I remember how impressed I was when, as a boy, I first visited Mervyn and Maeve Peake and discovered, contrary to my rational expectations, that they actually did live in a great, grey Gothic house surrounded by mysterious foliage! True, this Peake mansion was just a large Victorian family house in an otherwise ordinary suburban street on the southern edge of London, within walking distance of my own home, but I hesitated on the path to the recessed front door, conscious of the sharp rattle of rain on the rhododendrons, beginning to wonder if, after all, the author of Titus Groan affected as bizarre a life as his creations. I thought twice before pressing the bell.
The door was opened by a beautiful woman with startling hazel eyes and honey-coloured hair who introduced herself as Maeve Peake but who might, save for her warmth, have been the Countess of Groan. She had invited me to tea in response to my note about an article I was writing on Mervyn. As she led me through the shadowy hall I glimpsed at least one white cat, and felt watched by the gallery of stuffed birds, perching everywhere there was not a painting. When we entered a comfortable living room Mervyn rose, with some difficulty, from his armchair to shake hands. He was already suffering from the early stages of the illness which would kill him, but we did not know that then, and I found him pleasant, humorous, courteous, perhaps a little vague and inclined to tire easily. I also felt that for the first time I had met an authentic genius. In my enthusiasm I stayed too long, but in spite of that was invited again, coming to enjoy a valuable friendship with the Peakes and their children, Sebastian, Fabian and Clare, who were of my own generation.
Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911, the son of a Congregational missionary doctor, and his first eleven years were spent surrounded by the exotic and often wretched sights of China in her imperial decline. He had already shown considerable skill as a writer and artist, and when with his parents he returned to England, to 'Woodcroft', the same Wallington house where I met him, he was sent to a school in Surrey where his talents were recognised and encouraged. At Croydon College of Art and, ultimately, the Royal Academy Schools he did well and began to mature as a draughtsman and a poet.
Flamboyant, enthusiastic, handsome, he was thoroughly dedicated to his art. For two years he lived on Sark where he helped found the Sark school of painters. By 1935 he had an established reputation as a painter, some recognition as a poet, and was back in London, venturing out almost every day on what he called his 'head-hunting expeditions', to sketch the people of the city. He became a part-time teacher at the Westminster School of Art, continued to publish his poetry, designed stage sets (notably for Capek's The Insect Play), planned novels, children's books and elaborate drawing projects. Mervyn received a number of commissions for portraits (Walter de la Mare, Ralph Richardson, Graham Greene and others) which were published in the London Mercury. In 1939 his first book, for children, appeared, written and illustrated by him (most copies were subsequently destroyed in an incendiary raid). Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor shows all the relish for human eccentricity, all the sense of fun, all the generous gusto Peake brought to his life. As well as his talent for comic drawing, it revealed a surprising talent for comic writing.
In 1936 Mervyn had met Maeve Gilmore, a shy student at the Westminster School of Art, and within a year they were married. As always, Mervyn discussed his ideas - his work in progress - with Maeve and she became actively involved in the conception of all his projects. Sometimes, on their frequent visits to Mervyn's parents near Arundel Castle, they would discuss what eventually became the first Titus Groan book. When war was declared in September 1939, Maeve was several months pregnant with Sebastian. As the air raids grew intense, Mervyn moved his wife and baby to Warningcamp, near his parents' home, and while awaiting call-up began offering his services to the War Artists Commission.
In spite of all his efforts, Mervyn was, perhaps inevitably, sent into the infantry where life became increasingly anxious and terrifying. His army career was a disaster: inadvertently, he burned down his barracks, and then had a serious nervous breakdown. At this time he had been working on Titus Groan, writing it wherever and whenever he got the chance. Mervyn provides some insight as to his methods of working and the ways in which he absorbed and used experience in his description an early commission, which was to record the daily work of a glass-blowing factory near Birmingham.
I found on entering the huge, ruinous, grimy wharf-walled buildings a world upon its own, a place of roaring fires and monstrous shadows. It appealed immediately to my imagination. Not only did I start to draw at once, for the glassblowers, weaving to and fro through searing lights, were strangely rhythmic, as though in the spell of their craft, as they 'gathered' from the furnace-mouths or juggled with the molten sand - but I found at the same time that phrases were forming in my mind, and verbal images, tangential or even remote from what was actually taking place before my eyes, began to follow one another. And so what I actually wrote was an attempt to give substance to the firelit flutter of words and images - a substance very different from the drawings that I made, though dependent in the first place upon the visual impression of jugglers in a world of grime and firelight.
During this time Mervyn produced a fine series of pictures, a book of poems and many images which went into his later novels. 'His head and hands are built for sin' begins the first poem of The Glassblowers - which could be a description of Steerpike, the protagonist, in spite of the title, of Titus Groan.
