Mervyn Peake archive acquired for British Library

  • 4 April 2010

The British Library has acquired the archive of writer and artist Mervyn Peake, best known as the author of Gormenghast, for which he won the Heinemann Prize for Literature in 1951.

Charting Peake’s creative endeavours across a variety of media, the extraordinary collection of notebooks, drawings and letters has been saved for posterity thanks to help from the Art Fund, Friends of the British Library, Friends of the National Libraries and individual donors.

Highlights of the collection include:

  • 39 autograph Gormenghast Notebooks, which include working material for the trilogy such as plot summaries and reflections on narrative progression, including revisions and corrections. The notebooks contain illustrations, for example, ink drawings, sketches of characters, decorative text borders and watercolours.
  • The complete set of original drawings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass with 65 pen and ink drawings and 9 preliminary sketches. Peake’s illustrative work for Alice was praised by writer Will Self as ‘arguably the best one achieved since [Tenniel’s].’
  • A draft of The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs, written when Peake was ten years old.
  • Correspondence, comprising letters from notable figures in the arts world including John Berger, Walter de la Mare, Graham Greene, Peter Hall, Laurie Lee, C.S. Lewis, Augustus John, Laurence Olivier, Stephen Spender, Dylan Thomas and Orson Welles, which discuss all aspects of Peake’s writings.
  • Manuscripts, typescripts and proofs of Peake’s plays, in particular of The Wit to Woo.
  • Further notebooks and typescripts include a draft of Mr Slaughterboard, a preparatory story for Gormenghast and a corrected typescript of the short story A Boy in the Darkness.
  • An unpublished draft of the sequel to the Gormenghast trilogy, written by Peake’s widow Maeve based on notes left by the writer, and only discovered by Peake’s grand-daughter in the attic of the family home earlier this year.
  • Two Poetry Notebooks, including some sketches and approximately 200 loose pages of poetical drafts. There are a number of unpublished poems within this material.

Rachel Foss, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library, said: "Mervyn Peake occupies an almost unique position as a creative artist equally gifted in literature and art. The acquisition of his complete archive now allows researchers to view Peake’s life and work as an integrated, organic whole, and to understand the way his creative endeavours were balanced across an extraordinary interplay of text and image. Following the recent addition of archives of John Berger, Angela Carter, and Ted Hughes, this new acquisition confirms the British Library as the world’s pre-eminent collection of archival resources for the study and appreciation of English literature."

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said: "I’m delighted that the Art Fund was able to play a key role in ensuring that the archive of this uniquely talented artist and author was acquired by the British Library, where his wonderfully inventive vision can now be shared by the public. The acquisition of this extraordinary archive will allow researchers to view Peake’s life and work as an integrated, organic whole, and explore one of this century’s most imaginative creative artists."

Ends

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