The Art of Breaking the Rules

Unlike other comics that focus on superheroes protecting the law, The Beano is about the joy of breaking them. As the longest-running weekly comic, The Beano has entertained children for over 80 years with characters who refuse to obey the laws. This is the inspiration for the current exhibition at Somerset House in London, curated by artist Andy Holden (b.1982). Holden works by the philosophy that “You cannot make art if you stick to the rules.” He did not want to create an art exhibition; instead, he wanted visitors to walk directly into The Beano world and experience life as a comic book character. By bending the rules (and waiting for other rules to lift, e.g. COVID-19 regulations), Holden created a spectacular exhibition that takes people on a journey from 1938 until the present day.

Many characters have come and gone throughout The Beano’s production, most notably Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger. The majority of characters are human, but the first edition, published on 30th July 1938, introduced Big Eggo, the ostrich. The big bird was the first character to appear on the front page of the comic and remained there until 1948. Each strip began with the words “Somebody’s taken my egg again!” followed by Big Eggo’s comical attempt to retrieve it.

The Beano, published by DC Thomson, aimed to replicate American weekly comic strips on a larger scale. They also wanted to appeal to children, so asked themselves, “What would a child find funny?” After much discussion, the publishers and illustrators agreed that children did not like being told what to do, which sparked several ideas for rule-breaking characters. The first edition of The Beano sold 443,000 copies, forecasting the comic’s success for the future.

The name “Beano” is a short form of “bean-feast”. During the 19th century, a bean-feast was usually part of a celebratory meal, often held during the summer. It derived from the Twelfth Night feast celebrated in January, during which an object or “bean” was hidden within a cake for one lucky participant, who earned the title “Bean King”. Whilst The Beano stories did not revolve around food, the final panels often depicted the characters tucking into a meal: usually a pile of mashed potato with sausages poking out. In some ways, food was the ultimate reward at the end of a day of breaking rules, particularly when the characters got away with it. 

Readers of The Beano in the 1940s and early 50s related to the characters’ love of food. In the aftermath of the Second World War, certain foods were difficult to obtain, and families were only entitled to a small portion of their favourite items. Bacon, butter, sugar, jam and sweets were rationed, so having any of these items was a real treat.

One of the most memorable Beano characters is Dennis the Menace, who first appeared in the 452nd issue on 17th March 1951. The eternal 10-year-old has caused havoc and broken rules for over 70 years, often with the help of a slingshot and faithful pet dog. Gnasher, the Abyssinian wire-haired ‘tripehound’, joined Dennis in 1961 and has not left his side since.

Cartoonist David “Davey” Law (1908-1971) created Dennis the Menance and gave him his iconic red-and-black-striped jumper, large shoes, and impish grin. George Moonie (1914-2002), the editor at the time, suggested the name after hearing the British music hall song I’m Dennis the Menace from Venice sung by Eddie Pola (1907-95).

Dennis is the archetypal badly-behaved schoolboy and often finds himself in trouble with his parents. The bully often goes out of his way to tease “softies” (well-behaved boys), especially his next-door neighbour, Walter. The Beano does not condone bad behaviour and often shows Dennis’ punishments for picking on other boys. On occasion, Walter gets the last laugh when Dennis’ plans backfire.

Contrasting with Dennis’ deliberately awful behaviour, Roger “the Dodger” Dawson does not intend to cause trouble. Instead, Roger goes out of his way to avoid responsibilities, punishments and rules. By dodging all the things he does not want to do, Roger often creates much more work for himself.

Roger the Dodger, first drawn by Ken Reid (1919-87), appeared in 1953 and has featured in most of The Beano issues ever since. Over time, his appearance has altered to suit contemporary styles, but Roger remains recognisable from his red-and-black chequered jumper. Roger remains the second-longest-running character in The Beano, behind Dennis the Menace.

Following Roger the Dodger’s success, The Beano introduced a character to appeal to female readers. Minnie the Minx burst onto the scene in December 1953 with illustrations by Leo Baxendale (1930-2007). Minnie showed girls that they could stand up for themselves and take no notice of silly boys. With her flaming red hair and red and black jersey, Minnie is the perfect rival for Dennis the Menace and even stole his much-loved slingshot.

Minnie is a typical tomboy who hates being told what to do. In her first appearance, The Beano described Minnie as “wild as wild can be”, and she has lived up to this ever since. Her mother’s attempt to get Minnie to explore her creative side quickly backfired when Minnie misunderstood the purpose of a “scrapbook”. Minnie certainly got into a lot of scraps, beating her classmates up with the book instead of using it for its intended purpose.

As well as Minnie the Minx, Leo Baxendale created The Bash Street Kids, who first appeared in Issue 604 in February 1954. The nine children attend Class 2B of Beanotown’s local school, although they would rather be doing anything but classwork. Baxendale wanted to create “a surreal school, unlike any school that existed in real life” and achieved this by including dangerous antics that no child would ever pull off in reality.

When Baxendale left The Beano in 1962, David Sutherland (b.1933) took over, incorporating Baxendale’s style into contemporary settings throughout his long career. Each Bash Street Kid has a name and unique characteristics, such as the leader of the gang, Daniel “Danny” Deathshead Morgan, who always wears a skull and crossbones jumper and a floppy red school cap. When the comic strip characters overlap, Danny emphasises his dislike of Dennis the MenaceRoger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx.

The least mischievous of The Bash Street Kids is ‘Erbert, full name Herbert Henry Hoover. Resembling a human mole, ‘Erbert wears thick-rimmed glasses and is often teased by the other students. Any mischief involving ‘Erbert is usually accidental and caused by his inability to see. Freddy is also teased for his appearance and his love of eating. The obese character went by the name Fatty until May 2021, when it changed to Freddy to stop children from using the name as an insult for overweight classmates.

The nicest member of The Bash Street Kids is a tall, gangly boy with protruding ears, two buck teeth and a wide nose called Percival Proudfoot Plugsley. Known as Plug, the boy is sympathetic towards the others when they are unfairly treated. Despite his exaggerated facial features, Plug thinks he is the most handsome boy in Beanotown. Similarly, James Jasper Cameron, nicknamed Spotty, is proud of the 976 black spots covering his face and is not embarrassed by his appearance.

