Alice in Wonderland: on the trail of Lewis Carroll

By Elizabeth White | 26 February 2010

Calling all Lewis Carroll fans - we have found some fabulous places for you to visit relating directly to his classic Alice In Wonderland and the life and and times of the author himself. For the less energetic, there are also some great websites for you to peruse from the comfort of your armchair.

photograph of Lewis Carroll in frock coat reclining on a window ledge

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. © NPG

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, on January 27 1832. His famous pen name did not emerge until much later after his publishing career had got underway. He was baptised at All Saints' Church, Daresbury in Cheshire where you can still see the original baptismal font where the Carroll brow was sprinkled with Holy water.

a stained galss window showing the mad hatter

The Daresbury Window. PIctures used under Creative Commons.

Part of All Saints' Church, The Daniell Chapel in Daresbury, is a must for Carroll fans. The Lewis Carroll Memorial Window - paid for by fans worldwide - shows both Carroll and Alice at a nativity scene.

Five adjacent panels are illustrated with characters and scenes from Alice in Wonderland, including the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter.

Carroll spent much of his life teaching Maths at Christ Church College in Oxford, where he had rooms and kept many of his personal belongings and papers. Here he met the Dean of the College Henry Liddell and his family and built up great friendships with the Dean's daughters. It was of course Alice, the younger daughter, who was the inspiration for his stories.

sepia photograph of three young girls on a sofa

The Liddell sisters by Lewis Carroll. © National Portrait Gallery

On July 4 1862, a bright summer's day, Carroll and a university colleague, Canon Robinson Duckworth, took the girls – Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell - on a boat trip and picnic along the river Isis.

Carroll improvised what we now know as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as he and Duckworth rowed along the river. Intrigued by the story, Alice is aid to have asked him to write it down. Within three years, the complete Alice's Adventures in Wonderland had been published.

Sepia photograph of Alice Liddell reclining on a chaise longue

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll. © National Portrait Gallery

It was on these river trips that Carroll developed his interest in photography and he soon began doing portraits of the Liddell girls. Many of the portraits he took, can be seen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. You will need to telephone in advance to arrange to view a large collection of his photography.

The National Portrait Gallery is also an important holding for photographs either taken by or featuring Carroll. He began taking photographs in 1856 and was soon producing far less stilted and artificial portraits than those taken by many professional portraitists of the time.

a frontispiece from a copy of Alice in Wonderland

Title page of the 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in WonderlandCharles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), published by MacMillan and Co

The original story was published in 1865 to huge acclaim. Even Queen Victoria joined the clamour to proclaim the new novel, which set itself apart from other children's literature at the time by being pure entertainment, rather than containing any elements of instruction.

The majority of literature written for children before the arrival of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland took the form of fairy tales that carried moral messages. Alice seems completely different in its celebration of reckless adventure.

But where did Carroll's inspiration come from?

Carroll often based his fictional characters on real people he knew, and this could be true of the White Rabbit who, in his constant haste (and tardiness), is said to resemble Dean Liddell, Alice's father.

Liddell was notorious for being late for services at Christ Church College, where he resided with his family.

a photograph of an ornate wood pannelled dining hall with long tressle tables

Christ Church Oxford Hall. Pictured used under the Wikimedia creative commons license.

The inspiration for the rabbit hole that Alice falls down, is also said to be at the College and can be found in the dining hall where the Dean would have dined at High Table. The hole is a very narrow spiral staircase descending to the senior common room.

Changing location but staying with the rabbit theme, a visit to Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire reveals the tiny yet hugely significant inspiration for the stories. The choir stalls show images of a griffon chasing a rabbit and another hiding in a hole.

As his father was Canon in Ripon between 1852 and 1868, it is thought that these images inspired Carroll as a young man.

a photograph of a fob watch

Lewis Carroll's pocket watch. © Museum of Oxford

A fob watch of the type worn by the White Rabbit as he scurried about worrying about his tardiness belonged to Carroll and can be seen in the Oxford Museum. The inspiration for the "Drink Me" bottle, which caused Alice to expand and then shrink was Carroll’s Victorian medicine bottle, which is also on display.

a photograph of several items in a display case including fob watches and cases

Personal artefacts on display at Museum of Oxford.

Alice Liddell's personal effects including her pocket watch, calling card cases and silver scissors can also be seen at the Museum. There is a souvenir biscuit tin given to Alice and her family by Carroll, and hand-drawn place cards used at a dinner party held by Alice.

For visiting families a gallery pack of activities is available at any time - including gallery searches, colouring pages, and word and number puzzles that Lewis Carroll set for his friends.

a decorated biscuit tin, 1892

Alice Liddell's biscuit tin. © Museum of Oxford

While in Oxford, pay a visit to an old boutique which was the inspiration for The Old Sheep Shop in Through the Looking-Glass. It has been open since the 1830s and selling a huge range of Alice-related merchandise since the 1960s and, apparently, Alice Liddell bought her sweets here.

