Cover image for Mervyn Peake : my eyes mint gold : a life
Mervyn Peake : my eyes mint gold : a life
Yorke, Malcolm.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
368 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PR6031.E183 Z98 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Malcolm Yorke brings us the first objective biography of this brilliant figure, written with the Peake family's full cooperation. With access to letters, photographs, and drawings never previously published, Yorke charts a life often shadowed by mental turmoil and worry yet always, until its tragic end, relieved by Peake's quirky humor and ceaseless creativity. Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in revolutionary China, where his parents were missionaries. He later drew on his exotic childhood and its often savage images in his adult creations. Throughout his life, he was a bohemian: as a student and then, later, in an artists' colony on the island of Sark, a place to which he often returned when city life became too stressful or expensive. Teaching in London, he fell in love with one of his students, Maeve Gilmore, and the two married despite her family's opposition. It turned out to be a close and lasting relationship, lived among a circle of friends that included Graham Greene, Augustus John, Dylan Thomas, and Walter de la Mare. Peake proved to be a miserable and incompetent soldier during World War II, and it was during this unhappy period that he began to write Titus Groan, the first book of the Gormenghast trilogy. In 1945 he was sent by a magazine to Germany, where he visited the Bergen Belsen concentration camp immediately after its liberation-an experience that would profoundly affect his subsequent work.

Author Notes

Malcolm Yorke is the author of biographies. He is also a painter, a wood and stone carver, and the author of more than twenty childrens books

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

After C. S. Lewis' Narnia books and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the most important twentieth-century British fantasy may be a trilogy about Gormenghast, an isolated, imaginary earldom that is more like the lands of Kafka and Beckett than like Middle Earth. Its creator, Mervyn Peake (1911-68), lived a marginal, bohemian life because, one gathers from Yorke's engaging, copiously illustrated, but factually spotty biography, he couldn't live any other way. Born in China, the artistically precocious Peake was fascinated from childhood by his medical-missionary father's deformed patients and the cruelty of ordinary Chinese life; subsequently, grotesquery filled his art, and violence his writing, especially after summer 1945, when he saw the Belsen death camp. He left China at 11, never to return, but never to fit in England. Happiest on Sark, the Channel Isle where he moved his young family after World War II, he struggled along with his art and writing and died after 10 years of Parkinson's disease, just as the trilogy was first reprinted. Ray Olson.

Publisher's Weekly Review

The life of author-illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) offers almost as many strange twists as his well-known novels, as Yorke demonstrates in this detailed biography. A childhood spent in a British missionary compound in China, stints in art schools, his marriage to a fellow artist and his career as an illustrator all make for entertaining, touching and often amusing reading. Yorke livens the story with odd anecdotes, such as when Peake finds an elephant housed below his apartment he "fed it sugar lumps and buns." Not surprisingly, Yorke focuses on inspirations for Peake's Titus Groan novels. But his research and the many illustrations included make it clear that Peake was also an accomplished and respected illustrator. Yorke also reveals Peake as a charming, sensitive man. He is on shakier ground, however, when he critiques Peake's creations. As an artist himself and biographer of British artists Keith Vaughan and Matthew Smith, Yorke knows his subject. Unfortunately, he indulges in excessive and questionable analyses, even though he admits that Peake himself would "have none of this fancy stuff." He criticizes his subject's lack of art theory, when Peake states "after all, there are no rules" in art. Yorke cannot accept the works simply as they are. Speaking of Peake's book Letters From a Lost Uncle, Yorke writes: "In an encounter with a huge white polar bear Uncle is unable to use his phallic [wooden] leg because it embraces him" a clumsy construction, besides being a stretch of analysis. Hopefully, this won't deter Peake's well-deserved new admirers from reading this otherwise informative book. 28 b&w photos, 94 b&w illus. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, British author Mervyn Peake (1911-68) is not as well known beyond his circle of admirers; he was somewhat neglected during his lifetime but acquired a worldwide reputation after his death. Instinctive rather than intellectual, he enjoyed a mixed critical reception and became a cult figure best known for his "Gormenghast" trilogy. The novelist was also a painter, poet, dramatist, and illustrator (his drawings appear throughout this book). His fiction is generally considered Gothic fantasy, although many critics feel that he eludes labels. Some 30 years after his death, interest in Peake's works has been rekindled, in part by the recent BBC adaptation of the Gormenghast titles. Yorke (Beastly Tales) aims to provide a biography rather than a scholarly study; the documentation is adequate but not extensive. However, unlike G. Peter Winnington's Vast Alchemies, Yorke's work benefits from the family's full cooperation; sources include family papers as well as studies by Peake scholars. Readable and entertaining, this is recommended for libraries where there is an interest in fantasy literature. Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Boy, 1911-1923 The first eleven years of Mervyn Peake's life were spent in a middle-class English home, or as near to one as his parents could make it. Each day his doctor father would go off to minister to his patients and his mother would assist him, as well as supervising the cook and the servants. They raised Mervyn and his older brother, Leslie (known as Lonnie), to have conventional Home Counties manners, values, accents and education, and as both parents were Congregationalists they fostered the same Christian beliefs in their offspring. The language of the Bible and the hymns he sang as a boy enriched Peake's adult writing. The family enjoyed their own jokes, puns and word games and were keen readers. Mervyn would go off to his room to read the Boy's Own Paper and Chums and from an early age he took as much pleasure in the illustrations as he did in the stories. On hot days he might loll in the shade reading Treasure Island until he knew it almost word for word, or Robinson Crusoe or King Solomon's Mines , nibbling McVitie and Price biscuits taken from the red tins in the kitchen. If he tired of reading he could join his brother or friends in the grounds to kick a ball about, play cricket, or ride his bicycle. The house they lived in was one of a row of six identical semi-detached dwellings with a detached house called Wilton Lodge nearby, all `built of grey stone in a late Victorian style,' as Mervyn later described them. Each had three storeys with double shuttered windows and there was electricity, piped water and modern sanitation. As an adult he wrote: `It is with great love that I remember it, that great grey house with two verandahs, upstairs and down.' The Peakes occupied the fourth in the row, near the communal tennis court. There were flower beds, bushes and exotic trees full of rooks and pigeons whose droppings were a nuisance, and an arbour where the adults from all the houses gathered to chat in the evenings. There was also a chapel and Dr Peake's hospital with its front opening on to the road outside. This had been built in 1861 under the supervision of a young Captain Gordon, later to become General Gordon, of Khartoum fame, using an oriental style with glazed roof tiles and a pottery dragon at each corner. This style was entirely appropriate since the enclosed space in which it stood, perhaps a quarter-mile long and half as wide, was the London Missionary Society's compound situated in the French Concession of the Treaty port of Tientsin, north-east China. A few yards from their entirely English home the Peakes could step out into a totally alien and sometimes hostile culture. Self-contained foreign enclaves like this were much resented by the Chinese, who had conceded them under force and had no jurisdiction over them. By the time of Mervyn's childhood the prising open of Chinese trade and the free missionary access to the interior had been more or less accomplished and the massacre of missionaries and converts, like that in Tientsin in 1870, no longer seemed very likely - though the younger Dr Peake had had some narrow escapes from Chinese mobs fired up with hatred for the white `barbarians'. The small community of exiles was surrounded by a high wall pierced by two manned gatehouses and while Mervyn was young this compound was his playground. Thirty years later, sitting in a Kent orchard watching the apples drop, he drafted notes for a piece of autobiographical writing. He wrote: `The compound as the centre of China. Whatever happens, I return and I must return to the compound. Now that I shall see China no more I am severed from my youth, I am lost without the long dry compound', and `the compound was my world, my arena'. He also recalled the dogs, parrots and monkeys that were kept there and in his list of key phrases for this never-to-be-written book he noted `children throwing dung at each other' - presumably the same young companions he played at unicorns with by sticking a large thorn on to his nose. Other notes recall that their cook, Ta-tse-fu, wandered around sharpening sticks for no clear purpose and allowed Mervyn to watch him kill the chickens. One of the other missionaries' children living in the compound, Andrew Murray, was grateful to be shown by the older and more gifted Mervyn how to draw pointy-topped waves rather than round ones in his ship pictures. When they later met at school in England, Mervyn continued his friend's art education by taking him round the Tate Gallery. It was a secure world, but a sensitive boy could create his own thrilling nightmares even here. `Mortuary' is one of the topics he meant to write about but never did, and under `Fears' he lists `the black jersey, the shapes of clothes hung over chair backs, the changeling'. Mervyn's notes also contain the seemingly innocent trigger word `paperweight', which was a gallstone as big