Enter the worlds of Mervyn Peake this summer at the British Library

You’ve never heard of Mervyn Peake? You’ve never heard of Mervyn Peake?

Next you’ll say you’ve never heard of the Gormenghast books either, or Alice in Wonderland.

Peake’s original drawing for the Mad Hatter's tea party - courtesy of Mervyn Peake Estate and British Library Board

Mervyn Peake is the English author of the Gormenghast novels as well as an artist whose work includes illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales. He was also a playwright, poet and screenwriter. In fact, The Times, one of Britain’s longest running daily newspapers, name Peake among “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” back when they published that list in 2008.

Peake’s work is so significant and, indeed, there is so much of it in virtually almost every literary and artistic form, that the venerable British Museum is hosting an exhibition to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday and the publication of the fourth Titus book Titus Awakes in July 2011. The Worlds of Mervyn Peake examines Peake’s prolific output as a writer and illustrator by exploring the real and imagined worlds he inhabited in an exhibit at the British Library running 5 July to 18 September, 2011.

“I hope this exhibition will encourage visitors to look beyond the label of ‘gothic fantasy’, which Peake so disliked, to see a man who had a profound understanding of humanity and a wicked sense of fun,” said Zoë Wilcox, Curator of The Worlds of Mervyn Peake exhibition at the British Library. “Mervyn Peake’s archive was recently acquired by the British Library and this has provided a wealth of material for the exhibition, which focuses on the real places that inspired Peake’s imaginary worlds. As befits a master of nonsense, there are plenty of quirks: you can discover why Peake hated camels, had trouble with geraniums and nearly lost face over the purchase of a palm tree.”

Titus Awakes is the fourth title of Peake’s Gormenghast novels. Peake was working on it when his health began to fail and Parkinson’s disease eventually took his life in 1968. Since then it was believe the series remained unfinished.

A chance discovery in an attic in January 2010 changed all that.

Pear Fairies
Notes and drawings of Pear Fairies in Peake's notebooks courtesy of the British Library

Peake’s granddaughter discovered four notebooks containing not just Peake’s notes and drawings for a novel he never had a chance to finish but the complete novel. Prior to his death, Peak outlined the novel for his wife, Maeve Gilmore. She completed his work posthumously but for some reason it was never published. Until now. The first hardcover edition of the book Titus Awakes will be released by Overlook Hardcover on 7 July, 2011.

The complete manuscript of Titus Awakes is just one of the discoveries made among Peake’s papers, many of which are part of The Worlds of Mervyn Peake exhibition at the British Library. Another extraordinary find was the complete first scene of Peake’s sci-fi play Isle Escape. The premise of the play is a couple escaping to a tropical island to wait out a world war that never takes place. Other highlights from the Peake archive include:

  • Gormenghast notebooks beautifully illustrated with character drawings of the Prunesquallors, Flay and Barquentine.
  • Peake’s original drawings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
  • A letter to his wife, Maeve Gilmore, sent from Germany in 1945. Peakes attended the war crimes trial of Peter Beck and visited Bergen-Belsen as a war correspondent for The Leader magazine.
  • ‘Just a Line”, a storyboard for an animated television program in which an ordinary line transforms into pirates, princesses and other strange sights as it journey across the screen.
  • The earliest surviving story by Peake, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs written when he was 11 years old upon his return from China when he spent the first part of his life.
  • Various correspondence from Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene and C.S. Lewis.

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake is open from 5 July to 18 September, 2011 in the Folio Gallery of the British Library. Exhibition hours are Monday, Wednesday-Friday 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., Tuesday 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday/bank Holidays 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Admission is FREE.

In addition to The Worlds of Mervyn Peake, two special events will also accompany the exhibition.

On 11 July, 2011 Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast will feature the launch and first reading of Titus Awakes, the recently unearthed fourth and final novel in Peake’s groundbreaking series. China Miéville, Sebastian Peake and other special guests will contribute to this unique event.

In 26 July, 2011, Peake’s associates, experts and family members will come together for Mervyn Peake: A Celebration, an evening of words, memories and images.

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