The Visual Archive of Mervyn Peake

Item author: Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
Item date: 20th century
Grant Value: £15,000 [Larkin Fund]
Item cost: £500,000
Item date acquired: 2019
Item institution: British Library
Town/City: London

The British Library is grateful to have received the support of the Friends of the National Libraries, with their generous grant towards the purchase of the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive. The archive includes drawings for his critically acclaimed Gormenghast series of novels, together with original illustrations for his own books for children and other classic works of English literature. The acquisition brings together this outstanding collection with the first tranche of the Peake Archive, already held by the British Library and also acquired with FNL’s support, making available material that was previously inaccessible to the research community and the general public alongside papers that shed light on its context and custodial history. Given Peake’s unique creative process, the collection offers a rich resource particularly for those interested in the inter-relationship of text and image.

Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was a much-admired writer and artist. Best known today for creating the Gothic fantasy trilogy, Gormenghast, he is recognised as one of the most significant British writers of the post war period. Peake was also an accomplished painter and outstanding illustrator. For Peake, the act of drawing was symbiotic with the process of literary composition: he espoused an integrated vision and practice of text and illustration.

Comprising 17 boxes and 182 framed items together with some loose papers, the archive includes Peake’s illustrations for classic works of literature including Treasure Island, Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, The Hunting of the Snark and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as illustrations for his own novels (including Gormenghast), children’s books, plays, poetry and television projects. Also included are drawings of famous literary, theatrical and artistic figures, among them Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft. The archive contains unpublished material and rough sketches that are key to understanding Peake’s artistic and literary development, such as the Moccus Book illustrations, which feature visual motifs that became key tropes of his literature. Unpublished material and juvenalia in the archive is fundamental to understanding the tropes and motifs that feature in Peake’s art and writing, as well as the effect of his early literary influences, such as Robert Louis Stephenson and Charles Dickens. The acquisition of the Gormenghast drawings is of particularly significant research interest given that Peake is known to have broken off from drafting these novels to draw his characters when he felt blocked in his writing, as evidenced by the Gormenghast notebooks already held in the British Library.      

The British Library’s acquisition of Peake’s visual archive promotes interdisciplinary research across visual arts, literary studies, cultural studies, design and the creative industries. The archive will be available in perpetuity at the British Library with access provided in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Representative material from the Peake Archive will be included in the British Library’s Discovering Children’s Books website, a resource for schoolchildren and lifelong learners, and material will also be available for use in onsite learning programmes. Highlights from the archive will be displayed in the Treasures Gallery and we are investigating further possibilities for extended digitisation.

Item Provenance
Bought from the Mervyn Peake Estate