Kate “Toots” Pye is the only female member of the original gang. She and her twin brother, Sydney, both wear blue and black striped jumpers and have dark hair. Unlike the others, Toots is nice to Minnie the Minx and has a crush on Dennis. In 2021, two other girls were introduced to the class, Harsha Chandra and Mandira “Mandi” Sharma. The latter often advocates for mental health charities, but Harsha is more of a prankster.

The quietest and smallest member of the gang is Wilfrid John Wimble, who resembles a tortoise in his high-necked green jumper. Wilfrid suffers from social anxiety and often hangs around with those who can speak on his behalf, such as ‘Erbert and Spotty. The last of the original members is Aristotle John Smiffy, who is usually known by his surname. Whilst Smiffy is sometimes kind and intuitive, he is not very bright. He often cannot remember what the colour of the sky is and, instead of answering “Present, Sir” during roll call, he says, “Gift, Miss.”

The Bash Street School is located in Beanotown, a settlement located on the side of Mount Beano. Everyone in The Beano lives in Beanotown, next to Nuttytown and just along from Cactusville. The town is “ten minutes away from every town… on a very fast skateboard!” Maps of Beanotown over the years have not been consistent, with houses moving locations and shapes to suit the storylines.

The buildings in Beanotown tend to have similar physical characteristics to their inhabitants. Dennis, for instance, either lives in a red and black striped house or a thatched building that resembles his hair, depending on what map is used. Regardless of the shape, size and number of houses on the map, there is always a castle at one end of the town.

Lord Marmaduke Bunkerton, more commonly known as Lord Snooty, is the young inhabitant of Bunkerton Castle. The Eton-educated schoolboy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins (1907-69), appeared in the first issue of The Beano in 1938. Lord Snooty had a regular slot in the comic until 1991, after which he appeared more sporadically. Despite his upbringing, Snooty is jealous of the freedom of working-class children, whereas they envy his enormous castle.

Lord Snooty often snuck out of the castle to play with the local children. His suit, waistcoat and bow tie made him stand out from the crowd, and Snooty regularly became the butt of jokes. Occasionally, Snooty invited his friends to his castle. Whilst he felt at home, his friends quickly decided the life of a Lord was not for them.

Unlike the other main characters in The Beano, Lord Snooty does not have parents. Instead, he is looked after by his guardian, Aunt Matilda, and relies on servants to keep the castle tidy. The other children are expected to complete household chores, which frequently results in a battle between parent and child. Characters, such as Roger the Dodger, attempt to “dodge” these chores or make them easier and quicker to achieve. Unfortunately, these schemes usually backfire, either at the child or adult’s expense.

One regular comic strip focuses on keeping the head clean and functioning, rather than the house. Known as The Numbskulls, they first appeared in The Beezer and The Dandy magazines before joining The Beano in 1993. The strip takes place inside Edd’s head, which is controlled by several small creatures called Numbskulls.

Five Numbskulls live in Edd’s head (and allegedly everyone’s heads) that control the brain and four of the basic human senses. Brainy is the leader of the Numbskulls, and as his name suggests, works in the Brain Department. Blinky works in the Eye Department, Radar controls the ears and hearing, Snitch works in the nose, and Cruncher controls the mouth and tongue. The Numbskulls have to work quickly to react to Edd’s movements and surroundings, but frequent misunderstandings result in some hilarious consequences.

Although The Numbskulls suggest people are not completely in control of their thoughts and actions, The Beano encourages readers to embrace their differences and discover their true identity and self. In recent years, The Beano introduced characters with special abilities or disabilities to emphasise it is okay not to be perfect at everything but to focus on specific skills and interests.

One of the most recent characters to join The Beano is Rubidium “Rubi” von Screwtop, who relies on a wheelchair. Her disability is never discussed or focused on in the comic strips, instead, the other children are in awe of her intelligence and technical genius. Her father, Professor von Screwtop, runs Beanotown’s Top Secret Research Centre, and Rubi follows in his footsteps by researching on her tablet.

Some characters have particular interests, such as Ball Boy, who plays football for Beanotown United Juniors at Cold Trafford. Similarly, Billy Whizz loves to run and is allegedly faster than Usain Bolt. He claims he is too fast to enter the Olympics, and the soles of his trainers are made from Formula 1 tyres. Yet, having an interest does not require anyone to be an expert. Take, for instance, Les Presley Pretend, who likes to dress up and pretend to be whatever or whoever he wants. In one strip, Les may dress up as a martian, and in the next, he is a bumblebee. He has even dressed up as his mother. Whilst this is amusing, Les is showing readers they can become whoever or whatever they want.

The exhibition, Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, looks at The Beano through the eyes of an artist. As well as introducing all the characters, there are examples of original drawings and strips that reveal how each character developed. The exhibition is also about breaking the rules, which many characters do regularly. Even the artists and illustrators break the rules, occasionally engaging with the storylines and talking to characters through speech bubbles.

The curator has collaborated with many artists to create a modern art exhibition alongside displays of The Beano drawings and paraphernalia. Some are old works that were inspired by The Beano and others were commissioned for the exhibition. All artworks are by artists who “break the rules” to create their contemporary pieces, including Phyllida Barlow, Martin Creed, Ryan Gander and Philippe Parreno.

Ironically, an art exhibition is something none of The Beano children would find interesting, except perhaps for Lord Snooty. With that in mind, Andy Holden curated the exhibition to cater for the mischievous characters. Comic strips around the exhibition show the characters enjoying their visit to Somerset House, and anything they find slightly “boring” is labelled “Warning!!! Things your parents might like”.

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is suitable for The Beano fans as well as people who are unfamiliar with the comic. Those who know and love the characters will enjoy a trip down memory lane, and other people will experience the joy of discovering the mischievous characters and stories. Ultimately, this exhibition will prove there is no age limit on the art of breaking the rules.

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is open at Somerset House, London, until 6th March 2022. Tickets cost £16 (£12.50 concessions).


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Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.

For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.

The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.

The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.

The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.

The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.

The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).

The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.

On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.

In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”

The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.

Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.

The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.

The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.

Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.

As well as the nine scenes from Genesis, the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains pendentives (triangular sections) featuring figures from the Bible and mythology. Twelve of these are categorised as prophetic figures, twelve people who prophesied the coming of a Messiah. Seven are male prophets from the Bible, and the remaining five are female prophetesses or Sibyls from classical mythology.

