of whom Peake did an imaginary ‘self portrait’, with blank-eyed stare and an air of sweaty fear and paranoia). Generic titles were given to compositions featuring death and devastation. In a way, it’s Peake’s version of Goya’s dark Horrors of War series, although these images came from his imagination rather than from observation. His father’s tales and pictures of China may have provided inspirations, as well as young Mervyn’s witnessing of the occasional operation. This is particularly evident in the picture (not included here) of a body laid out on a table, one leg ending in ragged flesh and splintered bone rather than a foot. There were seven of the original portfolio on display here, including the cover in which the traditional palette with brush is pierced by the nozzle of a rifle, and a thick blob of paint oozes over the edge, a dark, polluting sludge. Portrait of a Young Girl is a head and torso study in which she clutches at a bleeding bullet wound to her breast with gnarled and bony fingers. Landscape With Figures shows a huddled group of figures fleeing a burning city, a hazily rendered cart piled high with corpses seeming to be a direct reference to Goya’s series. Polish Dawn has two figures being shot by a firing squad, of which we only see the barrel ends of a couple of rifles. As with Goya, these pictures are all about the consequences of war, and the invading armies are nowhere directly depicted, remaining impersonal presences, marshalled beyond the boundaries of the frame. The jagged, asymmetrical fingers of stone, the fragmentary shells of buildings which form the backdrop to the picture, immediately bring to mind the opening description of the castle of Gormenghast in Titus Groan. Peake describes how the tower of flints ‘arose like a mutilated finger from amongst the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven’. These ruins, resembling coralline forms on a dead sea bed, also show the influence of surrealism, of the shapes and forms arising from featureless plains in the paintings of Dali and Ernst and others.

All of which suggests that the WAAC may have adjudged the contents of Peake’s Hitler portfolio to be a little too aestheticised, a little too artfully grotesque for the blunt purposes of propaganda. There’s a sense that he’s almost trying too hard, and his attempt to shock denies his figures the element of humour or pathos which usually invests his grotesques with a counterbalancing touch of humanity. They fail as propaganda partly because they are so abject and hopeless that they fail to engage the viewer’s empathy. The same artifice seen in Polish Dawn can also be found in Dutch Interior, in which surrealist ruins once more loom outside like giant cubist sculptures or Polynesian idols, and another female figure slumps lifelessly in a carefully arranged pose, her shoulder jutting up at an unnaturally acute and bony angle. Reclining Figure by Hitler stands another ragged and desperate victim in a death pose before a firing squad execution post. Seascape has a drowned head as a piece of flotsam bobbing just above the level of the waves. It’s an image which reminds me of the Steve Parkhouse anti-war story Home is the Sailor, published in the British comic Warrior in 1984. These are all powerful works, but they are the products of the imagination (and a gothic imagination at that) taken from sources other than direct experience or observation of conflict and its consequences. It was only when Peake did experience something of the effect of war, and encountered some of its victims that he was able to depict them with real empathy. He tended then to depict individuals in often quite intimate portraits, and resisted the temptation to sketch the dramatic and pictorially surreal ruins of German towns and cities through which he passed. These people’s anguish, suffering and shock were evident and there was no need to contrive its expression through melodramatic staging. Nevertheless, these pictures are worth seeing for the light that they cast on Peake’s work as a whole. They can perhaps be best appreciated within that context, rather than as a genuine or even symbolic depiction of the war during which they were created.

Both of these exhibitions were part of the celebrations of the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth. So if you’ve never read the Gormenghast books, or any of his poetry, or seen any of his book illustrations or paintings, then there’s no more appropriate time to begin. Mervyn Peake:The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Aldred and edited by G.Peter Winnington, includes a wide range of his art, including selections from the Hitler Portfolio and photos of pages from the Gormenghast notebooks. And the recently republished (by the British Library) Peake’s Progress contains a good selection of his non-Gormenghast writings, including a playscript of The Wit To Woo. So set off on your voyage now - there are many worlds to discover.

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