A singular artist: Sebastian Peake interviewed about Mervyn

This year is the fifitieth anniversary of the death of Mervyn Peake, author, poet, dramatist and wonderful illustrator. His son, Sebastian, is talking about him at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 3rd at 7.30 in Christchurch College and kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his father’s work.

He will be talking about his father’s children’s novel and work at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Bethwin Road, London, SE5 on June 22 at 3pm and 7.30pm. The collected poetic works of Mervyn Peake will be published by Carcanet in June.

The collected poetry is due to be published by Carcanet shortly. How has it been to try and bring out your father’s other work as poet and artist?

The Carcanet collection involved my working with the editor, Rob Maslen, who from the outset was someone that obviously admired and loved the work such that it became a labour of love as I unearthed over 80 poems never before published. With the help of my colleague, Alison Eldred, who was tireless in her digitalisation of the images, and Peter Winnington, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the subject added to the real spirit of teamwork.

Your father’s art seems to be simultaneously out of step with his time, yet deeply in step with it. Do you think this might be why he has not yet had the recognition, outside of Gormenghast, for his work?

My father’s art was not so much ‘out of step’ with the quotidian, more, that as the sharpest of observers he recorded both visually and verbally what he saw, as he saw it, which was not always what people wanted to see. Especially latter day commentators who, not nearly as observant, were unable to grasp what was in front of them, ie the originality of those observations. Easier to join the pack, than attempt real originality.

The world of Gormenghast is a singularly insular one, wrapped in ritual. How far was this influenced by his childhood in China and rural England?

China represented a fixed North Star in my father’s art as his first impressionable twelve years were spent in the country. The then disintegrating and corrupt Manchu Dynasty which precipitated the civil war of 1911, the very year my father was born, swept away the old notion of unchanging ritual and ushered in Sun Yat Sen and his southern revolutionaries, who went on to victory. The conflagration did not go unrecorded by Dr Peake, Mervyn ‘s father, who took many photographs of public executions, and helped with those left injured by the war. The Great Spirit Way leading into the Gobi and to the Imperial Tombs was a route taken by the Peake family on occasion with the vast granite animals on either side remaining for ever etched on the young artist’s mind. China therefore was fundamental to the way in which my father saw the world and was brought to the fore for the rest of his life in his writings and drawings.

How far do you feel that his written work was influenced by his artistic vision, effectively painting in words?

His written work conflated into the visual, the illustrative became the draughtsmanship, which became the poetry, which became the nonsense verse, which became the world that evolved around the dynamic ability to see, set down and evoke from the reader, viewer, student a unique view of our cosmos.

Will the dramatic works and the children’s works ever be republished?

I am working with someone at this very moment on the plays of which nine were written but only three ever performed. My prognosis is that indeed, yes, the performed plays will be reincarnated and the unperformed be staged at some point. Likewise the children’s books. I’m myself speaking about Captain Slaughterboard at a London arts festival later in the year, a book incidentally that a well-known English writer chose recently as the one he would take to his Desert Island.

How far do you feel that the war affected your father’s pst war work in terms of dealing with what he had witnessed at Belsen? Would that account for the despair that one can find in Titus Alone and Lamb?

The war fundamentally altered the way he saw life and the world especially after his visit to Germany in mid-June 1945. The impact of the destruction of the country, the hatred he saw in the glare received from civilians humiliated in defeat, and the captured guards he drew in the condemned cells,all precipitated his altered view of what can be done by humans to each other when an ‘opportunity’ arises. The Lamb, aka evil, is pointed to in such a way that it can represent nothing other than the assembled impressions left on him by that visit.

How do you feel that his reputation has developed? Is it a case of him finding his time for his readership?

His reputation has been, apart from the Titus Trilogy and the generally accepted view that his illustrations to certain classic texts; inimitable and destined to last within the canon of interpretive art for ever, have been slow to be accepted as the work of one individual, but as the tortoise and the hare tale tells us, the former in the end is there at the post in all his glory, when all the fuss about the current ‘star’ in whichever field of the arts one cares to name has been dumped by society’s transient nature, while the hare replaces his blown fuse.

In the recent Worlds of Fantasy programme, there was a comment that whilst Tolkien concentrated on the macro, Mervyn Peake developed the micro, building the intererior world. How far would you feel that that
is true?

I don’t recall ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ being used as descriptive use though one commentator did mention Tolkien as being like a general directing operations from afar while Mervyn Peake was ‘down there with the troops, were it was all happening’.

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