Above the altar sits Jonah, a reluctant prophet famously swallowed by a large fish. Some Bible scholars believe the Book of Jonah is fictional, but whether it is a story or not, Jonah is considered a foreshadowing of Christ. Between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, He spent three days in the tomb. This is the same length of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Michelangelo includes the image of a large fish beside the sitting figure of Jonah, although it does not look large enough to swallow a man whole.

The prophet Jeremiah sits on the left side of the altar with his head bowed in anguished meditation. Known as the “weeping prophet”, Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Jeremiah, the Books of Kings and the Book of Lamentations. The latter is a collection of his laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Michelangelo captures Jeremiah’s emotional pain and reflects the same emotions in the two figures standing behind the prophet. It is suggested that Jeremiah is a self-portrait of Michelangelo lamenting his fate as a painter when he would rather earn a reputation as a sculptor.

Michelangelo depicts the prophet Ezekiel as an elderly man. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but he also spoke of the restoration of the land of Israel. The figure of Ezekiel twists in his seat to look at a smaller figure, who is pointing upwards, either towards God or at the painting of the fall of man. Art historians suggest Ezekiel’s open hand demonstrates his amazement and readiness to receive a message from God.

Joel is also represented as an elderly man. The prophet is only mentioned once by name in the Hebrew Bible, in the introduction to the Book of Joel. No one knows for sure when Joel lived and what events he witnessed. In his writings, Joel told people to repent of their sins and promised their safety on “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Michelangelo painted Joel with his brow furrowed as he concentrates on his words of wisdom. Some believe Michelangelo based the prophet’s face on the Italian architect Donato Bramante (1445-1514), who helped Michelangelo design the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

Sitting above the entrance to the chapel is the prophet Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Behold, your King is coming to you … Lowly and riding on a donkey…”(Zechariah 9:9). This prophesied the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which is celebrated annually on Palm Sunday. His position over the door is symbolic of the entrance the Pope enters in the Palm Sunday procession. Traditionally, Zechariah is portrayed as a young man, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in his old age. This helps to emphasise Zechariah’s profound prophetic abilities.

Isaiah is portrayed as a younger figure who has just been disturbed from his reading by two small figures. Each painting of the prophets features two figures that may represent the conveyors of God’s message. Isaiah foretold the death of the coming Messiah. Many of his prophecies are repeated in the New Testament, particularly concerning the death and resurrection of the “Suffering Servant”. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Even younger in appearance is Daniel, who spent many years working as a scribe for King Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC). The open book on Daniel’s lap may reference his career or allude to his ability to interpret dreams. Michelangelo used scrolls and books to highlight the prophets’ intellect, but Daniel is the only one who appears to be writing, as though recording his interpretations and prophecies for future generations. Unlike Jonah, whose famous encounter with a giant fish is documented in the painting, there is no reference to Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den, where he was thrown after disobeying the rule that forbade prayer.

Michelangelo included five Sibyls from classical mythology to emphasise the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew or Egyptian Sibyl, may have authored the Sibylline Oracle, although some scholars believe the Persian Sibil was more than one person. Michelangelo alluded to this theory by portraying the Sibyl with a book in her hands. The Sibylline Oracles contained information about pagan mythology and Old Testament events, including the Garden of Eden, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Fragments surviving from the 7th century AD also contain details about the Roman Empire and early Christian writings.

The Erythraean Sibyl came from modern-day Turkey, where she prophesied the coming of the Messiah through an acrostic, which read “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross” in Greek. The Sibyl forecast other events in the life of Jesus, and St. Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, referenced her prophecies in his book The City of God. Michelangelo acknowledged the Sibyl’s wisdom by portraying her reading a book. He also depicted divine enlightenment by including a small figure lighting an oil lamp above her head.

The Delphic Sibyl looks up from her scroll with a slightly worried look upon her face, as though she has just envisioned an unpleasant future event. The Delphic Sibyl predated the Trojan War (11th century BC) and made several prophecies about events written about in classical mythology. She also foresaw that the Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.

Michelangelo depicted the Cumaean Sibyl as an elderly lady. She presided over a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. According to the poet Ovid, she lived for at least 1000 years. Ovid claimed the god Apollo offered her longevity in exchange for her virginity. She agreed, and taking a handful of sand, asked to live for as many years as the grains she held. Unfortunately, eternal youth did not come as part of the bargain. During her long life, the Cumaean Sibyl foretold the coming of a Messiah.

The Libyan Sibyl may not have mentioned Christ directly when presiding over the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert, but the Church has interpreted many of her prophesies as connected to the Messiah. For instance, she foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.” The ancient Greeks claimed the Libyan Sibyl, sometimes known as Phemonoe, was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and Lamia, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. According to Plutarch (46-119 AD), she also told Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) that he was a divine individual and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.

In each corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a triangular pendentive depicting Biblical stories associated with the salvation of Israel. These are four examples of the more violent ways the People of Israel were saved from their enemies and sinful ways. One illustrated the story of The Brazen Serpent as told in Numbers 21:4–9. Moses had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but it was a long journey to the Promised Land. They began to complain and turn against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, God sent venomous snakes to attack and kill many of the Israelites. Michelangelo depicted the Israelites’ frantic battle with the serpents. In the background, he included an image of a bronze serpent on a pole. To save the Israelites’, God instructed Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This spectacle, whilst violent, taught the Israelites to trust and obey Moses and the Lord.

Another pendentive illustrates three scenes from the Book of Esther. Rather than telling the story chronologically from left to right, Michelangelo placed the final scene in the middle of the triangle. Esther was the wife of a Persian king who did not know that she came from a Jewish background. The king’s chief vizier, Haman the Agagite, hated the Jews and proposed a massacre to rid Persia of all people of Jewish descent. Haman particularly hated Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who refused to bow down to the vizier. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to have Mordecai hanged. This part of the narrative is illustrated on the righthand side of the painting. Mordecai begged Esther to intervene by talking to the king, which she is seen doing on the lefthand side. Realising Haman’s plan would also result in Esther’s death, the king hanged Haman instead, as shown in the centre of the pendentive. Thus, the people of Israel were saved from death.

Michelangelo’s painting of David and Goliath only illustrates one scene: Goliath’s death. David, an unlikely hero, defeated the giant warrior of the Philistine army with a slingshot, which ended the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. According to the Book of Samuel, chapter 17, after David knocked Goliath out, he “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.” Michelangelo’s interpretation is slightly different, with Goliath trying to scramble to his feet while David methodically carries out his task in the name of the Lord. David appears much stronger than the little shepherd boy written about in the Bible and more like the powerful king he later became.

