Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Mervyn Peake

Entertaining goodness: Paul Sandby

Paul Sandby in 1780

Paul Sandby in 1780

The other day (while looking for something entirely different, in the usual way of things) I found myself browsing the many images by Paul Sandby in the British Museum online collection. Eighteenth century painters are a bit off piste for this blog, but indulge me. I was reminded of the two sides to Sandby’s work: his tasteful, deftly observed but mildly mannered bread-and-butter landscapes, and then the feverish density and oddity of his earlier caricature-styled work, particularly his ferocious attacks on Hogarth for his Analysis of Beauty, published in 1753. The (modest) Warren print collection includes one of these, featuring Hogarth sat in his own filth. It’s called The Analyst Besh****n in his own Taste – a fine title; “beshitten” is such a good old English word …

The many incidental small figures that populate Sandby’s views, most notably those of the busy military encampments in London in 1780, are witness to his deep fascination with folk of all ranks and stations – the fashionable visitors, the workaday, the ragged, the incorrigible, the feral children. Interestingly, at a point in the early 1750’s, roughly concurrent with his savaging of Hogarth, Sandby’s “figure studies” collided with his more experimental, caricaturish line, resulting in some fine images, particularly a little set of etchings titled Good Entertainment: A New Book of Figures, apparently published in 1752, when Sandby would have been 21 years old. And here they are. (As usual, click the thumbnails for enlarged slides.)


These owe something to the vernacular caricature tradition, such as the works of “Tim Bobbin”, but they’re not quite like anything else from the period. Sandby’s observing eye is wonderfully keen as always, but there is a visionary, almost expressionist intensity here, though it embodies an optimism that recognises the deep, sacred goodness in the ordinary, a kind of transcendent humanism; take, for instance, the steady gaze of the little girl with a doll, a child study utterly honest and emptied of all sentimentality.

Sandby’s mastery of bold tonal hatching gives these images at times a hallucinatory immediacy beyond even that of a photograph. Though more than 250 years old, the images are somehow oddly modern; the cook, captain and mate could be straight out of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. In a way, these long gone, anonymous individuals who confront us in the here and now are in the same family tree as the haggard and hollowed post-cubist peasants and tinkers of the Two Roberts and their school.

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Venerable, pitiable, frightful: Mervyn Peake’s ‘Ancient Mariner’

Volume X (1944) of Tambimuttu’s Poetry London has been mentioned in an earlier post here. Besides much mediocre poetry, it contained Terence White’s remarkable “Irene”, images by Gerald White, Tambi’s perceptive review of Keith Douglas and, as a bonus, Mervyn Peake’s eight illustrations to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published the previous year. These latter, as if they needed it, were pegged onto a forgettable essay by critic and minor poet Margaret Diggle comparing the Mariner with Eliot’s The Waste Land, her thrust seeming to be that both have something to do with redemption. (Quite so. And your point is?)

detail 1

detail 2

Peake’s images are sometimes tentative, under-observed, or coyly sentimental – a failure of much “fantasy” illustration. But here he is at his most resolved and most ferociously intense. This intensity derives from the obsessive and disciplined density of his pen line, which shows extraordinary virtuosity; I particularly like the looping “scribbled” hatch that forms the sky in the first image below. In the mood of their tonality these owe something to the example of Doré, but otherwise they are very much their own vision. Elsewhere they are described as ink and wash, but I can see no signs of any wash, though white ink lines are used occasionally and judiciously. C S Lewis commented on these drawings in a much later letter to Peake, praising their “disquieting blend of the venerable, the pitiable, and the frightful”, and the sheer gracefulness of their representation of horror.

thumbnails
In their Poetry London reprint, the images were numbered and usefully supplied by Peake with thumbnail sketches keying them to exact lines of text, which I have used as captions. The eight drawings are available here and there online, though sometimes slightly cropped or blurred, so it will do no harm to show them again. A click on the small images will throw up enough of an enlargement (click again with the magnifier cursor) for the interested viewer to lose her/himself indulgently and entirely in the jaw-dropping intricacies of Peake’s cross hatching.

The sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right Went down into the sea.

The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

... 'with my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.'

… ‘with my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.’

Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood And cried 'A sail! a sail!'

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood
And cried ‘A sail! a sail!’

Her lips were red, her looks were free Her locks were yellow as gold Her skin was white as leprosy, The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide, wide sea!

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!

I could not draw my eyes from theirs Nor turn them up to pray.

I could not draw my eyes from theirs
Nor turn them up to pray.

I pass like night, from land to land.

I pass like night, from land to land.

George Barker by Mervyn Peake

My first page of fragments on George Barker updated with an image of him by Mervyn Peake, artist, illustrator and author of the Gormenghast trilogy. (When will the BBC get round to repeating the excellent TV adaptation of Ghormenghast broadcast in 2000?) The Jessica Dismorr image of Barker on the same page makes an interesting comparison to this charcoal drawing by Mervyn Peake published in the London Mercury for June 1937. There seems to have been no particular connection between Barker and Peake, though both were in London at the time, and Peake wrote to Barker in the same month, presumably in connection with this. Peake was an inspired illustrator, and this is a pleasing image and a good likeness in its way, though with Peake’s portraits one feels that living people are seen through a lense of authorship, somehow tending towards the condition of characters. In effect, everyone is slightly Gormenghastified. Here, Barker could almost be a benevolent and sensitive elder brother to Steerpike.

“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.