Judi Dench played Alice Liddell in John Logan’s Peter and Alice in 2013 which explored what it meant to be saddled with a fictional creation for a lifetime. Alice of course was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, while Ben Whishaw played the tragic Peter Llewelyn Davies, the man who was once Peter Pan. These characters have become ingrained images of childhood, and while Alice Liddell had to live with her fictional alter-ego with all its expectations and pressures, as this new British Library exhibition shows our image of Alice has barely changed in 150 years, and illustrators who deviated from the prototype were criticised.
So, Alice, short, long probably blonde hair held back with an Alice band, blue dress, white apron – are you forming a picture in your mind? Chances are it’s the Disney-version of Alice or thereabouts, which itself was inspired by the original illustrator John Tenniel. Alice in Wonderland, a free exhibition on the first floor of the British Library which runs until April, explores where this image comes from and why, so many years later, this character continues to exert a hold over our imagination.
It begins with the least successful part of the exhibition, a summary of the story on giant wooden stands using the various illustrations since publication and a series of slightly distorted mirrors, but it’s not entirely clear whether these are meant to reflect the audience, or flip the accompanying illustration and get us to see Alice from different perspectives. Maybe it’s both, but the mirrors aren’t quite warped enough to make a clear point and by the time you reach the eighth or ninth of these it’s become a bit repetitive.
But speed past this minor distraction and the British Library is on considerably firmer ground in its presentation of the books, prints and ephemera celebrating Carroll’s famous book. At the start, we learn about the story behind the story, how Lewis Carroll met the Liddell family and made up fantastical tales for their daughter Alice which he eventually committed to paper. In this section is the original handwritten manuscript with Carroll’s own illustrations which he later presented to Miss Liddell, as well as prints of the original Alice herself. Pretty quickly the story was published and John Tenniel was called upon to illustrate the text and in doing so created a long-lasting picture of Alice.
Heavily involved in the publication process, the exhibition includes Carroll’s diary recording the details of book binding, pricing and working with Tenniel on the illustrations. As we see here, these were clearly influenced by Carroll’s original concepts, but Tenniel expanded them and original woodblocks are on display showing the incredible detail of his work which is both formally Victorian while still perfectly representing the magical land of the story. There is also a darkness to them which may have passed you by as a child but the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts and even in some scenes, Alice herself, look a bit sinister. But the overwhelming feeling when you see these pictures is just how familiar they are, totally reinforcing the British Library’s central argument that these character portraits have barely changed in 150 years.
Once the book was out of copyright and after Carroll’s death there was an explosion of alternative ‘Alices’ and the next section of the exhibition looks chronologically at these illustrations while gauging their relative success. As well as pure reprints which fascinatingly reimagined Alice for their times, there are also examples of how the characters have been used to satirise political or social issues of the past, including the behaviour of the British government in the 1930s faced by the threat of Hitler’s ambition. As well as a history of children’s literature, here these works also sit in a longer tradition of comic-like ridicule that goes back to Hogarth and the political cartoonists of the eighteenth-century.
By the time we reach the 1960s, the pictures become more absurdist and abstract, and while the characters still have that Tenniel look, there is clearly an attempt to break free of more conventional approaches, so the final part of the exhibition which looks at more subversive takes is full of brash colours and wacky interpretations. Interestingly, for children’s stories, in a lot of these images Alice and co never lose that sinister feel that Tenniel introduced so long ago, and whether you’re looking at Ralph Steadman’s version or Salvador Dali’s abstract vision it’s no cosy children’s tale.
Peppered throughout this interesting show are a number of additional exhibits that have been inspired by Carroll’s story including ornaments, video games that you can try out and merchandise from the Disney film which solidified our picture of Wonderland. Added to this are animations, music and some newly commissioned articles which make a semi-interactive and comprehensive examination of this story’s influence.
This is a small exhibition in the main entrance and as it is free was quite crowded on a weekend afternoon. But if you can’t go during the week then give yourself plenty of time to get round it because bearing with the crowds will be worth it. As always with the Library, there is a lot to read with plenty of detailed signs explaining the artefacts as well as summarising each section as you move from the background to the original story, through mass circulation to reimagining and reinventing familiar characters. You’ll leave knowing not just how influential Carroll’s vision has been on children’s literature both through the text and his own illustrations that guided Tenniel, but also how this story has emerged from its pages to become a significant and un-waning cultural influence. More than anything you’ll understand why the image of Alice affected her inspiration, Alice Liddell, for the rest of her life and why we continue to find it fascinating today.
Alice in Wonderland is at the British Library until 17 April and entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.