Even before The Glassblowers was commissioned, Mervyn had continued working. In spite of all set-backs, by 1944 he had published his first volume of poems, Shapes and Sounds, two more children's books, Ride a Cock Horse and Rhymes Without Reason (in which he revealed his talent for nonsense verse), and had illustrated, among others, The Hunting of the Snark, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Quentin Crisp's All This And Bevin Too. As his technical skills improved, his ambitions grew and gradually Titus Groan began to take on its author's own increased assurance and authority. Mervyn was one of the first civilians into Belsen, working with Tom Pocock for The Leader: Pocock wrote the text and Mervyn provided the drawings. Pocock, quoted in John Batchelor's study Mervyn Peake, gives us a description which any of Mervyn's friends would recognise:
His dark, sombre good looks and the deep-set, troubled eyes might have belonged to a most forceful person. But he was intensely gentle ... a delightful and generous companion.
Mervyn left a record, in poetry and drawings, of what he had seen in Belsen. Every inmate's face is the face of an individual, drawn with profound respect. The scenes, translated into his fiction, occur again and again, most fully in Titus Alone. Mervyn never exaggerated. He described what he saw. By the end of the war he had completed the manuscript of Titus Groan. This was published in 1946 to considerable critical praise from the likes of Graham Greene, Henry Reed and Elizabeth Bowen - but it sold poorly.
Eventually, partly for financial reasons, partly for much-needed tranquility (with Fabian a further addition to the family) Mervyn and Maeve went to live on Sark, enjoying something of an idyll with their two sons, while Mervyn worked on commissions and wrote Gormenghast. He had been witness to some of the most appalling manifestations of human brutality, but the war had also given him a wealth of imagery and ideas which became drawings, paintings, poems, prose and, increasingly, plays. Always a prolific worker, Mervyn enjoyed a growing reputation. At length Sark life proved impractical and with his daughter, Clare, on the way he and the family returned to London in 1949.
In 1950 Gormenghast was published. It received some excellent notices but, although Mervyn was awarded the Royal Society of Literature prize for both Gormenghast and The Glassblowers, contemporary taste was against him. We had entered the grey flannel decade. He was considered altogether too romantic - 'Peake's ok if you like your blackness utter', said one editor to me, dismissing him as little more than a bad horror writer. Mervyn's great comic and narrative gifts were never acknowledged, his eloquent and original use of language was ignored.
Those years, when the first signs of his illness began to appear, became increasingly difficult for the Peakes. Money was scarce and the books had small sales (both were eventually remaindered). His other novel, Mr Pye, also received praise and a prestigious prize, but it did not sell well, even after Mervyn had adapted it as a radio play. He tried his hand at more plays, but they, too, were unsuccessful. In 1957, when his play starring Kenneth Williams, The Wit To Woo, failed (the fashion was for Look Back In Anger), it became increasingly clear that Mervyn's symptoms were not merely those of nervous exhaustion. It was thought that he had contracted a virus in Belsen.
We believed at the time that he might recover and that the great flood of drawings, paintings, poems, short stories, novels and plays had merely slowed down for a while. But then, after joyously completing the last words of Titus Alone, sitting under the kitchen table at Woodcroft, Mervyn experienced a dramatic deterioration in his energies, and thereafter he declined rapidly. Astonishingly, he was still able to produce, for instance, his masterly drawings for Balzac's Droll Stories (The Folio Society 1961) and attempt a few other commissions, but soon, after a move to a more convenient house, it became impossible for Maeve to care for him at home and his last years were spent in institutions, most of which were depressing at best.
Now, with bitter irony, Mervyn's star began to rise again. A chance discussion with my friend Oliver Caldecott, then fiction editor at Penguin, resulted in Oliver's enthusiastic decision to republish all three books as Penguin Modern Classics and to have them illustrated with Mervyn's own drawings. This was to be a crucial turning point in Mervyn's career for, as soon as the public found him in easily available editions, his audience was assured. Almost everything he had written or drawn began to be reprinted.
My last vivid memory of Mervyn is in the garden of a mental hospital where Maeve and I were visiting him. Maeve was distressed because it seemed Mervyn was being bullied, perhaps tortured, and was certainly being stolen from. Mervyn had no understanding of why she was troubled but lifted his hand, by then very palsied, in a gesture of comfort. When this didn't seem to work he rose with our help and, in his dressing gown and pyjamas, began to shuffle by himself across the grass, trying to hop on one leg and perform a little comic dance meant to cheer up Maeve. Eventually Maeve's brother, running a small private home for people with Alzheimer's, was able to look after him. Thanks to James Gilmore, Mervyn's last days were happy. In November 1968 he died, in the arms (Maeve told me) of a nurse called Rosie, to whom he had become attached.
Unfortunately, Mervyn's increased popularity made him something of a cult figure. When alive he had been too unwell to counter the image of him as a doomed romantic, tortured by visions of cosmic horror, obsessed with presentiments of his own tragedy, and now that he was dead the media continued to picture him in this way. They presented an image far removed from the typical reality of Mervyn with a cat on one arm of his chair, a child on the other, a cigarette dangling from his lip, listening to the radio, making jokes and doing, for instance, the drawings commissioned for The Folio Society's wonderful Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948).
