Monday, 24 April 2017

Mervyn Peake


There is something of a bookish theme to this month's posts. This time I want to have a look at a great British writer and illustrator.

Mervyn Peake

Many of you will know him as the author of the Gormenghast Trilogy but long before he became the remarkable creator of three cult novels he was known as an illustrator of books - other people's books

He was commissioned to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure island in 1949 by Eyre and Spottiswoode
The results are some of the finest examples of his work

The Old Buccaneer (Billy Bones)

Treasure Island was first published in serial form between 1881 and 1882. It was originally written for Stevenson's stepson but when published in full in 1883 quickly became a bestseller

It is still selling and has been adapted many times for television and the cinema. A new film version starring Donald Sutherland is being filmed even now in Puerto Rico. Eddie Izzard is to play Long John Silver

Blind Pew with Jim

Peake drew on his childhood knowledge of the novel (it is said that he had memorized every word of it as a little boy) and the finished illustrations are both dramatic and acutely observed.

His primary influence was Stanley L.Wood, a Victorian illustrator whose work schoolboy Peake first found in his monthly editions of Boys Own - a popular magazine that had begun in 1879 then revamped by the Lutterworth Press in 1939

"There all hands were already congregated"

The illustrations for Treasure Island are drawn using pen and ink but the technique is remarkably subtle - as in the drawing above in which the mariners' bodies are outlined by the setting sun. This is a very simple device but extremely difficult to pull of successfully

Jim on the jib-boom

Again, pure technique creates the vertiginous effect of Jim clinging to the boom for dear life.

I have enlarged this illustration (above) deliberately so that you can see the remarkable way in which Peake has created cloud and sea with simple lines or detailed hatching

What really makes this picture so effective, however, is the boy's terrified facial expression and staring eyes!

Long John Silver

Long John Silver is of course the tale's real villain but in this, our first introduction to him in person, Peake has made him almost likable - which he was, at least at the start of the novel!

Here (above) he depicts him leaning on his crutch at a jaunty angle. His knowing smile, however, should tells us to watch out for this singular character!

Israel Hands falling

Figures in space are always difficult but Peake pulls off this picture of Hands falling from the rigging by a very clever use of vertical lines, curving in space with the limp body while the face is itself a death mask

"I plucked furiously at the line which held me to him" - Jim

Later, when Long John Silver has revealed his true character, Peake shows him pulling a captive Jim by a rope's end, clutched dramatically in Silver's clenched mouth

For me this is the best of the Treasure Island illustrations and worthy of Goya - whom, incidentally, Peake revered. In Peake's book The Craft of the Lead Pencil there is a section called 'How to stare' in which he stresses the importance for an artist to closely observe his subject

To see exactly what Peake means, look closely at Silver's rumpled clothing, the whiteness of his gnarled knuckles or the texture of his hair and skin in the illustration above. Fantastic!

"The boarders swarmed over the fence like monkeys"

As someone who tries to both paint and write I can only sit in dumb admiration at Mervyn Peak's skills as both writer and illustrator.

The few illustrations from Treasure Island shown above barely touch on the full range of his work but I hope this brief introduction has given you a taste for this particular artist

If you would like to read more about Mervyn Peake, then I recommend Malcolm Yorke's splendid biography, published by John Murray (2000)

The illustrations for this article were taken from the Drawings of Mervyn Peake, published by Davis-Poynter (1974) with an introduction by Hilary Spurling

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