The fourth story comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith, which is not included in most Bibles. Judith was a Jewish woman living in Bethulia around 600 BC. At the time, the city was under attack by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, led by the Assyrian general, Holofernes. To protect her city and the Israelites who lived there, Judith tricked her way into the enemy encampment where she seduced and intoxicated Holofernes. While he lay in a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head. Michelangelo’s painting shows Judith and her maid carrying the severed head out of the tent where the headless body of Holofernes remains sprawled on the bed. Having lost their leader, the army dispersed, and the Israelites were saved.

In between the paintings of prophets and Sibyls are eight spandrels (triangular spaces) featuring small families. These are known collectively as the Ancestors of Christ. Whilst Michelangelo labelled each one with a name from the genealogy of Christ mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is not clear which figure in each artwork is the named individual. Some suggest the ancestor is the child because the scenes are reminiscent of paintings of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The woman or mother in each spandrel is more noticeable than the man or father, which also reflects the order of importance within the Holy Family, at least within the Catholic faith.

It is generally accepted that both Jesus’ parents descended from King David, whose father was Jesse, also known as Ishai. Jesse is one of the eight ancestors Michelangelo chose to depict. Jesse was a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Another ancestor is Asa, the third King of Judah and the fifth king of the House of David, who ruled between 913 and 873 BC. Michelangelo also portrayed Asa’s father, Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam became king after the death of his father, King Solomon. He ruled between 932 and 915 BC, during which the kingdom was divided into northern and southern tribes.

Josiah became King of Judah in 640 BC at the age of eight following the assassination of his father, Amon. Josiah was killed in 609 BC during a battle against the Egyptians. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, although there is no mention of the king in the Book of Lamentations. There are other connections between Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets, such as Ezechias, also known as Hezekiah, who often consulted the prophet Isaiah for advice. During Ezechias’ reign as King of Judah between 752 and 687 BC, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BC) and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrians (701 BC).

Jeremiah stated that no offspring of “Coniah” would sit on the throne of Judah. Scholars assume the prophet meant King Jeconiah, who was taken into captivity in Babylon. His grandson, Zerubbabel was one of the first Jews who returned from this exile and began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo may have chosen to depict Zerubbabel because the Sistine Chapel bore a resemblance to the Temple in size and dimensions. The other two ancestors Michelangelo chose were Uzziah and Salmon. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah who often sought the advice of the prophet Zechariah. Salmon, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandfather of David. He was the father of Boaz and potentially the husband of Rahab, who famously assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.

Twenty-five years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a reluctant Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall. He began painting in 1536, by which time Michelangelo was in his early sixties. Despite his age, Michelangelo spent five years painting 390 individual figures to depict the last judgement and second coming of Christ. According to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, Christ will appear and judge the living and dead. The “chosen” people will enter heaven to live eternally with God, and the sinners will be sent to the fires of Hell.

In the centre of the fresco is Christ, whose crucifixion wounds are still visible. His face is turned towards the damned, who are destined for Hell. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands on his right with her face turned towards the Saved. Positioned around Christ are some of His disciples, such as Peter, who holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Opposite Peter is John the Baptist, recognised by his animal skin cape.

Some of the disciples are recognisable from their attributes or deaths. Saint Thomas, for instance, holds a carpenter’s square, referencing his profession. Saint Bartholomew, on the other hand, holds his old skin, alluding to being skinned alive. Some believe the face on the skin is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo included a group of angels on clouds. Seven are blowing trumpets, as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Other angels hold books in which to record the names of the Saved and Damned. Rather than depicting Satan, Michelangelo turned to Classical mythology for his representation of Hell. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, transports the Damned across the river to Hell, where they are received by King Minos, a judge of the Underworld.

In the bottom left corner, the resurrected dead arise from their graves and float up towards the angels and Heaven. Some of the Damned struggle against the devils who pull them towards Hell and others are paralyzed with horror.

On completion, Catholics were divided over the suitability of the painting. Whilst The Last Judgement often appeared in churches, it was unusual to see it over the altar. Others took offence at the nudity of the figures and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. The Vatican council quickly hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) to paint discrete drapery over the exposed genitalia. These additions were added after the original paint had dried, so fifteen of them were easy to remove during restoration work between 1990 and 1994. Today, the fresco is a combination of Michelangelo’s intended design and Volterra’s alterations.

Whilst it is no replacement for the real thing, the Sistine Chapel exhibition allows people to look at each section of the ceiling in detail and learn about the history and Biblical significance of each figure and scene. At a time when travel is uncertain due to COVID-19, the exhibition brings the Sistine Chapel to those who cannot visit the Vatican. London is one of the first cities to host Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition and Londoners only have until 2nd January 2022 to visit before it jets off to another location around the world. Cities currently on the waiting list include Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Sydney, Singapore, New York and São Paulo. Book now to avoid disappointment.

Tickets are available online starting at £11 per adult and £8 per child. Whilst it is open to children, some paintings contain nudity which may be unsuitable for younger visitors.


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Poussin and the Dance

Until January 2022, visitors to the National Gallery in London have the opportunity to view several paintings by the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, Nicolas Poussin. Each artwork demonstrates Poussin’s unique methods of depicting the movement of dance whilst also bringing to life the classical world of the Olympian gods. Contemporary wax-work models attempt to replicate the evolution of Poussin’s ideas and provide an insight into his love of ancient marble sculptures.

Before the advent of Impressionism in the 19th century, Poussin was the most important artist in French history. Born near Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594, Poussin grew up learning Latin but spent much of his schooling drawing in his sketchbooks. Although his parents disapproved of a painting career, Poussin ran away to Paris in 1612 to search for work as an artist. At first, Poussin could not get a job as a painter because he did not belong to the guild of master painters and sculptors. Fortunately, his early work caught the attention of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle (1570-1637), who invited Poussin into his studio for three months.

After leaving Elle’s studio, Poussin found a position in the workshop of the French artist Georges Lallemand (c.1575–1636). Here, he studied anatomy and perspective but preferred to work alone and at his own pace rather than follow Lallemand’s instruction. While in Paris, Poussin had the opportunity to visit the Royal Collection, which introduced him to paintings by the Italian artists Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Raphael (1483-1520). This sparked within Poussin the longing to visit the Italian capital, Rome.