This playful, sardonic man had more of the cheery, tolerant personality of a Leigh Hunt than the profound self-involvement of a Byron. His enjoyment of and respect for children made him arguably the best child portraitist of his day. He sympathised with the injustices children suffered. He had a natural, unsentimental sympathy for the underdog. He had a strong, essentially Christian sense of egalitarianism which refused the narrow confines and necessary evasions of political cant. Like most thorough-going romantics, he saw himself as a thorough-going rationalist. He had, moreover, a deep respect for the classical method, which is clear in all his work. He worked regularly as a teacher at the Central School of Art and his classes, specifically those on technique, were stimulating. The vulgar representation of him as a wild naïf was in no way discouraged by Mervyn's refusal to take himself seriously and pretend, when bored by questions, to have no truck with analysis of any sort.
By the mid-1980s, however, with all his work in print, the range of Mervyn's achievement was generally acknowledged. A major exhibition, displaying the whole spectrum of his talents, was staged at the South Bank and finally gave the lie to the myth of Mervyn as some kind of Gothic eccentric. One of the impressions taken away from the exhibition was of Peake's enormous sense of comedy. It is in the end, I believe, that comedy which most distinguishes Peake's greatest prose work, just as his sympathetic but ironic eye distinguishes his best portraits.
Although inclined to reject any explanations of his work which smacked of academic abstraction, Mervyn was nonetheless a thoroughly conscious artist, constantly refining and increasing his techniques. That he knew exactly what he was doing is demonstrated by one of the most illuminating essays on the art of drawing, The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946). In so many ways the quintessential bohemian - handsome, alert, witty, eloquent, talented, dandified - he hated airy talk of art or politics and the elevated status many artists claimed for themselves. His talents were so plentiful, his spirit so generous, that he could write in one of his poems, 'I am too rich already, for my eyes mint gold'. He identified himself thoroughly with 'the common man' - his heroes, like Mr Pye, were often very ordinary indeed. Fundamentally his imagination was, without question, a romantic one, but perhaps paradoxically, it is his humanity, his less idiosyncratic gifts (including the gift of farce), which distinguished him from other great visionary novelists like Wyndham Lewis, Zamyatin or Cowper Powys.
These abilities and his genuine love of people, his concern for others, his relish for life, make Peake, in my opinion, the greatest imaginative writer of his age. Neither Tolkien nor T.H. White, for instance, has Peake's monumental complexity or originality, his moral and formal integrity. Perhaps that is why Peake was so often praised by writers most identified with naturalistic novels of character, like Elizabeth Bowen or Angus Wilson, who also appreciated the moral qualities of Peake's novels. He offers a solid clue to his sentiments (and his method) in the opening sentence of Titus Groan:
Gormenghast ... would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored ... those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.
When Maeve died, as courageously as she had lived, in 1983, she had seen her husband's name firmly established as one of Britain's leading artists. A fine painter in her own right, she had devoted herself to Mervyn and her children with a dedication which had frequently meant giving up her own ambitions as a painter. Her last work, however, in the years following Mervyn's death, has an almost frightening intensity, as she tried, somehow, to come to terms with their tragedy. She, more than any of us, felt the loss of a man of unique vitality and humanity, as generous in his personal life as he was with his talent. She had shared in his delight at his extraordinary gifts, about which he always seemed faintly astonished. She had admired his habit of self-deprecation, of minimising his gifts in conversation, and sometimes felt frustration when he offered them to anyone who liked them, in an act of sharing that rarely contained any thought of money. His talents were used to describe and inform the world in all its variety; to celebrate the human spirit - and that, I believe, is why these books are assured of immortality.
Above all, the Titus stories remain a joyous celebration, the achievement of a man who delighted in the world and its works, who believed profoundly in the value of human individuality and who dedicated himself to recording it in all its strange and beautiful manifestations. In 1949, in his introduction to a collection of his drawings he wrote:
If I am asked whether all this is not just a little 'intense' - in other words, if it is suggested that it doesn't really matter, I say that it matters fundamentally. For one may as well be asked, 'Does life matter?' If a man matters, then the highest flights of his mind and his imagination matter. His vision matters, his sense of wonder, his vitality matters. It gives lie to the nihilists and those who cry 'Woe!' in the streets. For art is the voice of man, naked, militant, and unashamed ... ... As the earth was thrown from the sun, so from the earth the artist must fling out into space, complete from pole to pole, his own world which, whatsoever form it takes, is the colour of the globe it flew from, as the world itself is coloured by the sun.
And finally, for all its shadows and dark mysteries, the world of Titus Groan is indeed richly coloured by the sun.
For an account of life with Mervyn Peake I would recommend Maeve Gilmore's own A World Away (1970), which is one of the most moving memoirs of its kind. Sebastian Peake, too, has written an interesting account of his father and family, A Child of Bliss (1989), and John Watney has written a good general biography, Mervyn Peake (1976). John Batchelor's book of the same title (1974) contains more specific criticism. Peake's Progress (1978), a chronological compendium of Peake's shorter work, various drawings and plays, contains biographical and bibliographical notes by Maeve Peake and is highly recommended.