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Mervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated, Authorised Biography Paperback – 15 Sep 2009

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Mervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated, Authorised Biography + Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast + Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast
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Product details

  • Paperback: 314 pages
  • Publisher: Peter Owen Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (15 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0720613418
  • ISBN-13: 978-0720613414
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 85,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Reading this biography of Mervyn Peake one is left with undiluted admiration for his seemingly boundless creativity. Best known for his Gormenghast trilogy, which has now been introduced to a wider audience with the BBC's all-star television adaptation, Peake made his name as a painter first, one of the outstanding talents of his generation, and was also prodigious in his output in other media, notably his poetry and wonderfully interpreted illustrations of classics such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

G Peter Winnington, who has previously edited the Mervyn Peake Review and Peake Studies together with revised editions of the Gormenghast trilogy, is both a sympathetic and astute guide to the life and works of a remarkable talent. His considered appreciation offers much intriguing insight into the imagination of the man and the creative processes that brought forth such extraordinary creations, particularly Titus Groan, the first of the Gormenghast books. Peake comes across as a wonderful man--vivacious, considerate and humorous--as the book recounts his life from a childhood in China as the son of a missionary, through the development of his own distinctly idiosyncratic style on the Channel island of Sark to his years of marriage and fatherhood in London. In later life a degenerative illness prevented him from working and led eventually to a premature death, though the book doesn't dwell too long on this more tragic element which has been the focus of some previous accounts.

This will be a fascinating read for fans of Peake's work and particularly for those who are interested in the act of artistic creation, but one feels that there may yet be a book to come that will more completely capture Peake's life and character, if, as seems likely, his reputation continues to grow. In part this is owing to the fact that Winnington has not been afforded permission to use all the material he would have liked to, but more noticeably, there are loose ends which leave the man shrouded in mystery, most notably when we are told, without any further comment, that there is little doubt he had at least one extramarital affair. Still, this is a fluent and highly readable book that is sure to enhance Peake's standing as one of the jewels of 20th-century British culture. --Alisdair Bowles --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


By far the best biography I've read of Peake and closest to the reality that I perceived --Michael Moorcock

G Peter Winnington may well know more about Peake than anyone else --The Independent

As a study in artistic development it succeeds very well in recreating the world in which Peake moved --The Spectator

G Peter Winnington may well know more about Peake than anyone else --The Independent

As a study in artistic development it succeeds very well in recreating the world in which Peake moved --The Spectator

This new edition, now fully illustrated and with an expanded text, will be an essential addition to the library of any Peake enthusiast --Desmond Byrne, The Art Newspaper

As a study in artistic development it succeeds very well in recreating the world in which Peake moved --The Spectator

This new edition, now fully illustrated and with an expanded text, will be an essential addition to the library of any Peake enthusiast --Desmond Byrne, The Art Newspaper

As a study in artistic development it succeeds very well in recreating the world in which Peake moved --The Spectator

