Letters From A Lost Uncle – Mervyn Peake

Originally published in 1948, and targeted at children, this delightful book continues Peake's work exploring notions of exploration and the exotic. Probably following his childhood in China, (and chinese architecture and manners are a strong influence in his best known Titus/Gormenghast books), the young Mervyn became obsessed with the theme of exploration in works like 'Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor", with the eponymous hero’s adventures with his (doomed) crew and the Yellow Beast, and even his illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” from 1941.
Peake had published other illustrated self-penned books for children before, “Ride a Cock Horse and other Nursery Rhymes”, “Rhymes without Reason”, “Letters” is a beautifully complete narrative.
Told in the form of a series of missives purportedly typed on stained, crumpled and soiled sheets of paper which are then embellished with pencil illustrations by the missing uncle, Peake has created a book which should delight any adult as well as any imaginative child. The pictures are beautifully realised in pencil, with a gallery of bizarre beasts and locations to delight anyone who is interested in the art of childrens fiction.
Two pages to whet your appetite, first,

Jackson - long suffering manservant

and then Uncle hiself, with his wooden leg provided by the spike of a swordfish!

Uncle fights a swordfish

The only drawback to the book is the pasted feel of the text, something that apparently annoyed Peake himself, (along with the rather poor quality paper in the original post-war edition). I don’t think this really matters as the pleasure in the book is to be gained from the charm of the pictures along with the interjections and curses appended to the pages to explain damage or some detail of the picture.
It initially took me a long time to find a copy of this in pre internet days, as it went out of pprint in 1976. However even if it were only available second-hand, it would be easier now with the likes of AbeBooks, but it has been reprinted and is available from all good booksellers! A victory for common-sense!
Peake was a truly gifted draughtsman (as shown here), and any of his work is well worth a look. Last year was his centenary, with several exhibitions in the UK, maybe still to be seen somewhere around, and there are a number of websites dealing with his work including a blog from son Sebastian.

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One Response to Letters From A Lost Uncle – Mervyn Peake

  1. Those first couple of pages from your copy of ‘Captain Slaughterboard’ are great -if I wasn’t doing my year of reading from home I would have bought myself a copy in a flash! I followed your link to the Peake website and the Ancient Mariner and Gormenghast pictures are fantastic. ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ is in my collection of Lewis Carroll that forms part of my ‘To Read’ for this year so I plan to spend a lazy hour this afternoon reading it. It doesn’t have Peake’s drawing of ‘The Bellman’ which is a shame but instead has illustrations from Henry Holiday, I particularly like the ‘To pursue it with forks and hope’ drawing. Look out for my post on ‘Snark!

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