A Memoir of Mervyn and Maeve Peake
by Michael Moorcock
With additional material by Fabian, Sebastian and Clare Peake
Time Travelling: Mr and Mrs Peake Hold A Party, Autumn 1965
IT’S ONE OF MANY similar parties held at Drayton Gardens, South Kensington during the 1960s and 1970s. The large family house is fantastic. Everything in it seems animated. There are murals, painted screens, stuffed birds. Even the artist’s dummies are dressed for the occasion. Candles and soft lamps illumate the house from basement to top floors. They cast lively shadows. There are bursts of laughter. Music everywhere. Light classical here, modern jazz there, a bit of Beatles, some R&B. On the stairs sits a melancholy John Braine, author of Room At The Top, squirming with distaste when advanced upon by a riotous Quentin Crisp in all his flouncing glory, while intense art critics in Carnaby Street suits exchange enthusiasms over firmly gripped wine glasses. Pretty young actresses talk about lost, found or potential jobs while long-haired young writers pass a joint and marvel at the painted walls.
Over all this presides, like a bewildered king, his huge, handsome head lifted in frowning attention, a man whose massive black eyebrows have patches of grey, whose hair has become a helmet of white. It’s a Celtic head. It could belong to Robert Graves’s brother. Heavy lids. Sardonic, sensuous mouth. There’s a half-understanding smile on his face which changes back to bewilderment as he stretches a powerful, palsied hand towards someone he thinks he recognises. He’s dressed in velvet and there are heavy rings on his fingers. A blast of music drowns the remark someone has just made. He leans to listen, trying to phrase a reply. Monosyllables form with difficulty on his lips. His eyes brighten as young women try to make conversation with him. He could be a fallen angel. His accent is cultured, belonging to another age, almost Edwardian. From time to time his shaking arm lifts a cigar to his lips. “Oh, really ?” he says, clearly not understanding what’s said to him. His expression turning to one of mild panic, his eyes search for someone in the crowd, fixing at last upon a handsome woman with honey-coloured hair and hazel eyes who tilts a man’s top hat over her face and sings along with the record. “No, no regrets…” She also holds a cigar in one hand, a wine glass in the other. She has a feather boar over her shoulders. Some of the young men surround her, laughing and congratulating her on her costume. Their colourful clothes give them the appearance of Shakespearian courtiers. She and makes a joke or two. Then in turn her eyes look to find the white-haired man standing by the stairs. Her expression softens. She moves towards him.
“Feeling all right, darling ?”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” he murmurs. “Perfectly. Never felt better.” He’s relieved however when she links her arm through his and like a stately Guinevere leads him into one of the busy rooms. But he’s no King Arthur. In appearance he’s a magnificent, bewildered Lear. He’s Mervyn Peake a few years before his final removal from all this world of chaotic beauty into a world of clinical ugliness and perpetual pain.
This scene, for all its apparent melodrama, is the truth of it. Anyone who was there would tell you the same. The Peake parties were lush and rich but never self-conscious. The PreRaphaelite enthusiasms of the 60s, which brought Melvyn Bragg into a room dressed as if for the set of Isodora, which he was then writing, in black velvet, with silver rings, married well with the dark Fitrovian colours of Mervyn’s canvasses, though Peake had no particular enthusiasm for the previous century. His preference was for the present, for Soho and the post-war world of eccentric Londoners whose portraits he collected in what he called his head-hunting sessions. At this stage of his life, however, because it reflected the concerns of his generation, his painting was somewhat out of fashion. England had entered one of her uncertain, self-examining periods of nostalgia, looking back to the fin-de-siecle and Edwardian social certainties.
Mervyn was dramatically handsome and his wife Maeve was dramatically beautiful. They had been a remarkable couple for years, though they had not mixed a great deal with the fashionable bohemians of their day. They had spent quite a lot of time away from London, in Sark in particular. They had come to prefer each other’s company. Although an accomplished painter, she had put aside her own work for the most part, concentrating on her children. He drew her and painted her a lot. She is there in everything he did. He wrote her poems when he was taken into the army during the second world war, he produced fictional versions of her in his Titus Groan, which he wrote when he was drafted into the army. On leave, he would draw her and the children. He was an inexpert soldier. He had a mild breakdown, which kept him away from overseas conflict. Eventually, he was commissioned as a war artist. His pictures of Maeve are not exaggerated any more than the poems for and about her, of which he wrote so many
We know what she looked like from his work. While certainly posed to bring out the subject’s most dramatic features Bill Brandt’s photographs of Mervyn did not lie. He was as romantically handsome as any film star of the day.
