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This page last updated
October 2013
© G. Peter Winnington 2013

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Vast Alchemies:
the life and work of Mervyn Peake

by G. Peter Winnington, was published in February 2000.

(There’s a page for corrections and additions to it.)

It was re-published in a revised and enlarged edition in 2009 as

Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies

(and there’s a page of additions and corrections to that too).

The first edition was listed 17th in the Locus poll of the best non-fiction books of 2000 and in 2003 it was nominated (in a shortlist of only four titles) for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award.

The first edition contained previously unpublished photographs of Peake (and his wife Maeve Gilmore); the second also has unfamiliar photographs as well as some sixty reproductions of Peake paintings, drawings, and illustrations (some of them in colour), few of which have appeared before in any book.
In addition to Michael Moorcock’s foreword, the new edition contains a preface by Sebastian Peake, who writes:

“Peter Winnnington’s Vast Alchemies draws me closer to the spirit and soul of the man I knew, written as it is with remarkable knowledge, erudition and sensitivity for his subject, yet not without objectivity. . . .
Winnington’s book most successfully enables the reader to appreciate
the extraordinary imagination and energy [of] Mervyn Peake.”

For your convenience, the table of contents and the index are posted here, in pdf format.
For those who have bought the books, there is a page of corrections and additions to the first edition here and to the second here.

Extracts from reviews:
Richard Edmonds in Birmingham Post (12 February 2000)
This readable and fascinating biography neither skimps nor attempts to by-pass the traumatic last years of Peake’s life.…
Few books uncover the creative processes as well as this one does and within Winnington’s writing we could almost follow the working of Peake’s mind. It does seem to me that if you embark on the Gormenghast trilogy in the near future, you will be approaching the true depths of Peake’s achievement in a way that the BBC television series signally failed to do.…
And if you enter Peake’s world it would be a good idea to take Peter Winnington’s book along as a companion volume since it is, to my mind, indispensable.

D. J. Taylor in The Spectator (19 February 2000)
As a study in artistic development it succeeds very well in recreating the world in which Peake moved.

Iain Finlayson in The Times (2 March 2000)
The temptation to aggrandize the life of the author of Gormenghast is resisted in this short critical biography.… Winnington corrects some facts and fancies from previous biographies and usefully gives us Peake penny plain rather than tuppence coloured.

Duncan Fallowell in The Independent (13 March 2000)
… the most reliable so far. His greatest strength is the attention he gives to Peake as a book illustrator - surely the greatest since Beardsley.

Robert Macfarlane in The Tablet (25 March 2000)
A sensitive biography … which rightly concentrates on Peake’s effervescent creativity rather than on his decline.

Stephen Medcalf in TLS (5 May 2000)
Winnington himself is good not only as a biographer but as a critic.

In the USA, Joe Sanders wrote a two-page review in Science Fiction Studies (#85, Vol.28, No.3, Nov 2001), concluding:
Written with mastery of facts and with respect for its subject, Vast Alchemies is now the essential source for information about Peake’s life.

A recent web review says
The author is someone who knows his Peake inside out, upside down, and probably by touch in a darkened room. His research is meticulous (he went back to source material rather than rely on previous not altogether reliable works), yet he wears it lightly. The book also has the advantage of being comprehensive whilst remaining a sensible length. All of which makes an ideal biography.
If you are a fan of Peake’s art or writing (or both), this is the perfect companion. It not only helps to unlock the source of much of Peake’s style, it provides an interesting insight into the creative process.
Graeme K Talboys

Two extracts from Goodreads:

Cooper Renner gave it 5 stars, saying ‘Not 5 stars in the grand sense of world literature, but rather for its field: it’s a fine biography.’
Nic said simply, ‘it is very, very good.’

Published at £14.95 and available from all good bookshops, traditional and on-line,
or directly from the publishers,

Peter Owen Ltd, 20 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3QU, England, or
Dufour Editions Inc., Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007, United States.

Back to the Peake Studies home page.