The Photogenic Author: Mervyn Peake

I love black and white photography. There’s a surrealist, classical quality to the absence of color; it’s almost as if the subjects exists in another reality. Author portraits in particular are enhanced when stripped of color. The authors become legendary, heroic, tortured…timeless. They inhabit another world, a higher order that we can never touch.

Black and white photography is especially suited to the world of fiction where the coveted goal of any writer is literary immortality.

Mervyn Peake (pictured above) resides in the shadow of his 20th century contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite its cult following, Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone) never gained the same world-wide renown as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Commissioned as a war artist by the British Army during WWII, Peake left behind a trail of sketches and paintings in addition to his novels.

But a candid photograph taken of the working writer/artist while the world collapsed around him captures an iconic image. He seemed like a colossal standing astride a war-scarred landscape.

Fans of Peake may recall a contrasting image of his fictional antagonist Steerpike perched on the rooftop of the crumbling kingdom of Gormenghast. This scene only happens once; Steerpike would descend into arch villainy never to ascend the “stone pavement in the sky” with so much youthful exuberance again. Although Steerpike resembled an insignificant speck in the grand vista of Gormenghast, his ambitions for the future were colossal in scale.

Mervyn Peake would eventually succumb to Parkinson’s disease; his brilliant mind would crumble, his body atrophied, and slowly his world would run away. But before his genius could taper out like the light of a dying candle flame, it has been preserved, if only for a millisecond, in black and white.




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