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.