Friday, 3 February 2012

Mr. Peake's Progress

Last night was a lecture by Sebastian Peake on his father Mervyn's life and work. Largely anecdotal, it was both hilarious and moving, especially Sebastian's account of his father's very early death due to Parkinson's.

Long John Silver

Although I've read most of Peake's written work, I didn't know what a talented and hugely prolific artist he was. He drew pictures of and for his sons every weekend, and seemed to sketch (and write) the way the rest of us text or Tweet. It was fascinating to see how his artistic practice changed, particularly after entering Belsen as a war artist: his illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (now in the Wordsworth museum at Dove Cottage) are clearly and heartbreakingly influenced by the shrivelled husks he watched die in the camps as the war ended.

The Albatross is shot in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

If you haven't read Peake, you really should. Gormenghast is a mad melange of his Chinese childhood, Dickens and Cervantes and a sense of a culture rotting from within - derived from his late entry into British society. Peake's social world was utterly removed from our's: he married a News of the World heiress, but never depended on her money (she was also a talented artist). Dylan Thomas used to walk their son Sebastian to school, telling him pirate stories along the way - and in his Welsh accent, not the cultivated English RP one he affected in public - before borrowing yet more money from Mrs Peake. Rex Harrison's fourth wife bought their house and whitewashed Peake's murals (argh), Leon Goossens played in their home,  and so on: they lived in a world of art and intellect, yet never seemed to pursue fame or money. One of the fascinating things about Peake we learned is that - despite the gloom of his novels - he was enormous fun and remained an optimist, despite his experiences of the concentration camps. He seems to have been an apolitical liberal who sought the good in everyone - even retaining some respect for a war criminal he met and sketched 12 hours before he was executed in Nuremberg.

I went to dinner with Sebastian afterwards - enormous fun. Having attended 9 schools in 13 years, he failed to achieve a single O-level, and went on to live in several countries learning languages and serving an apprenticeship in the wine trade - he spent his life dealing specially in German wines. An old-school gentleman, he has a knowing way with anecdotes and a very touching interest in the lives of others, while retaining a degree of other-worldly separation - his amused surprise that his nephew Jack Penate is a 'a pop star' was very sweet. His story about Prince Charles's total lack of interest in the specially-bound edition of Gormenghast made for him (his grandmother knew the Peakes and commissioned a set of pictures for Charles's nursery) was a sad story of aristocratic ignorance: the jug-eared buffoon didn't even glance at the book.

What came through very strongly is the pain caused by his father's miserable, cruel end: dead at 57, having ended his days in an old people's home looking as though he was in his 80s, unable to draw or write, and Sebastian's struggle to reconcile the loss and the joy he takes in his father's work and our interest in it.


Artog said...

That is odd, I've often wondered if Prince Charles had read Gormenghast. Seems a bit subversive of his grandmother to have made a gift of a copy.

The Plashing Vole said...

I think his gran gave him non-Gormenghast artwork. I hope he's read the novel too: an invaluable guide to the aristocracy, I'd have thought.