The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition
On Monday night I was lucky enough to attend a special evening at the British Library, celebrating the work of Mervyn Peake. The night began with a special private viewing of the library’s new The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition.
The exhibition contained many of Peake’s original manuscripts and a lot of information about his life. I made lots of notes so will fill this post with the facts that interested me the most.
The majority of the Gormenghast Trilogy was written in lined notebooks and I was surprised to see that his beautiful illustrations were sketched alongside his writing, with the lines from the notebooks running straight through the drawings. I’d expected them to be in a separate sketch pad, but Peake clearly liked to have a strong image of each scene in his head before writing it. Almost all the drawings were done using the same pen that he used for writing.
I found most of Peake’s writing illegible and so was interested to read that his wife had similar trouble. In one of the notebooks that she used to write Titus Awakes she admitted that she struggled to decipher his notes and after a certain point she gave up:
…..from now on, I, like Titus will be alone in his wanderings.
Places that Influenced Gormenghast
Meryvn Peake was born in China and he lived there for the first twelve years of his life. The country had a big impact on his writing and its influence can be seen in several sections of the Gormenghast books.
The Hall of Bright Carvings was inspired by The Spirit Way at the Eastern Imperial Tombs, near Beijing.
I was also surprised to see Peake’s drawing of Gormenghast Castle. I had imagined it to be based on European castles, particularly those found in Eastern Europe, but his drawing showed it to look more like Chinese Palaces balancing on rocky outcrops. I wish I could have taken a photo of this illustration as I think you’d have been as surprised as I was.
Sark, one of the Channel Islands, was also a favourite place for Peake. Many of the place names in Gormenghast can be traced to Sark and the stacks of rocks found on the island echo those around Gormenghast.
The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition is at the British Library until 18th September and is entry is free.
The Launch of Titus Awakes
After viewing the exhibit we were treated to a wonderful discussion of the books with Sebastian Peake (son of Mervyn), China Mièville and Brian Sibley. Zoe Wanamaker, John Sessions and Miranda Richardson also read some extracts from the books. The power of the words combined with their acting ability makes me wonder if I should be listening to the audio version, instead of reading the print version.
We also heard a snippet of the new Radio 4 have serialisation of the Titus books and I was very impressed. The first episode is available to listen to on iPlayer now.
Titus Awakes, the fourth book in the series, was introduced to us. It was written by Maeve Gilmore (Mervyn Peake’s wife) and has a different feel to the other books. I didn’t realise that Mervyn Peake had plans for lots of different Titus books and I’m sorry that he died before he had the chance to write them. I look forward to seeing how Titus’s journey continues and wonder whether any more books will be written to continue his adventures.
I learnt so much over the course of the evening, but here are a few of my favourite facts:
- As a child Peake almost lost fingers to a camel, hence the “vile camel” in Titus Alone.
- The Dark Breakfast to celebrate Titus’s 1st birthday was written in 1942 as “occupational therapy” after Peake’s mental breakdown.
- Peake held his pen vertically as he wrote and illustrated as this is the way he was shown to do it by a calligrapher in China.
- Peake loved people spotting – sketching anyone who had interesting features.
- Graham Greene was the literary talent scout who spotted Gormenghast, but he was also the person who recommended removing all Peake’s illustrations from the original publication.
It was a wonderful evening and I’d like to thank Vintage for inviting me along and making me even more excited about reading The Gormenghast Trilogy.
For this week’s read-along discussion please see posts by other read-along participants:
(Links added as posts are published)