Otherwise Mervyn and Maeve Peake were conventionally English in their formality while being unselfconscious romantics to the core. They did not posture. They did not cultivate the grotesque or the bizarre, though Mervyn might be attracted to eccentric-looking subjects. They were not burdened, as some of their contemporaries like Dylan Thomas were. They got on better with the self-effacing Graham Greene than the flamboyant Quentin Crisp.
Contrary to Crisp’s melodramatic pronouncements towards the end of his life, Mervyn was not mad, nor Maeve neurotic. They were conscientious artists who put in a full day’s work, pretty much wih no time off, except for the usual holidays with the children. While assuming their offspring would be artists of some kind too, they nonetheless cared for their children and did their best for them according to the conventions of their day, sending them to schools they thought would help them adapt better to the real world than they had themselves. They were often unable to contain their sense of life in conventional ways, but simple romantics was all they were, in an un-English world of reticence and rain.
I think it’s fair to say, however, that they were unworldly. Certainly I thought they were and in my own awkward way I did my best to help them negotiate the harsh world I believed I understood better. I began my teenage career as a practical working journalist. I admired those who practiced art for art’s sake, but I was used to working strictly to earn a living, getting commissions and being paid a decent fee for a decent piece. It took me a while to come to understand their mind-set, though I always respected it because I was already convinced that Mervyn, who had been my hero for some time, was the first authentic genius I had ever met.
Their boys were almost exactly my age, with a year or so between them. Sebastian and I were about 16 when we first met. Fabian was a little younger. Clare was away at school most of the time. I would meet her occasionally on holidays, a leggy coltish pretty girl who had much of her mother’s directness, engaging wholly with whatever she was doing. As she grew up I developed a strong affection for her while my early relationship with the boys was perhaps a bit distant. I think they were all a bit bemused by my enthusiasm for their father’s work, my sometimes inappropriate efforts to find him jobs when it seemed most of the people who had commissioned him had deserted him. When I offered him a commission doing thumbnail chapter headings for the Sexton Blake Library, of which I was a sub-editor, it was only because I knew I could get him some decent money and he had done similar sketches for the Radio Times, which did not, to me, seem very different. He and Maeve had been very polite to me and I was never once embarrassed by them. When I looked back later, I could see that the idea of working for a commercial detective story magazine, even then well-known as ‘the office boys’ Sherlock Holmes’ would have seemed a bit of a come down for a man who was still managing to illustrate the occasional book for the Folio Society.
They saw their children as independent creatures and admired them as much for their beauty as their brains. Mervyn loved to draw them, but they became reluctant to sit as they grew older. Their animals, too, were embraced, involved intimately with them, enjoyed with almost greedy relish for what they were. To me, the Peakes didn’t seem to distinguish much between humans and pets. They had no habits of repression, just old-fashioned good manners. Generally they thought it proper to live and let live. As artists they sought to record the world and record their own passionate responses to it. The idea of controlling anyone or anything other than their work was alien to them. And as reason fell away with successive operations on Mervyn’s poor, but deeply sane, brain, so did their means of shaping and understanding their world.
Little was known of Parkinson’s Disease in those days. Altzheimer’s had not been identified. Everything was seen as a sort of aberation, what they would usually call ‘premature senility’. They wondered if he had picked up a virus during the ‘flu epidemic which followed the first world war, if he had contracted something while in Belsen. Their method of coping with it was through surgical operations, cutting away the frontal lobes in the hope this would help. Mervyn was a victim of the desperate medical ignorance of his day. Today, neither he nor any of us would have suffered as much. Maeve, though always her own woman, had come to take strength from Mervyn, whose reason was never diseased and who could be an inspiring teacher, as his Craft of the Lead Pencil testifies. Bit by by the surgeon’s scalpel sliced away his capacity to order his world, finishing any hope of helping him recover to shape that great, natural genius of his.