Mervyn Peake and Anthony Browne: A Visual Dialogue

I give you below two images:

The first one is by Mervyn Peake. It’s his illustration of the nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner”, from the book Ride a cock-horse and other nursery rhymes (British Library Publishing). Peake’s Little Jack Horner is most certainly sitting in a corner, accentuated by the light of the candle which only illuminates the bit of the floor where he sits (complete with mouse!) and the fantastic wallpaper where the two walls meet immediately around him. There’s a framed drawing/painting on one of the walls, mostly in a non-lit spot, and Jack’s rather naughty-looking face is all the money. The wallpaper features different shades of pink and pastel green and yellow colours. We can see patterns which include a lighthouse, fish, a seagull, flowers, a star.

So far, so good, you may say. What’s all the fuss about? Well, a few weeks ago I was having a look at Peake’s illustrated book of nursery rhymes (borrowed from my esteemed colleague Dr Rob Maslen) when I stumbled on this picture, and I immediately thought: “I know this! I’ve seen it before!”

Of course I had! I have been teaching picturebooks to undergraduate students for a good few years now, often using Anthony Browne‘s many excellent picturebooks as main texts. What I recognized in Peake’s illustration was – clearly – an hommage by Browne in his award-winning picturebook Gorilla.

So here’s my second image:

The story this picturebook tells is that of young Hannah, who wants her dad to spend time with her. She gets a toy gorilla for her birthday, who becomes a real-life gorilla at night, wears her father’s coat, and takes her out to see and do all the things her dad hasn’t had time to see and do with her: going to the cinema, visiting the zoo, having a meal in a café, etc. This particular image can be found towards the opening of the picturebook, which explores Hannah’s loneliness and isolation: instead of a candle, Hannah is sitting in a corner in front of a TV, which illuminates the floor and two meeting walls in exactly the same way as Peake’s illustration. Instead of sneakily eating plum pie, Hannah is having a lonely dinner (she’s holding a plate with a sandwich and an apple), once again without her dad. The wallpaper uses very similar pastel colours as Peake’s one: pink is clearly a deliberate choice here. But in the non-lit spots, it features instead rather scary creatures of the night, as well as the silhouette of a gorilla. Is the father-shaped gorilla (still to appear in the story) prefigured here as part of her dreams? He is definitely prefigured in the framed painting, which in this image shows pretty clearly a map of Africa.

Anthony Browne is a master of appropriating and adapting previous art and inserting it in picturebooks (see, for example, his website gallery). But I didn’t know this particular loan/adaptation until now. Actually, I’d rather not call it a loan or an adaptation, but a visual dialogue – Browne succeeds in both evoking Peake’s illustration, and doing something new, interesting, and appropriate to his particular text with it. I am looking forward to discovering more visual dialogues like this one! If you know of any more, please do add a comment!


Tolkien on 1930s BBC Radio via historical issues of Radio Times

The BBC Genome Project has been uploading on its site listings information which the BBC printed in Radio Times between 1923 and 2009. I’ve been meaning to have a little look there for Tolkien-related items for a while. There are many (315 entries) but I was particularly interested in programmes in which Tolkien himself participated in some way. I didn’t expect to find anything brand new – Tolkien scholarship has recorded and discussed Tolkien’s BBC interviews and other contributions for many years now. But there were still interesting finds! The earliest two of the Tolkien-related programmes found in this database are from the 1930s, and for this decade the Genome Project includes digitized files of the actual pages in the Radio Times with that particular day’s listings. So here we go:

1. ‘Pearl’, 7 August 1936, 23.40

This was a broadcast of parts of Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English poem ‘Pearl’, described in the Radio Times as “perhaps the loveliest of all old English poems”, a lament of a distraught father for his little daughter, complete with elements of dream vision and medieval allegory. The BBC Radio Times listing notes that:

This poem has been modernised by J. R. R. Tolkien in such a way that it keeps all the delicacy and atmosphere of the original mediaeval poem.

(BBC Radio Times, 7 Aug 1936)

At some point in or around early 1936 Tolkien had offered his translation of this poem to the London publisher J.M. Dent for publication but was rejected. However, Guy Pocock, who joined the BBC in 1936, saw it and recommended that the translation would make a good radio programme (see Tolkien Chronology, pp. 193, 199). Tolkien’s translation of “Pearl” wasn’t published until 1975, two years posthumously, together with his translations of Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight and Sir Orfeo.

What I find fascinating is perusing the programmes preceding Tolkien’s ‘Pearl’ – one can imagine Tolkien tuning in to hear his own translation being read out, and perhaps catching some of the programming around it. That particular Friday, the programme earlier that evening included a recording of a speech by Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, from what is described as the “International Boy Scouts’ Jamboree”, which, however, must be the Northern Counties Jamboree, at Raby Castle, near Staindrop, County Durham. I speculated in my 2008 monograph that Tolkien was at least familiar with scouting principles and learning, but we now know that he and his brother, Hillary, were definitely involved in the movement, having started three patrols of scouts at the Birmingham Oratory. I wonder whether Tolkien would have listened to Lord Baden Powell’s speech that evening, while waiting to listen to the broadcast of his translation of ‘Pearl’!

2. ‘Poetry Will Out’, 14 January 1938, 22:45

Following Tolkien’s seminal 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, C.V. Salmon of the BBC wrote to Tolkien to discuss the possibility of “a broadcast on Beowulf with a reading in the original Old English” (Tolkien Chronology, p. 220). This led to a very short talk which was broadcast on 14 January 1938, as part of a series of short programmes titled “Poetry Will Out”, subtitled: “Studies in National Inspiration and Characteristic Forms” (Radio Times, 14 Jan 1938). Later Tolkien enlarged this talk, parts of which Christopher Tolkien edited and published as an Appendix to The Fall of Arthur (2013), under the title “Old English Verse”.

Once more, the context of this short broadcast is interesting. The Genome Project lists 6 programmes in the “Poetry Will Out” series, with a clear aim:

The idea of this series is that poetry is to be found in the hearts of all peoples, although among different peoples it takes different forms. Some of these forms-the French sonnet, Scandinavian sagas, Italian epics, and so forth – are traced in this series.

(Radio Times, 3 Nov 1937)

Tolkien’s actually was the 6th and last broadcast of the series. Here is the full list of subjects and contributors, all by University Professors, one of whom was Tolkien’s close collaborator and friend, E.V. Gordon:

1. Wednesday 3 November 1937, “Persian Poetry”, by Sir E. Denison Ross, C.I.E., Professor of Persian in the University of London
2. Tuesday 23 November 1937, “The French Sonnet”, by Louis Brandin, Fielden Professor of French and of Romance Philology in the University of London
3. 11 December 1937, “The Nibelungenlied”, by Frederick Norman, Reader in German at King’s College, London
4. Thursday 16 December 1937, “Dante”, by Cesare Foligno, Serena Professor of Italian at Oxford
5. Thursday 30 December 1937, “The Icelandic Eddas”, by E. V. Gordon, Smith Professor of English language and Germanic Philology in the University of Manchester
6. Friday 14 January 1938, “Anglo-Saxon Verse”, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford

Let’s hope that the Genome Project will continue to digitize old Radio Times issues – let’s see what else we can discover about Tolkien’s BBC links!