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About Mervyn Peake

This page last updated
October 2013
© G. Peter Winnington 2012

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A Mervyn Peake Timeline

More information on all of these dates and events can be found in
Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies (Peter Owen, 2009)

July 1903: Dr Ernest Cromwell Peake (who had been in China since 1899) met Bessie Powell (in China since December 1901) at Kuling, a summer resort built by European missionaries in the hills of Lushan above the Yangtse river. They got engaged in September and were married in Hongkong in December.

1904 – 1912: together they ran the sole European hospital in Hengchow, Hunan province.

9 July 1911: birth of their second son, Mervyn Laurence, at Kuling.

December 1912: the London Missionary Society appointed Dr Peake to head the MacKenzie Hospital in Tientsin.

May 1914 – October 1916: furlough in England.

December 1916 – December 1922: back in Tientsin. MP attended the British Grammar School in the city. He spent much of his free time drawing.

January 1923: the Peakes returned to England for good; Dr Peake set up as a GP in Wallington.

Spring 1923 – spring 1929: MP a boarder at Eltham College, which was founded in 1842 as the “School for the Sons of Missionaries”. More interested in art and sports than maths or spelling, he left without a school certificate but with the encouragement of his teachers to pursue his ambition to become an artist.

Summer 1929: while studying at Croydon School of Art, MP wrote his first long narrative poem, “The Touch of the Ash” (available in Peake’s Progress).

December 1929 — Summer 1933: MP awarded studentship at the Royal Academy Schools for a five year course of study.

Summer 1930: visited France with his friend P G Smith.

Summer 1931: his oil painting, Cactus (a still life) exhibited at the Royal Academy. July: holiday in Cornwall with his friend Ralph Nye. In August he painted a portrait of Ralph’s fiancée Mary (first reproduced in PS 12:iv April 2012), for which he was awarded the Arthur Hacker prize the following December.

1932: MP’s poems started to appear in periodicals and he designed the set and costumes for a production of The Insect Play.

During his fourth year at the RA Schools, however, MP attended only half his courses and failed his end-of-year exams: he had visited Sark (one of the Channel Islands) where his ex-English teacher from Eltham, Eric Drake, was setting up an artists’ colony; the dry exercises of the RA Schools no longer inspired him. His studentship was terminated.

Summer 1933 – end 1935: MP lived in Eric Drake’s artists’ colony on Sark. He exhibited paintings and drawings in the gallery that he helped to build there, and also showed with the Sark Group in London.

Early 1936: MP taken on to teach life drawing at the Westminster School of Art (London) after the headmaster, Kirkland Jamieson, saw some of his work in the Sark Gallery.

September 1936: MP started to date Maeve Gilmore (born in 1917), a sculpture student.

July 1937: engagement to Maeve Gilmore; 1st December wedding. During this period, MG changed from studying sculpture to painting.

March 1938: MP and MG had simultaneous exhibitions in London.

September 1939: as soon as war was declared, MP offered his services as a war artist, but he had to wait three-and-a-half years before he was given any work. The Westminster School of Art closed; MP and MG moved to Burpham, a small village in Sussex.

October 1939: publication of Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a handwritten, illustrated pirate story for children. Considered by some critics as too grotesque for small children, it sold slowly and then at the end of 1940 stocks were destroyed in a warehouse fire.

January 1940: birth of their first child, Sebastian. Being at home all the time, MP made many drawings of him and his mother.

July 1940: MP called up; started writing Titus Groan while training in the artillery.

December 1940: publication of Ride a Cock-Horse, a volume of illustrated nursery rhymes. Critics admired but again some used the word ‘grotesque’.

November 1941: publication of his first book of poems, Shapes & Sounds, and (in December) of Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark with MP’s illustrations.

April 1942: birth of second child, Fabian.

May 1942: After being moved from unit to unit and trained in various trades but without seeing active service, MP had a nervous breakdown and spent more than four months in a hospital, writing Titus Groan as part of his therapy.

October 1942: while on medical leave from the army, MP worked for six months as an artist in the Ministry of Information.

January 1943: commissioned as a war artist to depict glassblowers making cathode ray tubes for radar screens.

April 1943: discharged from the army on medical grounds. Publication of MP’s illustrated edition of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which sold out within the week.

November 1944: Rhymes without Reason published for children with MP’s full page colour illustrations.

March 1945: publication of Witchcraft in England by Christina Hole with MP’s illustrations. He provided Pan Books with their logo.

June 1945: commissioned by a magazine to illustrate articles on the state of the Continent, MP went to France and Germany with a journalist. He was among the first civilians to see the dying survivors of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. He brought back drawings and a poem and remained deeply marked by the experience.

March 1946: publication of Titus Groan, which sold well enough for it to be reprinted before the end of the year, followed by illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass (from a Swedish publisher and therefore not for sale in the UK or the USA), and Household Tales by the brothers Grimm. MP also illustrated Quest for Sita, the retelling of an oriental myth by Maurice Collis.