Poussin attempted to travel to Rome in 1617 but only made it as far as Florence. He thus returned to France and made another attempt in 1622, this time not even making it out of the country. Back in Paris, Poussin received his first major commission from the Order of Jesuits to paint a series of paintings to honour the canonization of the order’s founder, Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Now making a name for himself, Poussin received further commissions, including illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the court poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and decorations for Marie de Medici’s (1575-1642) residence, the Luxembourg Palace.

At the age of 30, Poussin finally made it to Rome, the artistic capital of Europe, in 1624. He joined the Academy of Domenichino and the Academy of St Luke to study the art of painting nudes and took many opportunities to visit churches to examine the works of Raphael, Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose work Poussin hated, and other well-known Italian painters. Poussin fell in love with the architecture and statues around Rome, particularly the figures on ancient marble friezes.

One of the antiquities Poussin most admired was The Borghese Vase, also known as Krater with a Procession of Dionysus (1st century BCE). Sculpted in Athens from marble, the monumental vase became a garden ornament in Rome. A procession of dancers winds around the vase, overseen by the Greek god Dionysus. Many of the movements and fluidity of the characters are replicated in Poussin’s work, as are other ancient sculptures and friezes.

In 1626, Poussin found lodgings with the French sculptor François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), whose work also inspired Poussin. Before his death, Giambattista Marino, Poussin’s patron, frequently found him commissions from notable Italians, including Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644). Yet, after Marino died, Poussin found it difficult to establish himself in the city.

Not only did Poussin lose Marino, but the Cardinal also moved to Spain as a papal legate, taking with him some of Poussin’s other sponsors. Poussin fell ill with syphilis and could not paint for several months. He survived by selling some of his old paintings until the French Dughet family took Poussin in and cared for him until he recovered. Poussin regained most of his health by 1629 and married Anne-Marie Dughet the following year. Her brother, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), became Poussin’s pupil and signed his paintings “Gaspard Poussin”.

During the latter stages of his illness, Poussin completed a few commissions, which helped him afford to purchase a small house on Via Paolina. The Cardinal returned to Rome and Poussin painted several artworks for him, starting with The Death of Germanicus in 1627. Following the success of this work, Poussin gained many patrons, including the art dealer Fabrizio Valguarnera for whom he painted The Realm of Flora between 1630 and 1631.

The National Gallery displayed The Realm of Flora, which usually resides at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, next to Poussin’s pen-and-ink study for the painting. Both painting and drawing show Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, holding her skirts and dancing with putti (winged infants). Within her kingdom are several characters from Roman mythology, including Narcissus, who gazes at his reflection in a vase while Echo sits beside him. According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD), the handsome youth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and rejected the amorous advances of anyone else. This was his punishment for spurning the nymph Echo, who attempted to talk to Narcissus but could only repeat the words he said. 

Other characters in The Realm of Flora include the warrior Ajax falling on his sword, the athletic Hyacinthus, the beautiful Adonis, the mortal Crocus, the nymph Smilax, and the water nymph Clytia gazing at the sun. According to the myths, all these figures turned into flowers after their deaths. The physiology of each mythological person resembles the style of sculpture from the first century BCE that Poussin so admired.

As well as studying ancient sculptures, Poussin fashioned figurines out of wax, moulding them into the desired pose. While lodging with Duquesnoy in 1626, Poussin learnt a lot about modelling and frequently used wax figures when live models or classical sculptures were unavailable. Later in his career, Poussin modelled entire scenes from wax, placing the figures in a grande machine, a large box that resembled a toy theatre. Holes in the box allowed Poussin to control the lighting, which helped him choreograph his painted outcome. 

Unfortunately, none of Poussin’s wax models survive, but the National Gallery commissioned modern reproductions for the exhibition. These examples demonstrate how Poussin studied the movement of the body, proportions and the effects of lighting. Other artists also used this technique, but historical evidence suggests Poussin was devoted to using wax figures more than anyone else.

Evidence of Poussin’s studies of wax models and Borghese sculptures are in his preparatory sketches for many of his paintings. Several of Poussin’s paintings feature dancing figures, such as The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4), which depicts an Old Testament scene. The Israelites are dancing around and worshipping the golden calf made by Aaron in chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. Moses went up Mount Sinai, and the people feared he would not return, so Aaron made them a new idol to worship. In the distance, a furious Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments he has just received from God.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf was one of two paintings commissioned by the Marchese di Voghera of Turin. The other painting, The Crossing of the Red Sea, was separated from its pair in 1945 when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The National Gallery in London bought the Golden Calf for £10,000 and it has remained in the collection ever since.

Another example of Poussin’s study of classical sculpture and wax figures is A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-3), which the National Gallery purchased in 1826. The term is a carved bust of a bearded and horned man around which wild men and women dance. Dancing revellers were often depicted in classical art concerning the rites of Bacchus, the god of wine. Poussin was familiar with the ancient Roman symbols for the god and festivals, including grapes and dancing.

Poussin’s painting can almost be read from left to right, as though a sculpted frieze. On the left, a woman squeezes juice from a bunch of grapes into a small dish held by a putto, and on the right, a woman has stumbled, presumably intoxicated with wine. A lustful satyr draws the woman into an embrace. Whilst these figures resemble classical art, the landscape contains similarities to other artists Poussin admired, such as Titian (1488-1576) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516).

As Poussin’s reputation grew, he gained patrons and admirers, including from his home country, France. One of his most prestigious clients, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), worked for Louis XIII (1601-43), who was one of the most powerful people in Europe. In 1635, Richelieu commissioned Poussin to paint three TriumphsThe Triumph of PanThe Triumph of Bacchus and The Triumph of Silenus. Several preparatory drawings exist for The Triumph of Pan, which reveal Poussin experimented with different poses, presumably manipulating wax models until happy with the composition. Many of his figures also resemble characters on The Borghese Vase.

Although titled The Triumph of Pan, there is some discussion whether the red-faced statue represents Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and herdsmen, or Priapus, the god of gardens. The shepherd’s crook and musical pipes attributed to Pan are in the foreground, but the statue wears a floral garland and exposes its genitalia, which usually symbolise Priapus. Nevertheless, both gods were followers of Bacchus, and the painting depicts a traditional Bacchanalian festival.

