Mervyn Peake (1911-68) is best known today for his 'Gormenghast' fantasy novels, but during his own lifetime he was probably much better known for his remarkable skill as an illustrator. To celebrate his 100th anniversary, the Laing Gallery has assembled a spectacular exhibition of artwork from the many different stages of his career.
Book illustration has always been an underrated art that demands the highest levels of technical skill on work that might be glanced over in a moment by the casual reader. Peake was a master of the form and his title page to 'Household Tales' for example still astonishes with its detailed lines and character sketches. There are also some exquisite illustrations here for 'Treasure Island', 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde' and 'Snow White', including a particularly memorable image of Snow White herself that looks remarkably like Kate Bush in all her 'Wuthering Heights' pomp.
Most of the work in the first gallery is in black & white, so it comes as something of a revelation to encounter his spectacular colour plates for 'Rhymes Without Reason' (1949) in the second room. It is however his own 'Gormenghast' books that provide some of the most inspired work here and for me the stand-out piece in the whole exhibition is the pen, ink & wash illustration of his character 'Steerpike': a hauntingly life-like image that would not look out of place in a portrait gallery. Even if you don't like Peake the writer, Peake the illustrator is well worth investigating.