September 1946: MP and family went to live on Sark. No exhibition for ten years, but he wrote Gormenghast, illustrated books and made several broadcasts about his illustrations and view of the world as an artist.

1948: publication of another illustrated book for children, Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions), which was remaindered in the end. Also of MP’s illustrated Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the Folio Society. He started illustrating Bleak House by Charles Dickens, but the publisher gave up on the idea.

1949: birth of a third child, Clare. MP illustrated Treasure Island; publication of Drawings by Mervyn Peake.

September 1949: MP and family returned to London.

1950: MP started to teach life drawing again, this time at the Central School of Art in London. Publication of his second volume of verse, The Glassblowers, and of Gormenghast, which continues the story of the life of Titus Groan. He also started to write plays – completing six for the stage and several more for radio and leaving another half dozen unfinished – but wrote little poetry.

Spring 1951: The Royal Society for Literature awarded MP the Heinemann Prize for The Glassblowers and Gormenghast.

1952: an amateur troupe put on MP’s first play, ‘The Connoisseurs’; the script does not seem to have survived, but he also wrote a short story on the same theme.

1953: publication of Mr Pye, a comic fantasy novel set on Sark. It sold badly and was remaindered.

1954: Alice in Wonderland brought out by a London publisher; MP took the opportunity to revise some illustrations. Christmas: his first radio play was broadcast by the BBC. Publication in Stockholm of The Wonderful Life and Adventures of Tom Thumb (in two volumes) with MP’s illustrations.

1955: MP redrew Letters from a Lost Uncle as a series for independent television.
In April he visited Yugoslavia for a BBC television programme that never materialized.

February 1956: MP adapted Titus Groan and Gormenghast as a radio play for the BBC. He tires easily and suffers from shaking feet and hands.

1956: a novella, Boy in Darkness, published in an anthology alongside works by John Wyndham and William Golding.

March 1957: The Wit to Woo, a farce in free verse, put on at the Arts Theatre in London. The critics were not impressed and the play was taken off after 6 weeks. MP had what seemed to be a nervous breakdown following this disappointment, but it is clear now that this was the next stage of Parkinson’s disease.

July 1957: For Mr Pye – an island, MP’s adaptation of Mr Pye as a radio play, broadcast by the BBC.

1958: MP diagnosed as suffering from ‘premature senility’, now called Parkinson’s disease; given electro-current therapy (ECT) to no good effect.

Early 1959: MP finished Titus Alone with great difficulty, having problems of concentration. The critical reception was poor.

1961: MP spent the fee for his illustrations to Honoré de Balzac’s Droll Stories on a brain operation, which did not improve his condition. He gave up teaching.

Summer 1962: publication of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a ballad that MP had written soon after the end of the war; he had great difficulty making the illustrations that the publisher had asked for.

1963–1968: MP hospitalized in various institutions.

17 November 1968: death of MP in a private home for the terminally ill run by one of Maeve Gilmore’s brothers-in-law.

1968–69: the three Titus books republished in hardback and paperback (as Penguin Modern Classics); they have remained in print ever since, regularly selling thousands of copies a year.

1970: first biography of MP, A World Away by Maeve Gilmore

February 1972: first major posthumous exhibition at the National Book League, displaying not only MP’s art but also his books and MSS. Publication of A Book of Nonsense.

1974: publication of Drawings of Mervyn Peake and Writings and Drawings. Titus Groan translated into French.

1976: biography of MP by John Watney

1977: publication of Gormenghast in French.

1978: publication of Peake’s Progress, containing much of MP’s writing in prose and verse as well as drawings.

1979: Titus Alone published in French.

1983: publication of MP’s sketches for Bleak House, done in 1948. August: death of Maeve Gilmore.

1984: Titus Groan and Gormenghast newly adapted as a radio play by the BBC.

1986: Mr Pye adapted as a tv film.

February–April 1987: a major retrospective exhibition of MP’s work in the Royal Festival Hall, London.

1992: ‘Gormenghast’, a mimed version of the story of Titus, put on by the David Glass Ensemble and repeated many times in many countries, the last in 2006.

1998: ‘Gormenghast’, a rock opera with music composed by Irmin Schmidt.

2000: ‘Gormenghast’, the story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast adapted by BBC television (with WGBH Boston) as its flagship mini-series for the passage into the new millennium. Biographies by Winnington (with a revised and enlarged edition in 2009) and Yorke.

2006: publication of Mervyn Peake: the Man and his Art, containing biographical and critical essays alongside hundreds of reproductions of his works, and of The Voice of the Heart, the first monograph to study of the whole of MP’s work.

2008: publication of the Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake.

October 2010: first performance of The Cave at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell.

2011: many exhibitions and new editions of books mark the centenary of MP’s birth; publication of Peake’s Complete Nonsense poems.

November 2011: first performance of Noah’s Ark at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell.


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