The muscular figures and draped garments recall ancient statues and the frieze-like arrangement make the scene look like actors on a stage. The painting is similar to the work of Renaissance artists studied by Poussin, particularly the tranquil landscape and distant mountains that may represent Pan’s native land of Arcadia.

Of Poussin’s surviving sketches, his preparatory drawing for The Triumph of Pan is his most detailed. Unlike other sketches that reveal the bare bones of the final painting, Poussin tried out the full effect of the composition with the figures in their final positions. There are a few minor differences between the sketch and the painting. The proportions of the artwork also changed, forcing Poussin to compress the group into a tighter huddle.

Whereas the figures dance around a statue in The Triumph of Pan, the rowdy revellers form part of a procession in The Triumph of Bacchus. Half-human-half-horse creatures called centaurs pull Bacchus’ chariot as he makes his way back to Rome after his triumphant victory in India, where he successfully taught the people of Asia how to cultivate the vine and make wine.

Poussin conveyed as much dynamic movement as possible in The Triumph of Bacchus with rearing centaurs, dancing women and other mythological characters playing instruments. Amongst the figures is Pan playing his pipes, and the muscular Hercules. In the background, Apollo, the sun god, drives the sun across the sky. In the bottom right corner, a river god lounges on the ground, watching the procession. He is a representation of India and the River Indus.

With one leg slung over a tiger, the naked Silenus partakes in a drunken celebration in Poussin’s The Triumph of Silenus. Silenus, the old god of wine-making and drunkenness, was the foster-father of Bacchus. Silenus was once captured by King Midas, but instead of being used as a slave, Midas treated the old man with hospitality. Bacchus rewarded the king by granting him the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Poussin depicted Silenus as described in Greek and Roman myths: bald and naked.

Many of the dancers are naked or in the process of removing their clothes. Their muscular bodies are similar to those of Greek statues, and the setting is similar to works by Titian. Parts of the scene, such as the wreath lowered onto Silenus’ head, are mentioned in the Eclogues, a series of poems by Latin poet Virgil (70-90 BCE).

The highlight and final artwork in the National Gallery exhibition is Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time (1634). It is on loan from the Wallace Collection for the first time and is Poussin’s most celebrated dance scene. It was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), who later became Pope Clement IX. Rospigliosi requested a painting containing four dancers representing Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Pleasure. The four allegorical figures are dancing to the music of the lyre played by Time in the right-hand corner.

Each of the four dancers is dressed appropriately for their station in life. Poverty, the only male dancer, is barefoot and dressed in green. Labour wears a simple orange gown, whereas Wealth wears pearls in her hair and golden sandals. Finally, Pleasure wears luxurious blue silk and a floral crown. Time, on the other hand, wears nothing, revealing his elderly but muscular body. Beside him, a putto holds an hourglass, and on the other side of the painting, another putto blows bubbles, representing the fleeting nature of life.

As well as the figures in the foreground, Poussin includes mythological characters in the sky, including the sun god Apollo. Before Apollo’s carriage flies the goddess Dawn, and behind the carriage are the Hours or Horae, who represent the seasons. Some interpretations of the painting mistook the four dancing figures as Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. As a result, when it was sold to Sir Richard Wallace’s (1818-90) father in 1845, it had the title La Danse des Saisons, ou l’Image de la vie humaine (The Dance of the Seasons, or the Image of Human Life).

Although A Dance to the Music of Time does not depict a Bacchanalian revel like Poussin’s other paintings of dancers, his figures still resemble those on Greek friezes and statues. His preparatory drawings look similar to his other sketches, and infrared reflectography has revealed the same style of figures under the layers of paint. Poussin tended to draw naked figures from marble sculptures then add clothing and draperies during the painting process, presumably after studying his wax models. As well as using wax, Poussin wrapped his models in silk cloth to examine the way the fabric draped over the body.

The National Gallery does not venture into Poussin’s later years, during which time he stopped painting Bacchanalian scenes in favour of religious themes. In December 1640, he briefly returned to Paris to take up the position of First Painter to the King. He soon found himself inundated with commissions, which he struggled to complete. Poussin preferred to paint slowly and carefully, so he found life in the royal court overwhelming. In 1642, he returned to Rome.

With fewer patrons, Poussin lived a comfortable life, working at his preferred pace. French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90) joined Poussin in his study for three years, learning and adapting Poussin’s style. In 1650, Poussin’s health began to decline, and his drawings suggest he had a tremor in his hand. Nevertheless, Poussin continued painting, returning to mythological themes. He continued working until 1664, the same year his wife died. The following year, on 19th November, Poussin passed away and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome.

The exhibition Poussin and the Dance focuses on Poussin’s ability to depict dancing figures, expertly demonstrating movement and revelry. Today, cameras allow artists and photographers to capture physical actions, but artists during the 17th century did not have access to futuristic technology. Studying sculptures, friezes and wax models was Poussin’s only option, and it certainly paid off. Whilst all his figures may appear to have stepped out of ancient Greek and Roman art, Poussin’s paintings are delicate, precise and beautiful.

Poussin and the Dance is open until January 2022. Standard admission tickets cost £12, but members of the National Gallery can visit for free. Tickets must be booked in advance. 


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Curiouser and Curiouser

Over 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the storyline and characters are still a global phenomenon. As the Victoria and Albert museum demonstrates in their exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, the fantasy world of Wonderland continues to inspire artists, writers and members of the public. The immersive display takes visitors on a journey to discover the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from its humble beginnings in the 19th century to its worldwide celebrity.

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), an Oxford don, logician, writer, poet, Anglican clergyman, and photographer. Although Carroll is most famous for his literary works, he did not deliberately set out to become an author. Carroll’s career path changed one afternoon in July 1862, when he took a boat trip and picnic with the daughters of Henry Liddell (1811-98), the Dean of Christ Church College. Affectionately remembered as a “golden afternoon”, Carroll kept the three girls, Alice, Edith, and Lorina, entertained during the boat trip by making up fantasy stories about a girl called Alice and her adventures underground. The “real Alice” begged Carroll to write the story down, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born.

The “real Alice”, Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934), was only five years old when she met Charles Dodgson for the first time. Dodgson often asked Alice and her sisters to sit for photographs, so that he could experiment with his new camera. The Victorian era was a period of change, particularly in technology, science, art and politics, all of which inspired the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, the character Alice was based on Alice Liddell, a girl with a stubborn, curious nature who bullied Dodgson into writing the story down. He presented Alice with a handwritten manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as a Christmas present in 1864.

Before giving the manuscript to Alice, Dodgson researched the natural history of animals to make some of his characters, for instance, a dodo, as accurate as possible. Of course, some creatures in the story are entirely fictional. Dodgson also sought the opinion of his friend and mentor George MacDonald (1824-1905), a minister and author who loved the story and suggested Dodgson publish it. By the time Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing the manuscript for publication and extending it from the original 15,500-words to 27,500 words.

Not wanting to publish under his real name, Dodgson decided to create a pseudonym. Inspired by the Latin version of his real name, Carolus Ludovic, he chose two other English names that derived from the same words: Lewis Carroll. Dodgson also wished to change the book title and toyed with Alice’s Hour in Elf-land and other options before settling on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Finally, Dodgson/Lewis was ready for Alexander Macmillan (1818-96), a co-founder of Macmillan Publishers, to print his work. For the illustrations, he approached John Tenniel (1820-1914), who worked tirelessly alongside The Brothers Dalziel, a wood-engraving business in London. By November 1865, the book was published.

Both children and adults enjoyed the “delicious nonsense”, which inspired Carroll to work on a second book. The production time took much longer because Tenniel had other jobs but managed to work on the illustrations from 1869 onwards. Carroll named the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, which was eventually published on 6th December 1871. It rekindled the nation’s love of Alice and the odd characters, as well as introducing new and bizarre creatures.

Most people are familiar with the story of Alice who follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. She finds herself in a hall with a tiny door, which she is far too large to fit through. She then discovers a bottle of liquid labelled “DRINK ME”, which she obligingly does, which causes her to shrink in size. Unfortunately, she can no longer reach the key to the small door, which rests on a table far above her head. Yet, she quickly discovers a cake labelled “EAT ME”, and grows to the size of the room. After flooding the room with her tears, Alice picks up a fan and shrinks back down.

Now Alice can fit through the door, where she meets several peculiar characters, including the Dodo, who starts a Caucus-Race, which consists of everyone running in a circle with no clear winner. Whilst Alice is based on Alice Liddell, Carroll based the Dodo on himself. Carroll spoke with a stutter and often introduced himself as “Dodo-Dodgson”. Carroll also referenced Alice’s sisters, Lorina and Edith, by mentioning birds called Lory and Eaglet.

Next, Alice meets the Duchess, who Tenniel based on Quentin Matsys’s (1466-1530) The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513). The painting is said to be a portrait of Margaret, Countess of Tyrol (1318-69), who had the reputation of the ugliest woman who ever existed. Since Matsys painted the portrait 150 years after her death, there is no proof that she looked as grotesque as the caricature. Nonetheless, Tenniel felt inspired by the painting and made the Duchess look equally ugly.

The Cheshire Cat, who belongs to the Duchess, has a distinguishing feature – his grin – and the ability to gradually disappear until only his mouth remains. The phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” predates the Alice books, and according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition compiled by Francis Grose (1731-91), means “one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.” Carroll may have based the character on Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82), the Patristic Catenary (expert on the fathers of the Church) and professor of Hebrew at Oxford University.

There are other characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel who may be based on real people. Whether Carroll intended this is uncertain, but Tenniel’s drawing of the Lion and the Unicorn looks remarkably like his Punch illustrations of Prime Ministers William Gladstone (1809-98) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88). Whilst the appearance of the Lion and the Unicorn may be Tenniel’s input, Carroll’s reference to a conga eel that taught “Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils” certainly alludes to the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who instructed the Liddell children in drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.

One of the most memorable scenes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Mad Tea-Party, where Alice discovers the Hatter having tea with the March Hare and the Dormouse. Carroll instructed Tenniel to base his illustration on Theophilus Carter (1824-1904), an eccentric British furniture dealer. Carter used to wear a top hat and stand in the doorway of his shop, watching the world pass by. While at the party, the sleepy Dormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters called Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie. This is yet another reference to Alice and her sisters. Lacie is an anagram of Alice; Elsie sounds like “L.C., Lorina Charlotte’s initials; and Tillie is short for Matilda, Edith Liddell’s nickname.

Carroll loosely based the Queen of Hearts on Queen Victoria (1819-1901) because he thought children would recognise her authority. He may also have taken inspiration from the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) because the Queen is angry that the gardeners have planted white roses instead of red.

Not all characters have real-life human counterparts. Through the Looking-Glass has many referenced to nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty, and features pieces from the game of chess. Dodgson even took inspiration from buildings in Oxford; for example, the “Rabbit Hole” symbolises the stairs at the back of the main hall in Christ Church.

By the end of the Victorian era, the Alice stories and characters extended beyond the books. Products and merchandise containing Tenniel’s illustrations were much sought after, and the stories found new life on stage as part of dance performances and pantomimes. Before his death, the English novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901) said Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Besant’s statement proved correct, and Alice continues to be a positive role model.

In 1903, Lewis Carroll’s famous book was adapted for film for the first time. With the title Alice in Wonderland, the silent film squeezed as many scenes into a ten-minute slot. At the time, this was the longest film made in Britain. Directors Percy Stow (1876-1919) and Cecil Hepworth (1874-1952) used all the available technology to create live versions of Tenniel’s famous drawings. Twelve years later, American director W. W. Young produced a 50-minute version of the film, albeit still silent.

The first “talkie” version of Alice in Wonderland appeared on screens in 1931, starring Ruth Gilbert (1912-93) as Alice. The following year, the “real Alice”, now married to English cricketer Reginald Hargreaves (1852-1926), visited America to take part in the centenary celebrations of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Although Alice had kept herself out of the public eye for most of her life, her presence in America inspired “Alice Fever”, and the books, merchandise, and films soared in popularity.

The following year, Paramount Pictures produced their version of Alice in Wonderland, which combined the storyline from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Previously, Lewis Carroll forbade stage productions to combine the two books, but since his death, producers disregarded his wishes. The film featured Charlotte Henry (1914-80) as Alice, Cary Grant (1904-86) as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields (1880-1946) as Humpty Dumpty.

Without a doubt, the most iconic Alice in Wonderland film to date is Walt Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Mary Blair (1911-78) developed the concept for the illustrations, modernising Tenniel’s drawings with bold and unreal colours. Today, Alice is recognisable from her long, bright blond hair, blue dress and “Alice band”, a hair accessory named after the character. The lively script and music earned the film a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.

