Mervyn Peake – Mr Pye, 1953

And you, sir, you the artist, the beauty-maker, how are you, sir? What are your thoughts? What are your ambitions? What are you painting these days? Ah, I would dearly have loved to be a painter had I not received that call to other fields – and what a wheezy call it was, and how wet the fields were – ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! – but I am beyond you, no? No? And you, Tintagieu, have you never longed to paint, to draw, to wield a full brush and slap the colours on, one! two! three! and away we go, plunging into the golden ochre, whisking the cimson from the palette, flicking on the viridian, and they presto! There you are, a thing of beauty, a radiance, an act, an utterance!’

‘That’s not my idea of painting.’ said Thorpe.

‘Of course it isn’t my friend. Why shouldn’t it be You are altogether more tentative. But that would be my way of painting. We can only speak for ourselves in these matters.’

Thorpe, who had rather screwed up his courage to to interrupt Mr Pye, for he did not want Tintagiue to suppose that he was unable to stand up to such a spate of words, he now wished he had kept his mouth shut. Rather resentfully, he added, ‘I don’t know about “tentative”.’

‘But I do.’ Said Mr Pye, ‘I know all about it. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is merely that you are a man on the defensive more than a man who attacks. I would not say that you are timid –  that is not the word. I would say that you are careful.’

‘Are you talking about me or my painting?’

‘They are the same thing,’ said Mr Pye. ‘How can anythng come out you that is not you.’

‘You told me once that I was a channel,’ said Thorpe, rather irritably, ‘and that what p-passed through me was not me, but God. I was just a k-kind of pipe, you said. It was absolute rubbish of course, but it hardly tallies with what you are saying now, does it?’ Oh these theories.’ He added in a voice of scorn and with a flourish of his free arm (for Mr Pye still held the elbow of the other) – ‘these theories about Art, they are all absolute n-nonsense.’ (He was winding himself up, for Tintagieu was listening-he hoped.) ‘Can’t you see the whole thing is an organized racket? The p-painter digs his heart up and tries to sell it. The heart specilaists become interested, for the thing is still b-beating. The hangers-on begin to suck the blood. They lick each other like c-cats. They bare their fangs like d-dogs. The whole thing is pitiful. Art is in the hands of the amateurs’ the Philistines, the racketeers, the Jews, the snarling women and the raging queers to whom Soutine is “ever so pretty” and Rembrandt “ever so s-sweet”.

‘What do the galleries know? They are only m-merchants. They sell pictures instead of lamp-shades and that’s the only difference. And the critics – Lord, what clever b-boys they are! They know everything about painting. That’s why I came out here to get away from it all. The jungle of London with its millions of apes. I came out here to find myself, but have I done so? No, Mr Pye Of c-course I haven’t. For artists need competition and the stimulus of other b-brains whether they like it or not. They must talk painting, b-breathe painting and be c-covered with paint. That is the kind of man I would talk to. A man c-covered with paint. And with paint in his hair and paint in the brain and on the b-brain – but where are they, these men? They’re in the great cities, among the m-monkeys where they can see each other work and fight it out, while as f-far as the public is concerned thay might as well be knitting, or blowing b-bubbles, for even you, Mr Pye, if you don’t mind my saying so, haven’t got a c-clue to what it’s all about, as your ridiculous “slap it on”, “whisk it off”, and “hey presto” attitude shows all t-too clearly. Your idea about colours is “the more the b-better”, and “bright as p-possible”, like a herbaceous d-distillation of an attitude, it is a credo.’

The painter, breathless, turned his head to Tintagieu. He had not let himself go like this for years. He had forgetton that he cared so much – and when he turned to her his eyes were shining. But hers were shut. What was she thinking? He turned to Mr Pye. They had come to a halt by the ugly palm.

Mr Pye’s face was pink with admiration. He ran his eyes over the painter as though he had never seen him before. He turned his head quickly to Tintagieu as though for corroboration and then he ran his eyes again all over Thorpe. ‘That was superb,’ he whispered, as though to himself. ‘What an argument this young man could put up fif he only had the time. What do you think, Tintagieu? –but here comes our sailor with the coffee.’

His outburst over, the painter felt rather foolish. Tintagieu had a far-away look inher big black eyes –but when Mr Pye turned to her suddenly and cried: ’A penny for them! A penny for them!’ She muttered: ‘I must go,’ She turned to Miss Dredger, ‘Come and see me,’ she said, ‘any evening, dear, but not after nine.’

‘Damn it Tanty, you can’t go s-suddenly like this, just when…’

‘Must go dear: must go, my paint-box darling. Dolly needs her bottle – you should know that by now.’

Chapter 30

The painter, when at last he fell asleep after a night of supreme doubt as to his own sanity, dreamed of roses filled with dew. Inside the roses sat fairies with wings of standard gauze. Each Fairy had on a tiny panama hat. Their eyes were huge like Tin tagieu’s, but this was rather spoiled by the fact that they were all smoking ‘Three Star’ cigarettes like Miss Dredger. Every now and then they’d sing in chorus, their voices thin as the cry of gnats:

“He’ll never be an artist! ha ha ha

He’ll never be an artist, ha ha ha

He’s too thin. His beard’s all wrong.

Tanty doesn’t want him — ha ha ha!

He’ll never be an artist, poor old thing.

Goya, yes! Heronumus, yes!

Michelangelo, yes! Hiroshiga, yes!

Picasso, yes! But pooor little paint-box



Mervyn Peake, 1911-1968.  Mr Pye, 1953. (Chapter 24)

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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