Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast
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Clare Peake, daughter of the celebrated writer and artist Mervyn Peake, tells the story of her parents' romance and her own happy and bohemian childhood. Mervyn Peake was born in China, the son of medical missionaries, and the juxtaposition of his exotic surroundings and the very English manners at home had a lasting effect on him. Reading Treasure Island until he could recite it by heart and waiting for comics to arrive from England had him living a childhood bursting with imagery. He returned to England to study at the Royal Academy School and was then offered a teaching post at Westminster School of Art. There his charismatic and un-worldly presence made a huge impact: none more so than on Maeve Gilmore, a seventeen-year-old sculpture student. The couple fell passionately in love but Maeve's parents were determined their daughter would not marry a penniless artist and sent her away to forget him. She didn't and, refusing to be parted ever again, they married when Maeve was nineteen and Mervyn twenty-six. Mervyn Peake developed Parkinson's disease aged forty-five. His decline was rapid and he spent time in and out of mental hospitals until his death at fifty-seven, the diagnosis never fully understood. Clare Peake writes movingly of the impact on the family and her mother's determination to continue giving her children the happiness she felt all children deserved.
Maeve was left to cope with it all, and her insomnia was so acute she was hospitalised and sedated herself for a day or two. She told me her dreams had been extraordinary. I’ve forgotten them now. While I was continuing with life at school, the mystery of Dad’s illness continued. With one doctor contradicting another, it was difficult for Maeve to know what to do for the best. After being referred to, and having lengthy consultations with, a neurologist, it was decided that he have a lobotomy.
It was such a huge decision for my mother to make but we all hoped fervently this would be the answer to all our prayers. I was at school on the day of the operation, while Maeve sat in a cinema watching, of all things, Pollyanna, seeing everything and seeing nothing, terrified the decision to operate would be the wrong one. The omens were already there. As she held her brother-in-law Lonnie’s hand throughout the film, she failed to notice the man who sidled in next to her to steal the handbag
cotton wool separating our crimson toenails, our hair curled in gigantic rollers, a silk scarf tied around our alien-like heads, we chatted together. I found a garish copy of Lady Sings the Blues at home, which told me some of the facts of Billie Holiday’s short and troubled life and, at the time, I thought everything I read about her as imperative as the music I listened to over and over again. If this now seems overly romantic, I’m not embarrassed. The adults surrounding me day in and day out
batch of friends. Reading was still my passionate response to the world and it was at this time that I first read Antonia White’s quartet of books beginning with Frost in May. Maeve had done the original dust jackets for The Lost Traveller and The Sugar House and I read all four books as if in a trance. I walked around the house with a book in my hand, unable to bear interruption, transfixed by Clara Batchelor’s convent childhood, her marriages, her affairs, her complex life and, finally, her
their funky, romantic clothes, and I once spent a whole week’s wages on a loud statement of a man’s coat in orange and green checked Harris Tweed from Quorum, Ossie Clarke’s shop. A beautiful crêpe de chine dress and an embroidered cardigan could be picked up for a reasonable price in the Chelsea Antique Market and there was never a chance that anyone else would be wearing it. London was more segregated, everything happened in a much smaller radius, and friends were more localised. We went to