Chop down the gallows on Execution Dock; fill us a bumper of Jamaica
for – once again –
Reports from the log of the ‘Black Tiger’
first came to the world’s notice in the hand of Ship’s Calligrapher, Mervyn Peake, when the world had more devilish villains to attend to than the crew of a ramshackle galleon.
was the year, and twenty-eight year-old Peake, who was making a name for himself as an artist, had had the book accepted by Country Life (probably through the agency of Noel Carrington, that progressive editorial spirit). It derived first from Peake’s passion for islands – he had much of Treasure Island by heart – and second from several experimental drafts. What finally emerged was an ‘integrated book’, text and illustration hand-drawn as a unity, with the only colour appearing, rather drably, on the binding and dust-jacket.
It was hardly a thrilling yarn.
Page by page you are introduced to the pirate-crew, including such buccaneers as Billy Bottle, Jonas Joints and Peter Poop, who has a cork nose. The chief event is their discovery of a pink island where, among many strange beasts, there dwells the Yellow Creature. He joins the gang and, surviving much offstage brigandage (unlike the crew), he returns with the Captain to the pink island where they spend their days catching baroque fish.
What’s classic about it
is its parade of oddity. The full-page portraits of pirates and local fauna (Balleroon … Dignipomp … Guggaflop …) are pure caricature, and the antics of the Yellow Creature are pointlessly barmy – although he’s a good cook and gets on well with the Captain, judging by the conspiratorial leer that he gives us while lazing on the grass, eating a banana. Peake’s logging of events is serviceable and concludes with a beautifully-fashioned cadence.
But then – Bang!
Not a ship’s cannon, but a German bomb. Soon after publication Country Life’s warehouse was hit and most copies of the Captain’s history went up in smoke. (Unforeseen at the time, this would result in surviving copies changing hands for chestfuls of doubloons.)
Not the end of the story though.
In 1945 a new edition was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode, one of whose directors was Graham Greene, who admired Peake’s work. According to the blurb, the artist had now ‘coloured the plates’ – presumably to relieve the earlier black-and-white severity – but with weird results. Here and there whole pages are washed with a single tint – blue, pink, grey, yellow – while elsewhere touches of a second colour may be added, or large portions of pirates or mythical beasts left entirely uncoloured.
Such heterogeneous demands
made on the printer were expensive and, before long, the captain and his friend retired from view for some twenty-two years. Then a third version appeared in both Britain and the USA, making a rather weedy compromise: most of the book being monochrome but with a yellow tint introduced at strategic moments. This was not satisfactory and although by this time Peake was seriously ill with Parkinson’s Disease he roused himself sufficiently to find the added colour offensive, claiming that it obscured his line-work.
So what of Two Thousand and One?
For last year a wholly reconstituted Slaughterboard sailed in. The format was almost doubled and two designers, Julia Thompson and Daniel Devlin, had prepared a palette of tints which enhance rather than obscure Peake’s subtle drawing and stippling. It may be a trifle sophisticated for an old stubble-chinned mariner with holes in his socks (‘wot’s it wiv them sky-blue endpapers then?’) but the Yellow Creature will love it and I’m sure that Mervyn Peake would have done so too.
P.S. Peake’s genius as writer and illustrator of books for children is largely disregarded (how many readers, for instance, recognise in Anthony Browne’s Gorilla a ‘quote’ from Peake’s wonderful nursery-rhyme book Ride a Cock Horse?) Just lately though his remarkable pen-drawings for the two ‘Alice’ books have been digitally re-mastered for publication by Bloomsbury, with a poncy limited edition of captioned images only from Libanus Press (folio in sky-blue cloth at £140 a time).
The illustrations are taken from the 2001 edition published by Walker Books (0 7445 8122 2, £12.99 hbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.