Sunday, 12 June 2011

Under A Canvas Sky - Clare Peake

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hold Mervyn Peake to have been a genius. As a painter, illustrator, poet and novelist he excelled. But there is one aspect of his genius that is rarely listed, but which should not be overlooked. In collaboration with his wife Maeve Gilmore (a superb artist in her own right), he was a genius parent.

If you want proof, read this book. It is there in several ways. To begin with, the story it tells. Clare was the youngest child of the Peakes and her father’s illness began when she was seven. The harrowing tale of this wonderful artist’s descent into a living hell has been documented more fully elsewhere. It still makes me cry. The perspective here is of a child. Clare Peake does not attempt an adult’s retrospective other than to explain this was her life and, as a child, hard as it was (and the pain emerges later), that is how it was.

To write so confidently and simply about this, as Clare Peake does, is a great gift. She tells her story. And it becomes clear just what wonderful parents she had, that their talents as artists spilled over into their care for their children. It was not conventional. On the other hand it was not outrageously bohemian. It was a childhood of love. Because the artistic genius of the parents did not make them precious, did not make them feel superior to lesser mortals (unlike some of the unprintable people they met along the way, especially when Mervyn Peake became ill).

As a combination of biography and memoir it does not gloss over the bad times, but neither does it dwell on them. This is no rosy-visioned romp in a perfect childhood; but neither is it a misery fest. The straightness, openness, and honesty of the work is also a testament to the genius of the parents who laid the groundwork for someone who has had to grow up and make a life of their own knowing they had famous parents. And it is clear from this work, those foundations were strong.

Having read widely about the Peakes, this is a fresh perspective. It tells a familiar story without once making you think you’ve been there before. No mean feat. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity, the story is told with equal clarity (and having grown up through the same period, I have to confess there was a great deal of nostalgia on my part and a nodding of the head in agreement with sentiments expressed), and I feel privileged to have been allowed another glimpse into the life of this family.