Feature: British Library acquire archive of Gormenghast writer and artist Mervyn Peake

Published: 15 April 2010

THE stretch of sea between Guernsey and Sark has some of the fastest currents in the world. It is not a friendly place: churning and powerful, the waters are dark, cold and the peaks and troughs of the rough sea between the two islands are nightmarishly overbearing.

I lived for a couple of years in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and would occasionally take the sea-battered Isle of Sark ferry, the “Bon Marin De Serk”, for the 50-minute journey to the island. 

The news this week that the British Library has taken ownership of the archives of the author and illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) reminded me of trips to Sark. Peake wrote his most famous work, The Gormenghast Trilogy, while perched on the battered island in a run-down cottage. 

As you step off the ferry, you are confronted with a steep and tortuous climb upwards from the harbour carved out of rock. Above soar cliffs that are totally inaccessible. On stormy days the waves crash spectacularly against the geological castle-like walls of the isle. Add to this the fact that the bits of Sark that are uninhabitable are like a Lost World plateau – there are no beaches to speak of, just sheer drops all around – and the sense of vertigo is impossible to escape.

Scholars say the archive – which brings together Peake’s letters, notebooks and sketches for the first time – reveals he was heavily influenced by a war-scarred trip through Europe in 1945, reporting from the ruins of Germany for literary magazine The Leader, and that the bombed homes and churches can be linked to the Gormenghast world created by his gothic imagination. But Peake was also influenced by something much closer to home – Sark. 

The writer’s son, Sebastian Peake, has overseen the collection of his father’s papers. “Germany was not a major influence on Gormenghast,” he says, although he does point out other works such as The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb clearly came from his time in Europe. “Titus Groan was being written while he was in Europe,” he says. “But it was published in the summer of 1946 – it was just a year after his visit and he could not have written it in under a year.”

While Sebastian cites Sark as an influence – “the granite cliffs and bays and coves were in there” – Gormenghast was also inspired by a country that played a role Peake’s early life.

“The principle influence was his first 12 years in China,” he says. “He was inspired by the mountains and the Gobi desert.”

The collection is extensive: among the papers are hand-penned notebooks on Gormen­ghast and letters and postcards from Peake to his wife Maeve Gilmore from Germany. Other letters are from the author to Laurie Lee, Walter De La Mare, Graham Greene, John Berger, CS Lewis, Augus­tus John, Lau­rence Olivier, Stephen Spender, Dylan Thomas and Orson Welles. 

Until now, University College London library and the Bodleian in Oxford held some of his notebooks, while Sebastian’s sister Claire had kept letters written by Mervyn to Maeve.

“My mother was disciplined,” Sebastian recalls. “Everything was put into a date order and then placed in boxes with titles. She was very much aware of its historic importance. She sensed he was a genius and she was also aware of the integrated nature of the difference aspects of his career. He had not been seen as one homogenous whole. Many people considered Peake as five separate entities, five different individuals, who wrote poetry, novels, plays, drew sketches, illustra­tions and paintings. His work was rarely seen as a interlinking.”

And Peake used his talent as an artist to sketch out scenes and characters before committing them to words. His notebooks are full of his attempts to visualise his novels. A new edition of Gormen­ghast is published next year. “It will be illustrated by 80 of my father’s original draw­ings extracted from the original manuscripts,” says Sebastian.

l British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1, www.bl.uk


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