My great love of the books, stories, poetry and art of Mervyn Peake is no secret. My first experience with Peake came by way of reading his Gormenghast novels in high school, and I vividly remember those gorgeous Ballantine Adult Paperback covers painted by Bob Pepper. As my good friend Gigantic Joe Kuth put it, "Pepper might be the only artist that I've seen whose interpretation of Gormenghast doesn't suffer in comparison with Peake's own sketches." I think that's very apt.
That comment of his got me interested in seeking out other covers for the Gormenghast books. I had seen a few and, other than Pepper's and Peake's own covers, they were generally rather lackluster efforts. However, in my efforts to track down what other visions artists had lent to Peake's world, I did find a few gems.
We shall start, as is appropriate, with Titus Groan, the first of the Gormenghast novels. While the first edition of the book I saw had the painted cover by Bob Pepper, the first editions had this beautiful ink drawing by Mervyn Peake himself.
Really, everything about this cover is perfect. The gorgeous cross-hatching, the iron crown of Gormenghast with the chain and the carrion bird, the font, the title spelled out in the color of dried blood. Absolute perfection.
I have yet to see, or own, a copy of these editions but apparently at some point after those first editions and, I believe, before the American Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback editions, paperbacks were issued with different sketches by Mervyn Peake. These are particularly beautiful because they show his pencil and charcoal work, and his great sensitivity to conveying emotion and character in a human face. I'd really love to find a copy of these and if any of you reading this have a lead on them, please contact me. This is an image of the Lady Fuchsia, thirteen years old here, at the birth of Titus. Another gorgeous image.
Here is the first of the three Ballantine Adult Fantasy images by Bob Pepper. My first introduction to the books. I've already gone on about these covers in this post so I will refrain here from adoring them further.
For obvious reasons, Gormenghast Castle, a character in itself, takes a central role in much of the imagery employed by other cover artists. Of the new covers I found, this is one of the better ones. The vastness and empty, crumbling nature of the castle is nicely conveyed and the pale moss greens, ash greys and watery blues add nicely to the overall sense of antiquity and fatigue of the books. This cover dates from the early 1990s and is by Mark Robertson.
And yes, in the late 1990s, the advent of computers and digitally created art effectively sounded the death knell for creativity and interesting covers. This cover looks to hit all the right notes, but is absolutely soulless and depressingly generic. It could have been slapped on any of a number of books and been more or less appropriate. Peake deserves so very much better. This is a British edition from 1998 and is by Nick Robertson.
As if to rub salt in the wound, the simultaneous American re-release of the books carried an almost identical image by Nick Robertson, but with what look like bizarrely arbitrary changes that do nothing to improve the presentation.
And now we come to what may very well be my favorite book cover of all time, Peake's own pen and ink drawing for Gormenghast.
I'll be repeating the pattern from above, from Peake to Peake to Pepper to Robertson to Robertson. Here is Peake's drawing of Steerpike and Barquentine, for the paperback.
Mark Robertson, with another hauntingly beautiful piece.
And finally Nick Robertson's disappointing digital covers.
The third of the Gormenghast books is Titus Alone, an incomplete masterpiece. Assembled from what seems to have been a somewhat skeletal outline, Titus Alone is disjointed at times and occasionally lacks polish but at its best it contains brilliant leaps of imagination as Titus is propelled from the timeless and paralyzed world of Gormenghast Castle into what very much seems to be our own world, complete with cars, factories, helicopters, science, cities and so on. Peake's first cover succinctly captures the alienation and solitude of the desert wanderings that bring young Titus to a strange city far from Gormenghast.
While Peake's drawing of Irma Prunesquallor seems to be an odd choice for the book, I think perhaps it was because the initial editors saw fit to include a feminine image on the cover since in Titus Alone, Titus experiences romantic love and lust for the first time.
I've always admired the way that Bob Pepper effortlessly worked the themes and ideas of the third book into his tableau from the previous two covers.
These next two images are both by Mark Robertson, I think, although the second of these looks like it may actually be a painting by Alan Lee. Can anyone clarify this? Again, both beautiful images, and interesting in that each contains a river, a bird in flight, and a far-off horizon to hint to the reader what is contained within.
And finally, Nick Robertson's work.
2011 was the hundredth anniversary of Mervyn Peake's birth and the year brought a host of events and new publications examining his work and his legacy. Of these, one of the most curious was the book Titus Awakes written by Peake's wife Maeve Gilmore after his death. Working with the only remaining fragment of Peake's work on the novel, Gilmore has crafted an entirely new tale intertwining the books themselves with her life with Mervyn. I have a copy but I have not yet read it yet out of a strange sense of fear that I might be disappointed. I know I have to head into this reading with realism, understanding that I am not reading a new Titus Groan book per se. Still, I hold back. Odd.
The covers, following parts of the pattern above, are both lovely and horrible. First, the hardback cover from a drawing by Peake.
And again, a digital beast by Nick Robertson.
I discovered a few omnibus editions of all three Gormenghast novels and again the covers were a mixed bunch. I do like this one, by artist Julek Heller, but I am a bit puzzled as to why Titus looks so sullen and ugly. It is simultaneously intriguing and repulsive, although I suppose the same could be said about the books themselves.
This American omnibus edition from 1998 is notable in that it contains a number of interesting essays near the end exploring the world of Gormenghast, but again the cover is disappointing and in some ways even lazier than Nick Robertson's work. A simple flipped photograph, one side in the negative, of a generic and not even particularly old looking or crumbling castle. Just a paycheck I suppose. By someone named J.K. Potter.
I simply cannot encourage you enough to read these books if you have not. Yes, they are challenging reads and have been unfairly and wrongly criticized by some as books "where nothing happens." But Peake's command of language is astounding, the characters he creates are brilliantly grotesque and memorable, and the themes of the work are absolutely timeless. These books, almost more so than Moby-Dick, have directly shaped my thinking about life and I feel very strongly that they have much to say to all readers.
I expect to have some big big news about Mervyn Peake tomorrow, so please visit again.