To celebrate 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (aka the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), The British Library have put on a brilliant free exhibition that takes you through the many different illustrations and interpretations of this classic children’s story that has continued to fascinate and capture people’s imaginations for over a century. From Lewis Carroll’s own painstakingly precise illustrations, found in the original manuscript, to the surreal qualities of Salvador Dali, Alice has attracted a wide variety of artists who have interpreted the story in many interesting ways.
Although I am extremely familiar with the story-line of Alice in Wonderland this is mainly due to Disney’s remaking of it in the 1950s and Tim Burton’s adaptation a few years ago (also produced by Disney). I don’t think I ever read the book as a child, though I quickly rectified this shortly after visiting the exhibition and will review it on the blog soon. The classic image of Alice as a young, beautiful girl with long blonde hair, wearing a blue dress with a white pinafore, is in fact a Disney creation (though this doesn’t come as a surprise to me at all). In fact, Alice was originally modelled on the young Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of the cathedral college in Oxford, whom Carroll met after numerous failed attempts to photograph the Cathedral. He then went on to photograph Alice and her two sisters, neither of whom minded sitting still for long periods of time as Carroll came up with such wonderfully imaginative stories to occupy their minds.
On one momentous occasion, Carroll took the three girls on a river expedition and it was here that he related one of the first Alice’s Adventures Under Ground stories, as he originally called it. Lewis Carroll continued to work on this story and eventually presented Alice with the original manuscript which permanently resides in the British Library and is on display in this particular exhibition. The reason why it took so long (around two years) to complete was because of the 37 illustrations he had done by hand. By 1865, after some encouragement by friends to publish the story, an edition by Macmillan came out under the name Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with illustrations by John Tenniel. Through the exhibition you can see that Tenniel worked very closely with Carroll to create accurate representations of his work.
What is most fascinating about the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as highlighted in the exhibition, is how revolutionary it was. When it was first published, there was nothing like it or equal to it in children’s literature at the time. Unlike the majority of resources for children, Carroll created something that didn’t rely on Victorian sentiments or educational instruction – it was a completely fantastical and imaginative work of art that was meant to entertain the young daughters of the Dean. However, at the same time Carroll litters his story with word-plays, puns, witticisms and symbolism which has continued to spark the interest of adults. Numerous interpretations of the novel’s ‘meaning’ have arisen over the last century, as well as revisions or parodies of the original version to comment on certain social, cultural or political events.
This exhibition will be on until the 17th April, 2016, along with an accompanying pop-up shop with some beautiful editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on sale until the end of January.