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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful By B. Smith on 21 Jun 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a fairly straightforward biography that provides much illumination on this genius's life. Not particularly 'in-depth,' but helpful all the same.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A "must" for all Mervyn Peake scholars and fans! 8 Sep 2000
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book, a critical biography of the multi-faceted writer and illustrator, Mervyn Peake, is written by the longtime editor of Peake Studies, a British journal. Winnington, with at least 20 articles or edited works to his name, has made a lifework of Peake. Other effects of this effort can be seen on the Peake Studies website, which he maintains at: <[...] His is one of the two major journals dedicated to this influential 20th century fantasy author. The other is the Mervyn Peake Review, also British.
Mr. Winnington's considerable research into Peake's life and works are evident in as he quotes extensively from other biographical and bibliographical works such as John Watney's Mervyn Peake (NY: USA Saint Martin's Press,1976), the reminiscences of Peake's wife, Maeve Gilmore. A World Away: Memoir of Mervyn Peake. London, Gollancz, 1970, but also from The Fantasts by T. E. Grahame Little, Avebury; January 1984 and Peake's own collection of fiction, poetry and drawings, Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1981. While he quotes from critical works and from Peake's own work and publicly available papers, he also carefully integrates details from the author's artistic and dramatic endeavors into his discussion. Artistic education, gallery and private artistic shows, failed and successful illustrating and joint endeavors, and work as an illustrator are integrated into a picture of the writer which nevertheless focuses on his written work as his major accomplishment.
The book is divided into sections corresponding to Peake's biography and beginning with a little history of his parents before his birth, which was in Kuling, China in 1911. The sections are: I. China 1898-1922, II. Education 1923-1934, III. Making a Reputation , 1935-1939, IV. The Golden Decade, 1940-1949, which is the longest section, and V. The Losing Struggle, 1950-1968. This serves to ground Winnington's critical commentary, which, in any chapter, can and often does refer to the entire body of Peake's work.
This book should not be seen as a definitive biography of Peake. Watney's book still holds that place.Winnington, on the other hand, has added to the body of knowledge on this complex author through his critical observations. Most effective are his linking of experiences in China and during World War II with key plot or character elements in the Titus series and key visual pastiches from his creation of the Gormenghast world if prose and in illustration. For example, in describing his early years, Winnington states, "Parallels between the early life of the Boy Emperor [of China] and Titus groan, as recounted in the first two of Mervyn's novels, are numerous and striking."(p. 31). He pursues this insight through three paragraphs at the end of the first Chapter on Peake's parents. I agree with commentators on this work that Vast Alchemies makes up in observation, critical insight, detail and sheer mass of research for what it lakes in access to papers of the Peake estate.
Since Winnington refers to these early years, from birth to age 11, repeatedly throughout the work, one is easily lead towards parallels with Paul Linebarger/Cordwainer Smith who was also raised in China and heavily influenced by the experience. Both seem to have used their twice-born quality, the unreality of existing in two such different cultures as China and the West, to flesh out unreal worlds (Gormenghast and Nostralia), and both were involved in WW II, but Peake's artistic bent drew him to pursue creativity over any other career path and Linebarger's politics and education both ensured that he would be involved in more global, if secretive, activities.
Perhaps because this critic is so intimately acquainted with everything written by and about Peake, his own writing is not as rigorously controlled as one might expect. He tends to jump from observation to observation, some about Peake's life, others about his writing or illustration stylistics. The book is charming for this quality, in that it preserves a anecdotal flavor that improves its status as a casual reading project. It is correspondingly disappointing for the lack of rigor of its critical perspectives. Very much a story about Peake's accomplishments within in the context of a somewhat romanticized life, it's critical perspective is not systematic, but at the same time, it is also not predictable.
I would recommend that this book be in ANY collection purporting to deal with English Language fantasy, and also that it be bought by public as well as academic libraries. For serious scholars of Peake, it should be read along with Watney's book, which is stylistically a much more standard critical biography. And it should be cherished for its periodization of Peake's life, its extensive primary and secondary bibliography focusing solely on the author but on the author as a writer, illustrator, dramatist and family man, and its accessibility.
Jan Bogstad, Reviewer
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The mind and art behind the 'Titus' books 29 May 2000
By Jeff Bursey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
G. Peter Winnington, in this new, enjoyable biography of Mervyn Peake, faced the challenge, as he states in the preface, of writing without the benefit of much estate permission. This normally would be a drawback, but the book rises above the constictions the Peake family imposed.
It should not be thought Vast Alchemies was meant to be a scandalous expose of Peake's life. When it does discuss the sundry affairs of this relatively little-known artist's life, it does so economically and sensitively. While Winnington is regretful that Peake's own words are not allowed to be used, this inadvertently, and thankfully, ensures that Winnington's own voice and ideas come across strongly. It is a tribute to the author that with this freedom he never positions himself as superior to his subject.
The book is admirably short (however much one admires or loves Peake, he does not demand a multi-volume Life), compact and open-ended, in that the critical apparatus at work does not shut down further examination of Peake's artistic expression. Winnington is admirably clear in his prose (unfortunately, a few typos throw off concentration), and his depth of knowledge is lightly handled. Through investigation, he has removed some mystery and misconceptions about Peake's life. Vast Alchemies is a very readable biography, and at the same time an overdue contribution to Peake scholarship, accessible and interesting to those unfamiliar and familiar with this too neglected artist.
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