Mervyn Peake
to the pictures
back to illustrator index page

Mervyn Peake

Seven original drawings for an edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner published in London by Chatto and Windus, 1943. India ink and wash, average size 22 × 15 cm. By kind permission of the Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Mervyn Peake (1911–1968) made his illustrations of the Ancient Mariner in 1943, while recovering from a nervous breakdown. Although an experienced artist and teacher of art, he had been illustrating books for only three years. Ride-a-Cock-Horse and other Nursery Rhymes had been published 1940, and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark a year later. Early as it is, however, Peake’s extraordinary depiction of the Ancient Mariner is his finest achievement as an illustrator, and it remains perhaps the darkest and most powerful of all artistic treatments of the poem.

Peake taught himself to illustrate by studying the work of past masters: Thomas Rowlandson, William Hogarth, George Cruickshank, William Blake, Gustave Dorţ, Albrecht Dôrer and Francisco de Goya: ‘I began to realise that these men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was compassion. Nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to slide into another man’s soul’ (Klesse 2001, p. 123). He knew the Ancient Mariner intimately (he could quote large parts of it from memory), and drew out of its dreamlike narrative a series of strange, unsettling images. The quality he conveys most vividly is suffering: of the mariner, of the albatross, of the crew, and even of the astonishing child-woman who represents Life-in-Death (illustrated on p. 110). This last drawing was not published with the poem until 1978; ‘The publishers thought that it would be unfair to the general public to have them buy the book and then come across a picture like that when turning the pages’, Peake explained. ‘It had to come out’ (ibid., p. 121).

Dark, nightmarish, even terrifying, Peake’s drawings nevertheless hint at the redemptive possibilities that Coleridge imagines in the poem but never quite captures. His figures are stranded in an obscure, desolate world, but still retain an austere dignity and gracefulness, exciting our sympathy without ever becoming merely pitiable. C.S. Lewis wrote with illuminating insight to Peake on 20 July 1959:

The Mariner himself (facing page 6) [here illustrated opposite] has just the triple character I have sometimes met in nightmares – that disquieting blend of the venerable, the pitiable and the frightful. But at the same time – thanks I suppose mainly to the position of the arms – the horrid representation is a graceful thing (I give no praise to picture or story which does not fulfil both demands. What the so-to-speak ‘plot’ requires representationally must co-incide with what the ‘thing’ requires in order to be a delightful object). And that of course explains (it took me a few minutes to see this) why you represent almost exclusively the terror. Thus while few things could be nastier (in what it represents) than the picture facing p.30 [here illustrated on p. 109] the composition of it has a harmonious tranquillity. The very lines which make the mariner a hideous and rigid man simultaneously make him a shape as charming as a beech-tree. (Gilmore and Johnson 1974, p. 46)

Unlike most artists, Peake does not illustrate the celebratory, optimistic world of the bride and the wedding party; but, even so, Lewis rightly points out the spiritual poise of his drawings.

Technically, the illustrations are a tour de force. Peake uses a fine cross-hatching style that is based upon his close understanding of pencil drawing. Indeed, in 1946 he published a short book on the subject, The Craft of the Lead Pencil. ‘Line can be used in many ways’, he wrote. ‘It can be broken. It can stutter, flow or scribble. It is language.’ And, he further observed, it had to be used with an awareness of rhythm: ‘When [rhythm] infuses a drawing, one cannot point it out to someone who is dead to its hypnotic influence. It interwreathes itself through the very tissue of a drawing. Every line is its slave and follows the course of its serpentine motion. However writhes the snake the scales must follow’ (Gilmore and Johnson 1974, p. 57).

The illustrations were first published by Chatto and Windus in 1943. This small volume clearly suffers from wartime austerity; the drawings are greatly reduced in size, and this reduction, together with the effect of printing on slightly coarse wartime paper, tends to thicken the lines and fill in the finer cross-hatched areas. Larger reproductions were published the following year in Poetry London, but the skill and subtlety of Peake’s technique can only be fully appreciated in the orginal drawings, seven of which have survived. Subsequent to their publication Peake returned to these drawings and reworked them. He added lines in pen and ink, and removed others, either obscuring them with Chinese White or scratching them out with a razor-blade. In all cases, this enhanced the vividness and drama of the original penwork. He also applied a muddy-brown wash as a background tint. The first edition to do them justice was not published until 2005, by the Libanus Press.

Peake’s 1962 poem, The Rime of the Flying Bomb, refers to the Ancient Mariner in both its form and tone, but has a moral intent absent from the earlier illustrations. It tells of a drunken, disillusioned sailor who finds an abandoned baby one night during the London Blitz, and subsequently finds some kind of moral strength in a ruined church. Like Coleridge’s poem, it skilfully blends elements of the natural and supernatural.