History is littered with tragic artists. Sensitive souls pouring their heart out onto the canvas with little if any reward, other than the satisfaction of creating beauty where there was none. Names like Van Gough, who never sold one of his own paintings, despite working for his art dealer brother Theo for a time, ringing through history. Less famous but only slightly less miserable was Francis Bacon, the painter not the statesman, who lived in his studio, only able to afford one rent, and brushed his teeth with bleach and dyed his hair black with boot polish to save money. Unlike Van Gough, Bacon followed the broad British tradition of being wittily sardonic about misfortune, particularly one’s own. Even before Bacon, the title for stiff upper lip tinged with humor in the face of horror went to fellow Englishman Mervyn Peake.
Peake is mostly known, to those whom he is known at all particularly outside Britain, as the author of the Gormenghast series of novels. Originally published between 1946 and 1959, the 2000 TV mini-series based on it launched the acting career of a young Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played the nominal ‘villain’ Steerpike. More an exercise in existentialism, it is the notions of grand authority and rigid tradition themselves that is the force of greatest evil in the trilogy, both of which are savagely mocked, which helps inform his other work.
In addition to his literary effort, Peake was also a renowned poet, verse generally seen as a visual art in certain circumstances, and an accomplished painter and illustrator, many biographers having a challenge balancing his artistic work with his literary achievements. One of his first jobs as a young person was working for the British military and was shipped off to Europe in the middle of WWII. An unspeakable experience that had a lasting impact on Peake.
Working for others as well as himself, often in terms of illustrations for books, some of his early work carries what could be called ‘innocence’ particularly the illustrations he did for a 1954 edition of Alice In Wonderland. Done in a traditional pencil and paper style, Peake’s renderings depict the major events of the book in a clear and beautiful way, his Alice very much an ordinary little girl, with none of the underlying darkness present in his other work. This is most clearly shown early on with a lovely rendering of Alice in a field, before her adventures in Wonderland begin.
Peake’s work for his books, most early editions of the trilogy heavily illustrated, or indeed his own amusement, could be something else indeed. The starkest example of this second group is a work titled Beauty and the Beast. Combining both concepts into a single image, the work depicts a skeleton that would be scary, if not for its soulful doe eyes, full luscious lips and long blond hair. Slightly less harrowing are the depictions of his novels’ characters, the nominal hero, Titus Groan, the least eek inducing, depicted as handsome, if pale, young man, in a stylish black coat.
Peake’s paintings are a good deal more subdued. While keeping a dark mood, often literally as in the case of Stanczyk by Jan Matejko, the pieces are largely figurative, veering between Dali-style self-portraits to, slightly melancholy, portraits of women. In 1968, Peake died due to complications from an aggressive form of dementia at the age of 57.
Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.