Marvel at Mervyn Peake's art from childhood to Gormenghast

Detail: The Billiard Marker from The Hunting of the Snark, 1941. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

The visual archive of writer, artist and illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) has been acquired for the nation by the British Library from the Peake Estate, comprising over 300 original illustrations, including drawings from his critically acclaimed Gormenghast series.

Also included are original illustrations for his own books for children Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle and other classic works of English literature, such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark, Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Also included are unpublished early works, preliminary sketches, and drawings of famous literary, theatrical and artistic figures such as Laurence Olivier and W.H. Auden. This acquisition brings Peake’s archive together in one place, making it fully accessible to the public for the first time.

Mervyn Peake was an English writer, artist and illustrator, best known for creating the fantasy trilogy Gormenghast. A Royal Academy trained artist of great versatility and inventiveness, he has been seen as arguably the finest children’s illustrator of the mid-20th century. Combining technical mastery with an innate ability to evoke fear, delight and wonderment in young readers, he redefined the cosy nature of children’s book illustrations.

Jim being restrained by the blind beggar Pew. Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Despite his originality, Peake’s fondness and respect for the work of other artists is evident in the archive, from the influence of Hogarth, Doré and Blake to Dickens’ illustrator Phiz and Boys’ Own artist Stanley L. Wood.

The archive is notable for Peake’s exquisite Treasure Island illustrations from 1949, which remain some of his finest work, described by critics as ‘tense, eerie and dramatic’ and ‘one of the few editions which have come near to meeting the demands of the author’s text’. Treasure Island was Peake’s favourite book and his love for the story is evident in the archive from the watercolour illustrations he painted aged 15, to the large number of preliminary sketches and annotated proofs which show his commitment to perfecting the 1949 edition.

'Floating Islands’ an early example of Peake’s surreal imagination. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Peake also wrote and illustrated original works for children including Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and a book of nonsense verse, Rhymes Without Reason (1944). The illustrations for all three books are present in the archive, offering a window into Peake’s playful and eccentric sense of humour as well as his aptitude for creating anthropomorphic creatures. Captain Slaughterboard has been credited as being ‘way ahead of its time’ as a book about a pacifist pirate who strikes up a relationship with an ambiguously-gendered Yellow Creature.

Drawings for an unpublished early work called The Moccus Book (1929) reveal Peake’s talent for creating fantasy worlds, and also show the importance of his early influences in his development as a writer and artist. His childhood in China, his love of reading, and his obsession with islands and isolation are all significant presences in the Moccus books as well as many of his later successes.

Highlights of the archive include:

- 27 illustrations, plus preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Treasure Island, some of Peake’s finest illustrations

- 10 illustrations of Gormenghast characters

- Illustrated early draft manuscript of Peake’s pirate children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor together with a complete set of final illustrations, in which Peake included hidden portraits of himself and his family in one of the pirate’s tattoos

- Juvenilia including watercolour illustrations of his favourite book Treasure Island, and his earliest surviving drawing depicting people he encountered on a Sunday afternoon walk while living in China, aged 7

- Drawings for early unpublished work The Moccus Book revealing his talent for creating fantasy worlds

- Illustrations and preliminary drawings for Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark

- Watercolour illustrations for television adaptation of his children’s book Letters From a Lost Uncle

- Illustrations for his 1953 magical realist novel Mr Pye

- Drawings of 15 well-known writers, artists and theatrical figures including Laurence Olivier, W H Auden and Peggy Ashcroft

The Visual Archive will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in 2022. There will be an opportunity to see highlights from the archive in future British Library exhibitions.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake, aged 7, circa 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake. 

Zoë Wilcox, curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives at the British Library, said: "Mervyn Peake sits in the great tradition of writer-artists like William Blake and Edward Lear for whom drawing is integrated into their writing process. Therefore it feels only right that this archive of illustrations should join the rest of Peake’s papers here at the British Library. In particular they convey how his sense of humour and idiosyncratic imagination made him the perfect illustrator and writer of children’s books, willing to risk scaring his readers while also making them laugh.

"Peake’s work has influenced creative artists working across many different genres from Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter to The Cure, and I hope that acquiring his Visual Archive for the nation will inspire many more budding creatives to be as boldly individualistic as he was."

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