Peter Winnington's new book on 'the working of Mervyn Peake's imagination', as he subtitles The Voice of the Heart, is a very welcome and highly illuminating addition to an ever-growing biographical canon. Instead of repeating the known facts; birth and early years in China, artistic prodigy, an illustrator to classic texts, writer of the Titus trilogy etc, Winnington elects to examine themes from Peake's life as disparate as islands, animals and birds, solitude, love and evil.
In the most perceptive and gently probing of ways he eloquently deconstructs these and other areas in which the artist worked, in such a way that rather than dry academic analysis or clear-headed intellectual rationalism, a tone which would have completely misjudged the nature of the subject, the reader is guided by an expert to both the heart of the matter, and the heart of the man.
And to the heart of the artist and the sensitivity which motivated his work. Winnington grasps completely the idiosyncratic open individualism and generosity of spirit which produced the work, such that interpretations which have sometimes disrupted fixed personal views, here do the opposite.
The eclecticism is examined not as though presenting yet another trick up the sleeve of a man blessed, or possibly encumbered, by more than his fair share of talent, but rather from the point of view of a partisan but objective admirer who nevertheless wants answers to that which is essentially unanswerable. Who was he? Winnington asks. Where did his roots lie, what made him what he was? To a great extent we are given the answers in this first real look at the total oeuvre.
Comprehensively illustrated with work germane to the chapters, Winnington's critical monograph is required reading for those interested in knowing more about the subject, and in this handsome Liverpool University Press publication they will certainly have a chance to do just that.
Cover image: A sketch from the manuscript of Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake