Alice in Wonderland at the British Library: From Disney to counter-culture, an exhibition steeped in history

By Angelika Rusbridge | 20 November 2015

On the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's beloved novel, the British Library celebrates the author and the many interpretations of the story through the years in an exhibition of timelessness

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
© Tony Antoniou
Divided into three distinct sections, the British Library’s Alice exhibition stands at the end of a breathtaking series of panels and mirrors, decorated with art from many diverse editions and haunting passages from the novel itself.

The journey, reminiscent of the first tumble down the rabbit hole that Alice herself takes, aptly, at the beginning of the story, helps prepare visitors for the world into which they are about to enter.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
The 1890 edition of The Nursery Alice by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel© British Library Board
The first section focuses on the author's inspiration; a “golden afternoon” on July 4 1862, spent rowing on the river Isis in Oxford with a friend and three young sisters, Edith, Lorina, and Alice Liddell.

According to the author's diary, which is on display in this section, this is when he first told the iconic story. At her behest and because of her enthusiasm and love for it, Carroll went on to create an illustrated version of the tale as a Christmas gift for the young Alice from whom he had drawn inspiration.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
Entry from Lewis Carroll's 1862-64 diary, in which he records that he first told the fairytale of Alice's Adventures Under Ground to Alice Liddell and her sisters© British Library
The first section also includes an interactive version of the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which is on display next to his diary, with images by Carroll himself depicting the distinct pre-Raphaelite inspirations to his drawings.

“The second section is all about publication,” says Helen Melody, the exhibition curator. “When he decided to publish the story, he didn't feel that confident about his illustrations.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
Illustrated music cover of ‘The Wonderland Quadrilles…for Pianoforte’ composed by Charles Marriott in 1872, showing scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland© British Library
“He decided he wanted to employ a professional illustrator to do the work, and that's when he fell upon John Tenniel.”

Tenniel was a known illustrator who worked for Punch magazine, a satirical publication which ran from 1841-2002.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
An illustration of Alice with the Red Queen from an illustrated edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Robinson (1907)© The British Library Board
“The exact nature of their working relationship is a subject of debate. Some people say that Carroll was quite difficult to work with, some say that Tenniel was quite difficult to work with, some say they were both quite difficult to work with.

“Whatever happens, they were clearly very interested in making sure the book was the very best that it could be.”

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
The original handwritten manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been turned into a new game, The Wondering Lands of Alice
An example of this is made clear in the story of the first 'suppressed' edition of the book, which was recalled as both Carroll and Tenniel were unhappy with the quality of the illustrations.

The author himself funded this recall, which is a testament to the level of perfectionism both men shared, and copies of the first edition remain extremely rare.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
A drawing of Alice from Lewis Carroll's manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, written between 1862-64© The British Library Board
The third section is the largest on display, and focuses on the re-imaginings of the story through the years, right up until modern day.

The copyright on the book expired in 1907, though originally the new versions of Alice and the accompanying illustrations were frowned upon by a satirical Punch cartoon illustrating Tenniel's Alice “reigning supreme” over four of the eight new editions of the character, which had been published between October and December 1907.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
The Wonderland postage stamp case designed by Lewis Carroll (1889-1890)© The British Library Board
The sheer number of new editions - 16 by the end of 1908 and another 13 by 1920 - signifies the longevity, popularity and accessibility of the story.

Despite its apparent lack of commercial success, in 1951 the Disney version of the story was released. It remains, to this day, the image which many associate with the character.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
The 1884 title page of Alice's Wonderland Birthday Book, compiled by E Stanley Leathes and illustrated by JPM© The British Library Board
During the 1960s the story began to be picked up by the counter-culture, creating an entirely new interpretation of the story and bringing in many well-known artists such as Salvador Dali, Jefferson Airplane and Ralph Steadman.

Examples of their work are included amid trinkets, puzzles, video games and even newly-imagined satirical interpretations of the original story.

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
Illustration of Alice from the Arthur Rackham illustrated edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1907)© The British Library Board
This exhibition is steeped in history. But the focus on the modern versions and interpretations of it reflect that some stories are, indeed, timeless.

  • Alice in Wonderland is at the British Library, London until April 16 2015.

Did you know?

A photo of an illustration from the Lewis Carroll book Alice in Wonderland
Title page of the 1910 edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, pictured by Mabel Lucie Attwell© Lucie Attwell Ltd, mabellucieattwell.com
  • Lewis Carroll was a professor at Oxford University, and so created his pen name to deflect the diverging nature of his endeavours. His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he made his pen name by reversing the names, translating them into Latin, and then back again.

  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician, and many who read his various stories and poems have argued that there is a strong mathematical presence in the cadence of his writing.

  • The inspiration for the character Alice, Miss Liddell, had brown hair, and it is noticeable in Carroll's original drawings that this was the intention for the character. Because the illustrations were in black and white, it was left to interpretation, and she quickly took on the iconic blonde hair we see her with today, solidified by the Disney character from 1951.

  • The first coloured version of Alice was in a shortened version of the story, intended for children between 0-5 years of age. They show her with a yellow dress, unlike the iconic blue dress with white apron we are so accustomed to today.

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