Mervyn Peake

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Mervyn Peake (9 July 1911 – 17 November 1968) was an English writer, particularly of fantastical novels such as Titus Groan and its sequels. He was also an artist and book illustrator.

Life

Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in Jiangxi Province, China, where his father was a missionary doctor. and educated at Tientsin Grammar School in China and Eltham College, Kent. He went on to study art at Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy in London. For a time he worked as an artist on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands. He returned to London, where he had already begun exhibiting paintings, in 1936. The following year he married the painter Maeve Gilmore. He began to write and illustrate books - poetry and stories - for children, and in 1939 received a commission to illustrate a book of nursery rhymes.

When the Second World War broke out, he wanted to become an official war artist, but this was initially refused and he was conscripted into the regular army. In 1942 he had a nervous breakdown and was invalided out of the army. Later that year he was officially taken on as a war artist, and he was among the artists who recorded the horrors of the concentration camp at Belsen. He continued to draw and paint, and his skills as a book illustrator led to him receiving a number of important commissions. Among the works he illustrated were The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

During the second world war he started work on his own literary masterpiece, the Titus trilogy. The first novel, Titus Groan, appeared in 1946, followed by Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959. The last of these is less polished and coherent than the other two, and shows signs of having been written at a time when he was seriously ill. He also wrote a novel called Mr Pye and some radio plays broadcast by the BBC, as well as a poetry column - Shapes and Sounds (1941) and a book of nonsense poems called Rhymes without Reason (1944). A play, The Wit to Woo (1957), was a flop, both with the critics and with the public.

Peake and his family moved to Sark in 1946 and to Spain in 1956, by when he was already quite ill. He suffered from a form of Parkinson's disease, possibly the result of an infection picked up in China in his childhood. The last years of his life were marred by illness, which severely restricted his creativity. He died in 1968. It is only after his death that the "Titus trilogy" has achieved full recognition.

Legacy

The Mervyn Peake award was established in 2001. Its aim is to empower those who suffer from Parkinson's disease.