Alice In Wonderland drawings on show in Sheffield

HE'S responsible for some of the most enduring images of Alice in Wonderland - now Mervyn Peak's work is going on display at Sheffield University Library.

Rachael Clegg caught up with his son, Sebastian.

IT'S one of the most familiar images in British culture.

Alice, with her big eyes, lost expression and pretty petticoat, is familiar to every child and adult in Britain.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has been adapted into more than 25 films, dozens of comics, theatre plays, TV dramas and has inspired several albums - but the most enduring images of Alice are those of writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake, whose absurd, slightly sinister images have shaped our perception of the timeless tale.

Now, in Sheffield, there is an exhibition of Peake's Alice in Wonderland images - including the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the White Rabbit and, of course, Alice.

Peake, who became famous for his gothic masterpiece the Gormenghast trilogy, completed his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in 1946, since when they've since been republished many times.

The illustrator and writer died in 1968 but his son, Sebastian, lives to tell his father's tale. Pointing to his father's picture of Alice, he told The Star: "I think he modelled her on my mother.

"I think Alice was based on my mother, who was a very beautiful woman, with an hourglass figure, and you can see the curvature of Alice's hip in some of the images.

"I remember looking at these drawings as a boy and thinking, 'What a great girl Alice is!'," he says.

Sebastian's memories of his childhood are illustrated by his dad's own illustrations.

"I remember him getting me to pose for some of the drawings. He'd say, 'Stand on the table and hold something like a knife'."

He also remembers the visual impact of some of the Alice illustrations.

"I remember seeing the card men, whose bodies were drawn as cards, and thinking, 'Where are their intestines kept? Where do there stomachs go if they are made of card?'," he says.

Looking at Mervyn Peake's images it's clear he had a sense of the absurd, the surreal and the grotesque.

His images of the Queen of Hearts show a lady thrust forward, with a huge backside, ridiculous hair and an exaggerated upper lip. Peake's drawing of the Crossing Sweeper from Charles Dickens's Bleak House shows an emaciated, coal-eyed boy.

"My father spent time in Belsen concentration camp at the end of the war as an artist," says Sebastian. "You can see an element of that in his drawing of the sweeper boy from Bleak House."

Peake travelled throughout the devastated German landscape as a war correspondent for Leader magazine. In his letters to his wife, Maeve Gilmore, he described what he saw as: "Terrible as the bombing of London was, it is absolutely nothing compared with this unutterable desolation."

In one letter he said: "Bonn was nothing to Cologne from the point of view of destruction. It is incredible how the cathedral has remained, lifting itself high into the air so gloriously, while around it the city lies broken to pieces, and in the city I smelt for the first time in my life the sweet, pungent, musty smell of death. It is still in the air, thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating."

Indeed, Peake's experiences were vast. He was raised in the Jiangxi Province of central China, where his father worked as a missionary doctor. But while in China he contracted a rare disease that lay dormant until his 40s.

Then, as a middle-aged man, he started to show signs of Parkinson's Disease, a condition that led to him being unable to draw with any precision.

Peake juggled his prolific illustrating career with a teaching job at Westminster School of Art and then at the Central School of Art, now known as St Martins.

"My father was always involved in either writing or painting," says Sebastian.

"I was about 10 when he was writing Gormenghast. He wrote it in the conservatory at the house we lived in and in bed - my mother would bring him a board and she'd feed him tea. He was very busy - working and teaching."

And the fun shown in his bizarre, fantastical images reflected his personality.

"He was a big practical joker so when he wasn't working he'd do these practical jokes.

"One of the things he'd do would be to glue pound notes to the ground near the bus stop outside our house.

"Then he'd get my brother and I to look and see how long it took before people bent down to pretend they were doing their shoelace.

"You'd see them trying to prise these notes from the floor but of course they couldn't because he had pasted them on so well. He always used to do slightly wacky things."

* The drawings of Mervyn Peake are on display at The University of Sheffield's Western Bank Library until September 29.

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