Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A review in Le Courrier - and in Swisster

A very enthusiastic and sensitively assessed article in the Swiss newspaper, Le Courrier, begins 'La Maison d'Ailleurs pays homage with a very singular line, to the English artist Mervyn Peake'. Picking up on the title of the exhibition, Lignes de Fuite (Lines of Flight), the correspondent elaborates by mentioning the precision and meticulous way in which the illustrator constantly strives to exclude any form of artifice from his work.

Another article, this time in Swisster.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Exhibition at La Maison d'Ailleurs

The long awaited Mervyn Peake exhibition opened at 6pm on 3rd October at La Maison d'Ailleurs at Yverdon-les-Bains in Switzerland. The main door to the museum opened on the dot, and there in the newly designed foyer, was a great display of books about and by the author and illustrator, and a large number of copies of L'Hebdo, Switzerland's answer to Newsweek. In a comprehensive three page colour article published that day, the show was eloquently reviewed, while contributions from writers and others gave their enthusiastic views of the exhibition.

Also available in the foyer were copies of the exceptionally elegant catalogue; a finely illustrated book would better describe the handsome silver grey volume, while prints of some of the 250 illustrations on display in the show were also for sale.

The whole organisation was the model of quiet efficiency as the visitor began by walking down the first of many white painted corridors, where the tastefully mounted and framed drawings were placed at just the right height for considered viewing. One lovely idea which offers the visitor information about the work about to be seen, is an open 'book' which spreads a narrow shadow to either side.

The Catalogue of the Exhibition

With an introduction by Patrick Gyger, a tour l'horizon of the art written by Peter Winnington and an afterword by the great Peake champion and writer, Michael Moorcock, the catalogue has the feel of a collector's piece about it, both in style and content. The volume is beautifully produced with both front and back boards in silver grey and a spine in black cloth.

The contents are divided into ten sections; the selected illustrations from the show being placed in chronological order, beginning with Captain Slaughterboard 1939, The Hunting of the Snark 1941,Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 1946 and so on. The text of the catalogue is written in both French and English, costs 29 Euros and is one of the most attractive publications dedicated to the illustrated work of Mervyn Peake to have been produced in recent years. Highly recommended.

To order the catalogue, contact the museum directly.

Illustrations to the Classics

Beginning with the first gallery, the visitor has the opportunity of viewing a whole range of 1st editions placed, with clarity in mind, in chronological order of publication. With date tags placed on the outside of the display cabinets in line with the individual books, one is able to witness the developing artistry of, in some cases the writer, at others, both as writer and illustrator.

Into the first room, where the illustrations are exclusively to accompany the work of other writers, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass form the initial, highly impressive coup l'oeil.

As the exhibition continues, one is greeted in the many rooms by illustrations to other classics, such as Treasure Island, Grimm's Household Tales, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde all placed in such a way that each new drawing comes to life as though seen for the very first time. Left with an almost overpowering implosion on the eye as more and more tiny drawings seduce the viewer, what impresses most is the sharpness of observation, deftness of execution but above all the intuitive grasp on the part of Mervyn Peake, of the writer's intention. While the work in the last gallery is considered, there is the feeling of needing to come up for air almost following this luscious embarrass de richesse, where several of the minute illustrations require uber scrutiny, such are the plethora of ideas the illustrator gives us.

Illustrating his own work

Just as the visitor is getting used to black and white as the preferred choice and overall 'colour' of the show, one is confronted by real colour, and what an impact it makes on the eye. Rhymes Without Reason is a tour de force of cross pollination between rhyme and artistry, where strange characters ride on upturned tables on choppy seas, crocodiles take tea with elderly females and animals of every shape and size happily go about their daily life while amusing ditties follow their every move. The colour in the room emits a radiance, and as each drawing is examined or poem read; the curator has done a brilliant job of translating into French the virtually untranslatable. Childhood beckons asking the viewer to follow each animal or person on their journey to depths of imagination.

The illustrations to accompany Mr Pye, a novel written in the early 1950's, show a quite different talent, whereby a single line encourages us to fill in the whole while others show real beaches and bays, cliffs and paths on Sark in the Channel Islands, where the novel is set.

Perhaps the most impressive room contains the illustrations to my father's own Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor first published in serial form in Country Life in 1939. Here, in a wide array of drawings outlining the adventures of the eponymous hero/villain we see his ship the Black Tiger riding the wild seas, while the fearful crew alternate between obsequious subservience to their master and unmatched joie de vivre until that is, they're made to walk the plank or die by the hand of the cutlass wielding Captain. Perhaps the Yellow Creature is the locus of the story however; half man half something else, 'he' is the last to remain alive when the idyll has been reached, a tropical island, where in the welcome shade of a palm tree he feeds grapes to the Captain while the supine master relaxes, accepts his gifts, but keeps a weather eye open for potential adversaries.

The Attic

There are not only three floors to the museum, but a large attic-like room with white painted beams between which are placed six original drawings of characters from Gormenghast. Here we find Swelter the cook, his vast obese frame like 'rippling blubber' staring out at the viewer with a mixture of arrogance and contentment; he orders his kitchen urchins to do his bidding whenever he feels like it, and Steerpike the villain who stares malevolently in a sidelong glance.

The hirsute Countess looks down haughtily, while Fuschia the heroine appears ambiguous in her understanding of what is wrong within her own home. The limitless horizon that constitutes the confines of the castle, provides a home for these and others lost in its timelessness. The attic at the museum exactly matches what is required from the text; a world apart, but one we must explore in order to understand how the world operates. Despite the whiteness of the attic, the drawings almost lost within its confines, it is the perfect denouement to a magnificent exhibition, one that both haunts and thrills.

Mervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies

Peter Winnington's attractive and extended paperback edition was published just in time to be available at the opening of the wonderful Lignes de Fuite exhibition at La Maison d'Ailleurs in Switzerland. Incorporating many previously unseen photographs, drawings and paintings, his latest book sustains and develops the themes of his original hardback, Vast Alchemies, first published by Peter Owen Publishers in 2000. In both publications a sympathetic erudition shines through the whole text, making this latest biography mandatory for anyone interested in the subject.

The Swiss exhibition has been greatly enhanced by the loan of a large number of 1st edition publications by Mervyn Peake, kindly made available by Peter, all set out in the beautifully designed display cabinets where they are placed in date order, beginning with a 1st edition Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor from 1939. As well as the wide range of books on display in various rooms, salient dates and information about the writer, illustrator and poet were provided by Peter, whose help and assistance was invaluable to the Swiss team when organising the show.

How to get to Yverdon-les-Bains

La Maison d'Ailleurs (The Museum of Elsewhere) can be reached quite easily. From either Luton or Gatwick there are regular daily flights to Geneva Airport where, with Swiss efficiency a railway station is actually built into the airport and has regular trains; five minutes past every hour to Yverdon-les-Bains, (57 minutes). The museum is just 200 metres from the station.

There is a hotel two minutes from the station called Hotel du Theatre, which is quite reasonably priced and can be contacted on: 00 41 (0) 24 424 6000 or by email info@hotelyverdon.ch There are also several other hotels in the town and plenty of B & B accomodation.