as a goose egg that his father had taken out of a male patient. He also knew that the shed where the family donkey was kept was on one occasion used by Dr Peake and his colleague Dr Lei for a secret midnight autopsy in the interests of research because the deceased man's relatives would have been offended if they knew the cadaver had been interfered with. The two surgeons extracted the liver which weighed 16 pounds and excited Dr Peake's scientific enthusiasm enormously. In his memoirs Dr Peake records laconically: `the conduct of the donkey was exemplary, but as he was apt to get in the way it became necessary to tether him well to one side'. Outside the boundaries of the Chinese city of Tientsin were the foreign concessions belonging to the British, French, Russians, Japanese, Belgians, Italians, Germans and Austro-Hungarians, but other nationalities were present as well: Americans, Sikhs, Burmese, Indians, all eager to trade with the Chinese. Tientsin, forty miles from the sea, was still a major trading port for Western shipping coming up the tidal Pei-ho river. The exiles tried to live as if they were at home with their churches, banks, offices, warehouses, hospitals and villas built in Tudor, Greek, art nouveau, Germanic, Victorian and other incongruous styles. There was a law court, police station, library, bowling alley and inside the Gordon Hall, which was built to look like a Scottish castle, was a concert platform for orchestras and choirs. The seventy-room Astor House Hotel catered for visiting westerners, who could promenade in Victoria Park free from the nuisance of bicycles, ball games, dogs or the local Chinese, who were strictly barred unless they were nursemaids accompanying foreign children. There was a theatre seating 300, five tennis courts at the International Club, halls for fencing, boxing and gymnastics and an open-air pool in the French Concession. The Europeans had installed electric trams to run across the city, but motor cars were still rare. In winter they organized skating, sledging and ice-boat racing on the river. There was a Boy Scout troop (which Mervyn joined), amateur theatricals, women's groups, dances, shooting clubs, a horse-race track, even European-only brothels. What could not be ignored or westernized were the extreme contrasts of the bitter winters when the city was swept by Siberian winds and the hot summers with temperatures soaring over 100° Fahrenheit. Sandstorms blew in from the Gobi Desert and for two days at a time families would be confined behind double shutters fighting the dust which crept in everywhere and darkened the skies. Then there were the irritations of polluted water, the lack of sewers, the scarcity of milk, the mould, the ants which ate the houses and the beetles which ate the books. Above all there were the surrounding 325 million Chinese who seemed to press in menacingly on all sides, alien in language, appearance, culture and beliefs. Mervyn's brother Leslie was 400 miles away at an austere boarding establishment in Cheefoo (Chifu) by the time Mervyn began to attend his local European day school, the Tientsin Grammar School, situated in the British Concession. It was for both sexes but largely staffed by women - `Miss Powys ... elbows', he notes enigmatically. At first he went there by donkey accompanied by a servant, but later rode alone on his bicycle, passing through the teeming city streets. Pupils were drawn from business, customs, missionary and consular families of all nationalities but English was the medium of instruction. His best friend there was a one-eyed Russian boy who lived in a `fantastic, tawdry gaudy muddle of a flat' and once, as Mervyn passed on his way to a prissy tea party, he spotted this wild creature `three quarters way up an enormous Venetian blind hanging out into the sun and whooping'. Peake, always an admirer of lawless men of action, declared' `He is my God.' Other close friends were Ngai Teh, son of Dr Lei, Dr Peake's colleague and Tony Liang, son of another Chinese surgeon who did voluntary work in the hospital. Mervyn's notes on the `Liangs at borne' record that Tony did drawings of animals and had a baseball glove; he also recalls `The beautiful sister. Wanted to take her hand' - an early stirring of sexual awareness. The teachers seemed perversely determined to ignore the exotic city outside the school windows, as Mervyn recalled: `The rickshaws would rattle by in the sun, while we tried to remember the name of the longest river in England, the date of Charles Second's accession, or where one put the decimal point.' He liked the single male teacher who once kept him in detention for his backwardness and then `I spent the long summer evening happily bowling to him in the big American recreation ground.' While the English imported their cricket and soccer the Americans had baseball. `Great men, fifteen feet high at least with clubs to crack the devil's head for ever, dressed up like armadillos. How they could run. From base to base they sped crouching as they ran with their bodies slanting over like yachts to an angle of 45 degrees.' Whilst Mervyn was at ease in this privileged Western community he was intensely curious about the Chinese who were excluded from it, except as servants. He learned some Mandarin and could still speak it as an adult, claiming it was `one of his first two languages'. The Chinese world began