Daisy Dunn

The gentle genius of Mervyn Peake

His unsettling illustrations reveal a kindly man with the soul of a pirate

Art of darkness: Mervyn Peake’s illustration of Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

To be a good illustrator, said Mervyn Peake, it is necessary to do two things. The first is to subordinate yourself entirely to the book. The second is ‘to slide into another man’s soul’.

In 1933, at the age of 22, Peake did precisely that. Relinquishing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools to move to Sark, in the Channel Islands, he co-founded an artists’ colony and took to sketching fishermen and romantic, ripple-lapped coves. He put a gold hoop in his right ear, a red-lined cape over his shoulders, and grew his hair long, like Israel Hands or Long John Silver.

The incredible thing was that he had yet to receive his commission to illustrate Treasure Island. By the time the job came through, in the late 1940s, he had been sliding into more piratical souls for more than 20 years.

Peake, by all accounts a gentle man, is probably best known today as the creator of Titus Groan and the dastardly Steerpike in his brilliant Gormenghast trilogy. He was also, however, an adroit and often unsettling draughtsman, producing the most brooding and memorable illustrations for Treasure Island and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books of the 20th century.

‘He drew all the time,’ recalls his son Fabian, a talented artist and poet in his own right. ‘He was an all-round artist, but often thought of himself as a painter.’

Last month, the British Library acquired his visual archive — 17 boxes containing more than 300 of his illustrations, preparatory drawings and framed works spanning the period from 1918, when he was seven years old, to 1962 — for a sum of half a million pounds. Among the papers are some of his earliest schoolboy sketches for the text of Treasure Island.

The rumour that he had driven himself mad through his pictures and stories found a certain currency

Growing up in China (he was born at Kuling in 1911), where his parents worked as medical missionaries, Peake learned the book by heart and depicted the pirates in watercolour dashing across the island.

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