The name Mervyn Peake conjures gables, gothic grotesque and Gormenghast, but the genius of the British novelist, playwright and poet extends to painting and illustration as well. The 250 original drawings on display at the Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon reveal an artist who is inspired, intuitive and illuminating. He is also amazingly playful, a side of the spectacularly talented Peake that the exhibition in Switzerland allows us to discover.

“The most comprehensive exhibition of the illustrations of Mervyn Peake ever put together,” indicates Sebastian Peake, the eldest son of the artist and tireless guardian of his father’s heritage. Entitled “Lines of Flight”, the show fills an entire building in the historical centre of Yverdon with works generously on loan from the Peake estate.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass, 1946, © Mervyn Peake Estate

Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) is a British cultural institution, best known for the phantasmagorical novels that appeared over 13 years: Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). But he was also one of the most talented illustrators of the pre and post-war era, “surely the greatest since Beardsley” a critic of London’s The Independent has claimed.

Moreover, there is little doubt that Alice in Wonderland owes part of its iconic status to Peakes’s finely mastered interpretations of Lewis Caroll’s tale. Peake was as respectful of other authors’ imagination as he was of his own. This edition will in fact be published again on the occasion of the upcoming release of Tim Burton’s film on Alice in Wonderland.

That the Maison d’Ailleurs (House of Elsewhere) in Yverdon, a museum of “science fiction, utopia and extraordinary journeys” and the only public institution of its kind in Europe, should be the first to dedicate a prestigious exhibition to a cult artist from the British Isles is due to the prescience of a young Swiss museum director.

Patrick Gyger took over ten years ago from Pierre Versins, who had founded the Maison d’Ailleurs in 1976. Versins had already been approached by Peter Winnington, an enthusiast who, over the years, has become a world authority on Peake.

Winnington, who came to Switzerland as a student, stayed on as a teacher, before becoming a senior lecturer at Lausanne University, lives just outside Yverdon. He is the scholar behind the subscription-based Peake Studies, as well as author of Vast Alchemies: the Life and Work of Mervyn Peake, published in 2000 and the more recent Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography.

Gyger had seen the proofs of a book on Peake that Winnington had edited and decided that it was “high time to pay homage to this fabulous one-man-band by displaying his illustrative work”. Because Peake’s estate is likely to be put on sale on the occasion of the upcoming centenary of his birth, this exhibition may be the last time that the illustrations will be seen together.

Rhymes without Reason, 1944 © Mervyn Peake Estate

The drawings arrived from the UK as a “mass of scraps of paper,“ says Winnington, adding that they represent less than 10 percent of Peake’s graphic output. Handsomely framed and displayed by theme on three floors of the museum, the visit is like a voyage through Peake’s awe-inspiring imagination. Even the cases that present the original editions at the entrance have been made with “Peakish legs”.

Sections dedicated to Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Grimm’s Household Tales or The Hunting of the Snark are followed by Peake’s own illustrated texts of the hilarious Captain Slaughterboard and Rhymes without Reason and the more sombre Titus Groan novels.

The Hunting of the Snark, 1941 © Mervyn Peake Estate

What we discover in the Yverdon exhibition is Peake’s superlative draughtsmanship, but one that he is careful to adapt to the tone and style of the story that he is illustrating. The variety of styles is dumbfounding, from large brush strokes of coloured paint to infinitesimal black and white cross-hatching reminiscent of ancient engravings. Not surprisingly, each illustration has a life of its own.

Mr Pye, 1953 © Mervyn Peake Estate

The gradual onset of Parkinson’s disease, which was to contribute to Peake’s early death at the age of 57, affects the technique of the illustrations towards the end, but never his genius.

“The curator has done a brilliant job of translating into French the virtually untranslatable,” writes Sebastian Peake on his blog. He also indicates that the catalogue “is one of the most attractive publications dedicated to the illustrated work of Mervyn Peake to have been produced in recent years.”

Lines of Flight – Mervyn Peake, The Illustrated Work ends on Valentine’s day, 14 February 2010 a fact that would no doubt have delighted Peake. The exhibition is an opportunity to profoundly revise our opinion of an artist whose wry sense of humour explodes in his drawings and can be appreciated by visitors from all over the world.

Musée de la science-fiction, de l’utopie et des voyages extraordinaires

Place Pestalozzi 14
1401 Yverdon-les-Bains
T + 41 24 425 64 38

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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