immediately outside the compound on the Taku Road. Here Mervyn could buy sweetmeats and the beggars and lepers would show him their sores and mutilations. This road led across the European areas and into the ancient Chinese city as it skirted the south bank of Pei-ho river. Along its length street hawkers offered brushes, paper lanterns, cakes, eggs, water-lotus seeds, puppet shows or letter writing. In the crowded Chinese streets corpulent mandarins in silk robes were borne in sedan chairs above the crowds, and one of Mervyn's surviving drawings from about his tenth year is of an old mandarin in voluminous sleeves and trousers. He would pass the long daily queue of Chinese waiting for his father's surgeries, and, at the end of the day, the crowd of verminous beggars who would be admitted for de-lousing, medical treatment and new clothes. One day Mervyn would create another enclosed world of privilege in Gormenghast Castle, where `mean dwellings swarmed like an epidemic round its outer walls' housing an alien race: poor, short-lived, growing food and offering services to those more fortunate ones inside. The hospital was the reason why the Peakes were in Tientsin. Ernest Cromwell Peake was born in 1874, the son of missionaries in Ambatovary, Madagascar and the eldest of their ten children. After returning for his secondary education at the School for the Sons of Missionaries (later called Eltham College) he qualified at Edinburgh University as a doctor. He was appointed by the London Missionary Society in 1898 and sent first to Yochow and then three years later to Hengchow (now Hengyang), a city of 200,000 in Hunan province, to set up a centre for Western medicine and to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. At this time the Empress Dowager Tsu-Hsi ruled China despotically and opposed any suggestion of change, especially if initiated by foreigners. Many years later Dr Peake wrote an unpublished account of these years, Memoirs of a Doctor in China. In the present book his idiosyncratic viewpoint on events has been taken because it is evident that Mervyn derived many of his own ideas about China from his father. Dr Peake wrote, for example, of this early xenophobic period that it `was indeed the attitude of the whole country. In her proud isolation China adopted a very superior pose, entertaining the utmost contempt for all foreign countries, and for all foreigners within her borders.' It was not an auspicious time to travel alone into a remote area where superstition gripped the minds of the people, who believed Western doctors gouged out babies' eyes and used human flesh to make their medicines. He coped stoically with acute loneliness, mosquitoes, rats, robbers, river pirates, hostility and corruption at all levels of officialdom from the Empress downwards. Everywhere the contrast between the indolent mandarins with `their torpid bodies and passive minds, and the toiling near naked coolies was evident', but he was willing to treat both - if only they would drop their prejudices and let him. Dr Peake found Chinese medicine in the hands of quacks who frightened off labour pains or the disease-causing spirits with gongs and firecrackers. They had no concept of sanitation or germ-borne diseases whilst epidemics of dysentery or typhus were conveniently blamed on foreigners' witchcraft. Slowly Dr Peake learned Mandarin and then began to train local assistants in anatomy, physiology and pharmacology; one of them, Lei, became his right-hand man for the next twenty years. As individuals Dr Peake found the Chinese unfailingly courteous: `The observance of propriety, doing and saying the correct thing, is esteemed one of the cardinal virtues,' he noted, but, like the rituals in his son's fictitious Gormenghast, the forms had rigidified and lost content - the observance was all, and in Dr Peake's judgement their morality and religion had become separated. But once combined into a mob the Chinese lost all courtesy and were very dangerous indeed so that he had several unpleasant encounters, especially in the Boxer Rising of 1900 when many missionaries, traders and Chinese Christians were killed. Then he had to flee down river to Hankow (Hankou) where he treated scores of the wounded refugees. Once the danger was past he journeyed over the mountains to the resort of Kuling in Kiang-Hsi province (now Jiangxi) for a break. It was there, in July 1903, that he met his future wife and became engaged. On returning to Hengchow he found official attitudes had mysteriously changed once more and he began to get patients, although only males and all of them with scabies. Continue... Excerpted from MERVYN PEAKE: My Eyes Mint Gold by MALCOLM YORKE Copyright © 2000 by Malcolm Yorke Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. 7
Prefacep. 11
Acknowledgementsp. 15
1. Boy, 1911-1923p. 17
2. Youth, 1923-1929p. 33
3. Student, 1929-1933p. 46
4. Bachelor, 1933-1935p. 60
5. Husband, 1935-1939p. 71
6. Soldier, 1940-1942p. 94
7. Illustrator, 1942-1945p. 116
8. Reporter, June 1945p. 142
9. Novelist, 1946p. 158
10. Family Man, 1947-1950p. 178
11. Householder, 1950p. 201
12. Poet, 1950-1953p. 215
13. Amorist, 1953p. 230
14. Traveller, 1954-1956p. 243
15. Playwright, 1957p. 263
16. Patient, 1957-1960p. 280
17. Prophet, 1959p. 293
18. Invalid, 1960-1968p. 308
19. Cult Figure, 1968-1983p. 324
20. Revival, 1983-2000p. 338
Notesp. 347
Indexp. 357