Art & Collectibles

Gormenghast Automata - Mervyn Peake's One-of-a-Kind Accessory

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This is the 'Gormenghast Automata' - the ultimate one of a kind accessory for fans of Mervyn Peake, the British novelist who created the Gormenghast trilogy of gothic fantasy novels.

Custom built by an anonymous Gormenghast-loving English craftsman from wood and metal, this brand new automated mechanical device depicts Peake's ominous castle and some of its unusual inhabitants. Do you have a space among your bookshelves for it? It will definitely be a talking point on book club evenings.

Automata, self-operating machines that follow a predetermined set of actions, have a long history and most frequently have been associated with clocks. Powered by mains electricity, this automata measures 69" / 176 cm in width X 69" /176 cm in height X 15" 40 cm deep, and is divided into compartments featuring automated marionettes in motion. The device can be dismantled into its respective elements for easy transportation.

Peake's cult trilogy is Titus Groan (published 1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). The author died in 1967 at the age of 57 before any further installments could be completed. His plots focus on the vast castle, which some inhabitants never leave, and the rituals associated with daily life inside its decaying walls. "The castle was round and about them, widespread and as unchartable as a dark day," writes Peake in Gormenghast.

Interest in Gormenghast has grown in the decades since Peake's death. In 1984 and 2011, BBC Radio 4 broadcasted adaptations, while in 2000 there was a star-studded BBC TV adaptation with the likes of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ian Richardson and Christopher Lee.

The characters featured in the Gormenghast Automata include:

  • Sepulchrave, the book-loving 76th Lord of Groan and father to Titus Groan,
  • Identical twins Lady Clarice and Lady Cora Groan, Titus' aunts,
  • Gertrude Countess of Groan, Titus' mother, and a large number of her beloved cats,
  • Dr Prunesquallor, the castle's resident eccentric physician,
  • Irme Prunesquallor, the doctor's vain sister,
  • Abiather Swelter, Gormenghast's sadistic chef,
  • Professor Bellgrove, Titus' teacher,
  • Steerpike, the villainous outsider who becomes part of the household,
  • The Grey Scrubbers whose only job is to polish the kitchen walls.

The Gormenghast Automata is offered for sale by Eclectica in Cheltenham via the AbeBooks marketplace for $98,700. Eclectica creates custom-built objects - ranging from automata to luxury tree houses, one-off coffee table books and bespoke marionettes - for high-end clients. Customers include Crystal Hefner, the final wife of Playboy's Hugh Hefner who purchased mermaid and submarine automata.

"There's a mild whirring of rubber bands and cams turning and the occasional click of metal parts or the knock of wood on wood," said Ian Stevens of Eclectica, describing the sounds produced when the Gormenghast machine is in motion. "Different sections do different things at different times. A movement in one section might appear to be happening quite quickly when elsewhere something else is moving slowly. It is very complex.

"Victorian automata existed in a world where steam engines and remote communication were just starting. In an age where much of the inner workings of new inventions was on show, automata hid their secrets away. The new wave of British automata makers proudly display the inner workings of their creations as part of the art. Visually these automata have more in common with medieval trebuchet (siege catapult) and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci than with any 20th or 21st century technology.

"We created Hugh Hefner's birthday and Christmas gifts for a few years. These have been quite diverse bespoke items and one of my favorites was a beautiful antique-looking globe that we created in a 1940's style and themed on Hef's favorite movie Casablanca."

Peake (1911-1968) was a versatile man who wrote fiction and poetry, illustrated other peoples' books and also painted and drew. His first book was a children's story about pirates called Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). In 1940, he illustrated Ride a Cock Horse and Other Nursery Rhymes. He began writing Titus Groan during his World War II service in the Royal Artillery.

He went on to illustrate Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Hunting of the Snark and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Brothers Grimm's Tales, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He even designed the logo for Pan Books. However, Peake never enjoyed prolonged mainstream success and still remains something of an unknown to many people today.

Half a dozen volumes of Peake's poetry were published during his lifetime - Shapes & Sounds (1941), Rhymes without Reason 1944, The Glassblowers (1950), The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962), Poems & Drawings (1965), and A Reverie of Bone (1967).

However, it's Gormenghast that continues to fascinate readers and what he will be best remembered for. G. Peter Winnington has written several books about Peake, covering his writing and art, if you wish to learn more.

What's the most unusual book-related object you own?

What's the most unusual book-related object you own?

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