Visual archive of Mervyn Peake - who is buried near Arundel - bought for the nation

The Mervyn Peake Archive has been bought for the nation by the British Library for the sum of £500,000.

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books.  Estate of Mervyn Peake
Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. Estate of Mervyn Peake

Peake was a writer with strong West Sussex connections. He lived in Burpham – and is in fact buried in the churchyard there. Occasionally, fans come to the village looking for the grave.

Zoë Wilcox, curator of contemporary performance and creative archives at the British Library, said: “Peake and his wife moved to Lower Warningcamp on the outbreak of war in 1939 to be close to Mervyn’s father Dr Peake, who had retired to Burpham where Peake was later buried.

“They later moved to Wepham in 1942 where their second son Fabian was born and where Maeve and the children remained until the whole family moved back to London in the autumn of 1944.

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    “In the literary archive, acquired by the British Library in 2010, we have some letters from Mervyn to his wife Maeve that date from this time.

    “Peake later contributed some illustrations to the West Sussex Gazette at the request of Lawrence Graburn who had been a tenant of Wepham Farm and had become a regular contributor of articles about local country people.

    “There have been suggestions that Arundel Castle might have influenced Gormenghast in some way but we don’t have anything concrete to go on in this regard.”

    The archive includes illustrations, preliminary drawings and unpublished early works

    It was bought for the nation from the Peake Estate, with the assistance of donations from Art Fund, with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and a contribution in memory of Miranda Stonor, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library Collections Trust, and the Friends of the National Libraries. This news follows the Library’s acquisition of Peake’s literary archive in 2010.

    Mervyn Peake’s visual archive comprises over 300 original illustrations, including drawings from his critically-acclaimed Gormenghast series, together with original illustrations for his own books for children Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle and other classic works of English literature, such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark, Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Also included are unpublished early works, preliminary sketches and drawings of famous literary, theatrical and artistic figures such as Laurence Olivier and W H Auden. This acquisition brings Peake’s archive together in one place, making it fully accessible to the public for the first time.

    Mervyn Peake was an English writer, artist and illustrator, best known for creating the fantasy trilogy Gormenghast. A Royal Academy trained artist of great versatility and inventiveness, he has been seen as arguably the finest children’s illustrator of the mid-20th century. Combining technical mastery with an innate ability to evoke fear, delight and wonderment in young readers, he redefined the cosy nature of children’s book illustrations.

    Despite his originality, Peake’s fondness and respect for the work of other artists is evident in the archive, from the influence of Hogarth, Doré and Blake to Dickens’ illustrator Phiz and Boys’ Own artist Stanley L Wood.

    Zoë added: “Mervyn Peake sits in the great tradition of writer-artists like William Blake and Edward Lear for whom drawing is integrated into their writing process. Therefore it feels only right that this archive of illustrations should join the rest of Peake’s papers here at the British Library.

    “In particular they convey how his sense of humour and idiosyncratic imagination made him the perfect illustrator and writer of children’s books, willing to risk scaring his readers while also making them laugh.

    “Peake’s work has influenced creative artists working across many different genres from Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter to The Cure, and I hope that acquiring his Visual Archive for the nation will inspire many more budding creatives to be as boldly individualistic as he was.”

    Fabian Peake, artist, writer and son of Mervyn Peake, said: ‘The family of Mervyn Peake is thrilled and delighted that his visual archive has been acquired by the British Library.”

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