Mervyn Laurence Peake, painter, poet, and novelist, is one of the most interesting English artists—visual and literary—of the twentieth century. He was born in Kuling, China, in 1911. His father, Ernest Cromwell Peake, was a Congregational missionary doctor, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, of Welsh background, had come to China as a missionary nurse. The Peakes returned to England just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 but went again in 1916 to China, where they remained until 1923. Mervyn Peake never returned to China, but critics have suggested that his most famous work, The Gormenghast Trilogy, was influenced by his youthful experience of living in China as a foreigner, where he was affected by both its squalor and its exoticism. Back in England, he enrolled at Eltham College, where he remained until 1929. Although better as an athlete than as a scholar, he impressed his teachers with his artistic abilities. He enjoyed his public school days, and in the Gormenghast novels, the customs and protocols of school life were re-created.
After leaving Eltham, Peake studied at various London art schools. Tall, thin, and intense, he soon began exhibiting his work and taking part in the London art world—designing costumes, drawing illustrations for a proposed book, selling his own paintings, and writing poetry. He spent time on the island of Sark and then became a teacher at the Westminster School of Art. There he met Maeve Gilmore, also the child of a doctor. They were married in 1937 and had three children. It was a close and nourishing relationship despite a perennial lack of money, frequent moves, and, ultimately, the deteriorating state of Peake’s health. Initially, Peake was an artist and an illustrator who also wrote verse. In 1940, however, while in the British army, he began to write what became his first novel, Titus Groan. It was an arduous process. An unlikely soldier, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. After becoming a government artist, he drew sketches of prisoners at the Belsen concentration camp. In 1946 his novel was published, followed by the second volume, Gormenghast, in 1950, and in 1959, after his health had seriously failed, Titus Alone. The three volumes were later published as a...
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