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This article is taken from PN Review 199, Volume 37 Number 5, May - June 2011.Mervyn Peake's Illustrations for Rhymes Without Reason (1944)
Mervyn Peake only ever illustrated one book in full colour: his own Rhymes Without Reason, a collection of nonsense verse issued during the austerity years of the Second World War and praised by John Betjeman as the 'outstanding' publication of December 1944. But to describe the book as illustrated is misleading. Each picture looks out on a vibrantly coloured landscape more complex than the text it accompanies. Take the giraffe who is slow to respond to jokes because his laughter takes so long to travel from his belly to his face. In the picture, he's just been distracted by a Bohemian-looking lion while reading a book (perhaps Rhymes Without Reason?); another reason for his unreasonable slowness. His neck is encircled by a collar and intersected at one point, behind, by a leafy branch; both details suggest potential stoppage points for laughter's progress. He's being watched by a suspicious owl and an overconfident frog, but his enormous eyes are turned away from all three of his tormentors; and no wonder! The sea and sky behind him are wide and strange enough to drown in. If nonsense art (verbal or pictorial) defiantly turns away from the worn-out chains of cause and effect by which we mendaciously claim to govern our lives, this image embodies nonsense art. The strange sea and sky in the picture return in various moods in other pictures, emblematic of limitless space, unrestricted horizons, despite the domestic objects arranged in front of them. Other illustrations add to the bizarre menagerie that surrounds the giraffe, interpreting the speakers in several poems ('How Mournful to Imagine', 'I Wish I Could Remember', 'A Languorous Life') as beasts when there is no hint of this in the texts. If we human beings are big, fierce, cloth-covered animals, who weep, wear hats, and tell pirate stories to our children, then we haven't yet discovered the rules or conventions by which we operate, and our lives are far more vivid than we let ourselves imagine - except when a painter-poet like Peake succeeds in catching us unawares.
This article is taken from PN Review 199, Volume 37 Number 5, May - June 2011.