Mervyn Peake's Ancient Mariner Drawings Bought By Wordsworth Trust

By Graham Spicer | 07 August 2007
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pen and ink drawing of an albatros falling to the ocean with a crossbow bolt through it

The albatros, fateful bird in Coleridge's poem. Image courtesy The Art Fund

The Wordsworth Trust has acquired a collection of original Mervyn Peake illustrations for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Peake is best known as the author of the Gormenghast trilogy but also worked as a successful illustrator and the seven drawings are considered to be his greatest achievement as an artist.

They had been on loan to the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, the Lake District, as part of a temporary exhibition of illustrations of the poem. Peake’s family subsequently offered them to the Trust for £35,000, a price well below their market value.

pen and ink drawing of a man knelt on a ship's deck on the sea clutching a dead albatros to his chest

The mariner and the albatros. Image courtesy The Art Fund

His children had felt that the Wordsworth Trust and Dove Cottage – Wordsworth’s home where Coleridge was a frequent guest – was the ideal home for the pictures. The purchase was made possible by a full grant from The Art Fund.

“The generosity of the Peake family in offering them at a price less than their market value has enabled the Trust to secure these great works for the nation,” said David Wilson, the Robert Woof Director of the Wordsworth Trust.

“Their acquisition will greatly enhance the existing research collection housed by the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, and will help the Trust achieve its charitable objective of advancing the public knowledge and enjoyment of the literature and culture of the Romantic period (1750 to 1850)."

"Specifically, they will help the Trust to show how the literature and culture of the Romantic period has influenced and inspired successive generations of artists.”

pen and ink drawing of a skeleton with lipstick and red hair

Life in Death. Image courtesy The Art Fund

The illustrations will be on display at the museum until the end of September 2007, after which they will be placed in the Trust’s Jerwood Centre for research in Grasmere and viewable by appointment.

The Wordsworth Trust already possesses a large collection of the many illustrated editions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, including early editions by David Scott (1837) up to contemporary works by Hunt Emerson (1989).

Peake’s illustrations of the poem are, however, regarded by many as the most powerful, and were drawn in 1943 while he was recovering from a nervous breakdown.

pen and ink drawing of an old man with a long beard and in tattered robes gesticulating

The ancient mariner, recounting his haunting tale. Image courtesy The Art Fund

He had previously illustrated Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark in 1941 and went on to produce popular editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in 1946 and 1954.

“Dark, nightmarish, sometimes terrifying though they are, his drawings nevertheless succeed in conveying the elusive redemptive possibilities that Coleridge imagines in the poem but never quite captures,” added David Wilson.

“Peake’s figures are stranded in an obscure, desolate world, but still retain an austere dignity and gracefulness, exciting our sympathy without ever becoming merely pitiable.”

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