Ever wondered about the origins of the strangely philosophical Cheshire Cat? There are varied contenders vying to be the inspiration behind the smirking feline. Some reports suggest Carroll found inspiration in a carving in St Peter's Church, Croft-on-Tees, Yorkshire, where his father had been rector. The young Lewis Carroll came there as an 11-year old boy with a vivid imagination. (His parents are buried in the churchyard near the North wall in a railed-in altar tomb).

Another view is that the cat is based on a gargoyle found on a pillar in St Nicolas Church, Cranleigh the church Carroll used to frequent when he stayed in Guildford. This website, dedicated to the Cheshire Cat, helps to explain its history in more depth.

photo of a stone carved head of a cat

The cat carving in St Nicolas Church, Cranleigh. Photo by Silk Tork published under creative commons

After his father's death, Carroll purchased The Chestnuts, at Guildford, Surrey where his six unmarried sisters and Dodgson family descendants lived until the 1930s.

Carroll himself was never permanently resident at the house, having his own rooms in Christchurch College Oxford where he continued his career as a don and lecturer in mathematics. But he was a regular visitor to the sixteen room residence and tales abound of his extravagant parties and holiday stays.

Elsewhere in the town you can find a statue of Alice making her way through the looking glass in Castle Gardens and nearby on the riverbank at Millmead a statue depicts Alice reading with her sister – as a rabbit darts down a nearby hole. If that isn't excitement enough, why not visit Guildford museum, where you can see toys and other artefacts owned by Carroll and his sisters.

Lewis Carroll reading, taken by himself

Lewis Carroll self-portrait. © National Portrait Gallery

On a Christmas visit to The Chestnuts in 1897 Carroll caught influenza, and, in spite of devoted nursing, died on January 14 1898, a fortnight before his sixty-sixth birthday.

He was buried in the cemetery on The Mount, just inside the gates, where his grave and the memorial cross erected by his brothers and sisters can be seen. His aunt, Lucy Lutwidge, and several of his sisters are buried in the same cemetery.

If you're planning a longer visit to Surrey, the Surrey History Centre in Woking contains books, manuscripts and personal papers from his family.

Plaque in Sussex Square, Brighton, where Carroll used to live

(Above) Plaque on a house in Sussex Square, Brighton, where Lewis Carroll often visited. © Culture 24

From Surrey it's not such a long journey to Sussex where Lewis Carroll was a regular visitor. One of his sisters lived at 11 Sussex Square, Brighton, between 1874 – 87 and Carroll is said to have paid regular visits. There is a plaque on the front of the house, which can be found after a pleasing meander around this beautiful Regency square.

Finally, take a trip across the water to the Isle of Wight for a visit to Dimbola Lodge where Carroll visited his friend and fellow photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Carroll was one of a very small number of mainly British amateur photographers who excelled during the early years of photography.

The Lodge is now a grade II listed building and definitely worth a visit. There are often exhibitions, including some of his photographs on display.

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll. © National Portrait Gallery

Finally, Tim Burton’s 2010 psychedelic 3D take on the children’s classic, used just one real location to create his wonderland. The National Trust House Antony, has been transformed into a family friendly visitor experience, based on the key elements of the Alice stories.

a photograph of a country house glimpsed through a woodland garden

Antony. The Georgian National Trust Property used by Tim Burton for his Alice film. Photo Christian Barnett © NTPL

Set designers have been brought in to create giant installations in the gardens including an intriguing rabbit hole allowing entry to a beautiful and magical, oversized garden, where a house sits on top of a forest of giant toadstools and mushrooms.

Further psychedelic delights inlcude a giant caterpillar perched on an enormous mushroom, with ‘bubbles of thoughts’ coming out of a hookah pipe, statues and a grinning Cheshire Cat shaped into a cone inside a vast yew tree.

a manuscript with writing and a drawing of long necked girl

The British Library holds Lewis Carroll's original manuscripts for Alice in Wonderland © British Library

Alice Online

The website Alice in Oxford is nicely organised into sections: Visit Me, Teach Me, Buy Me, Inspire Me and Tell Me. Each section is detailed and clear and covers a lot of ground. The site also gives useful information on films and books to search out.

On a more academic note, you can view Carroll's manuscripts online at the British Library. As well as original handwritten pages from the stories, the national library also holds different translations, parodies and editions created in the 20th century by artists and writers as diverse as Salvador Dali, Mervyn Peake and Vladimir Nabokov.

The Icons of England website gives you a good insight into why Carroll's stories were so successful at the time, how they broke away from the usual children's literature, and how many times his stories have been re-invented through the years.

The Lewis Carroll Society is also worth visiting as it's packed with information about the minutiae of Carroll's life and works.

a film still showing children dressed as playing cards

The very first version of Alice on film appeared in 1903. Courtesy BFI

Alice on Film

Of course Tim Burton’s psychedelic opus isn’t the first Alice to make it onto celluloid. The very first version appeared in 1903 – only 37 years after Lewis Carroll wrote his tale.

The film was produced by the pioneering Hepworth Studios and was based on Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations - at 12 minutes it was the longest film produced in England at the time.

The only surviving print is severely damaged – and only eight minutes of footage have survived. The BFI Archive has preserved the film and restored its original colour tints. This short film is available to view on the BFI website www.bfi.org.uk and in the BFI Mediatheques, free of charge.


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