In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures reproduced Alice in Wonderland as a live-action film directed by Tim Burton (born 1958). It is a much darker, fantasy version of the story, which serves as an unofficial sequel to the original. Alice is now 19 and thought her adventures in Wonderland were all a dream. She soon learns they were not when she falls down a rabbit hole for the second time in her life. The creatures of Wonderland need Alice’s help to defeat the Red Queen, not to be confused with the Queen of Hearts and slay the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like beast written about in Through the Looking Glass.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starred many leading actors, such as Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) and Barbara Windsor (Dormouse). At its release, critics were torn between loving the computer-generated imagery (CGI) and hating that it “sacrifices the book’s minimal narrative coherence—and much of its heart.” Many fans of the original Alice complained the film ruined Lewis Carroll’s work. Having said that, Alice in Wonderland (2010) won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Alice in Wonderland franchise was initially aimed at children, but in the 1960s, the stories began to appeal to artists, particularly those affiliated with the Surrealist movement. Surrealism, as a cultural movement, developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists within the group aimed to change people’s perceptions of the world and explored the desires of the unconscious mind. The founder of the movement, André Breton (1896-1966), claimed: “everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice to Wonderland.” Encouraged by this, several Surrealist artists used Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike characters and storylines as inspiration for their creations.

One Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí (1904-89), provided illustrations for a limited edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1969. These illustrations are a stark contrast to Tenniel’s original images. Each full-page artwork needs studying carefully to understand and appreciate the scene. Many contained typical Surrealist motifs, such as a melting clock, as seen in The Mad Tea-Party illustration. Alice appears as a stick-figure-like girl wearing a full-length skirt, playing with a skipping rope. On each page, Alice differs in size but is usually tiny in comparison to other elements in the artwork.

The Alice stories and themes also inspired the Psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. In the United Kingdom, artists combined Wonderland with politics and social issues, and in the US, the stories inspired hallucinogenic artwork and multi-sensory experiences involving sound, images and movement.

Joseph McHugh (b.1939), the founder of the poster design company East Totem West, created kaleidoscopic prints based on characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One features the White Rabbit standing on a chequered floor surrounded by objects from the story. Yet, all these elements are difficult to see due to the psychedelic pattern of blues, reds, greens and browns. Through his work, McHugh aimed to appeal to the hippie and freethinker generation of the 1960s.

Whilst Wonderland lent itself to the more abstract forms of art, it also appealed to more traditional artists, such as the Ruralists. Ruralism aimed to revive and update former painting styles, such as those by English landscape artists and the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement wanted to focus on typically English themes, including cricket and classic novels by English authors. They particularly admired the works of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and music by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Pop Artist Peter Blake (b.1932) and his contemporaries formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975 after becoming disillusioned with London and their former art styles. Their aims were “to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic. We still believe in painting with oil paint on canvas, putting the picture in the frame and hopefully, that someone will like it, buy it and hang it on their wall to enjoy it.”

After forming the Ruralists, Blake’s work frequently included literary subjects, such as works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Lewis Carroll. During the 1970s, Blake produced a series of illustrations called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Rather than replicate the Victorian-style illustrations by Tenniel, Blake painted Alice as a modern (seventies) girl. In one picture, titled ‘Well, this is grand!’ said Alice, Queen Alice stares out at the audience while a typically English country garden unfolds behind her.

During the 1950s and 60s, commercial artists used Alice, Wonderland and other characters to advertise brands and products. The release of the Disney film increased the popularity of Alice in Wonderland and companies fought to partner with the franchise. Sweet manufacturer Barratt’s used the Disney illustrations to advertise their Christmas crackers, and Ford Motor Company used coloured versions of Tenniel’s drawings to promote their new Falcon Wagons. The Irish brewery Guinness also partnered with the Alice franchise – one of the most peculiar pairings. The company hired artists to produce illustrations that loosely resembled Tenniel’s illustrations, combined with some Lewis Carroll-esque text. One poster reads: “He thought he saw a Dome that held Discoveries galore; He looked again and saw it was A Guinness by Thames Shore. ‘We know it’s Good for You,’ he said, ‘Need man discover more?'”

Although Tenniel and Disney created the two most popular visual versions of Alice and the other characters in Wonderland, every artist and designer has different visions and competes to develop new interpretations. This is particularly the case in theatrical and dance performances. The costumes and scenery need to stick close enough to Carroll’s original descriptions for the audience to recognise the familiar story, but they cannot be copies of previous designs. As technology has developed, the stage settings and special effects have become very ambitious, but there continues to be the issue of making fantastical costumes practical for the stage.

The V&A exhibition showcases several costumes worn on stage in various performances. Since Disney’s interpretation of the story, Alice is frequently depicted in blue, which many costume designers continue to replicate. To stand out from other stage shows, some designers look at Tenniel’s original illustrations, such as those in the young children’s book The Nursery Alice (1890), in which the main character wears a yellow dress. This is the colour the designers used for the costume in Alice, an opera performed in Hamburg in 1992.

Off the stage, fashion designers have used Alice in Wonderland as their inspiration for new clothing lines and one-off pieces on the catwalk. Designers include Christian Dior (1905-57), Vivienne Westwood (b.1944), Viktor&Rolf, Thom Browne (b.1965) and various Japanese-punk fashion houses.

Visiting the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the V&A is almost like falling down a rabbit hole. From beginning to end, the installations look as wonderfully creative and psychedelic as Wonderland. Each section represents a different part of the Alice stories as well as various interpretations over the past century and a half. The further into the exhibition one travels, the “curiouser” it becomes until you start believing the Cheshire Cat that “We’re all mad here.”

The exhibition has more value for adults, who will appreciate the wealth of information and the opportunity to remember the stories and characters from childhood. Of course, it will also appeal to children, who will enjoy searching for the White Rabbit, watching film clips, and playing with fun-house mirrors and other interactive displays. The lights, sounds and twisting paths throughout the exhibition make visitors feel bewildered as Alice when she first entered Wonderland. You will likely exit the museum feeling entirely bonkers. “But I’ll tell you a secret: All the best people are.”

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on now until Friday 31st December 2021. Tickets for the week ahead are released every Tuesday at 12.00. Adult tickets cost £20 but children under 12 can visit for free.


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