‘Alice in Wonderland’: from quaint tea-tins to magic mushrooms

You see yourself and the world around you slightly warped in large mirrors; you follow hypnotic black-and-white spirals and signs asking you to turn corners; you are sucked into the picture of a lurid purple and turquoise room, with bottles of drugs and magic mushrooms strewn about and a huge white rabbit at the centre… Welcome to Alice in Wonderland at the British Library.

Before you drop this review because you don’t like Lewis Carroll’s strange story: well, me neither, yet I was fascinated by this exhibition of the first 150 years of its success, as shown in illustrated editions, related toys and much more.

Sir John Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the Cheshire Cat from the 1866 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollIt all started with a few photographs which Oxford scholar C. L. Dodgson, better known under his pen-name Lewis Carroll, took of three little girls in the 1860’s and the beautiful handwritten and -illustrated adventure story which he wrote out for them at their request.

Thanks to the British Library, you can read the whole manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, online.

Soon, the author was collaborating closely with the illustrator John Tenniel on a publication, with the drawings and text wrapping around each other in a novel way, just like in the manuscript. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came out in 1865.

© The British Library Board

A flood of editions with pictures by other artists followed, while publishing houses abroad came up with translations. In a caricature from Punch, you see the original characters surveying a whole row of other ‘Alices’ with scorn!

Carroll himself wrote a simplified version for children under five, The Nursery ‘Alice’ (1890) and of course a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871). You can borrow many titles related to Through the Looking Glass as well as the facsimile of The Nursery ‘Alice’ from the children’s fiction collection at the Newsam Library.

The metamorphoses of the ‘Alice’ character reveal the spirit of their times or the inner world of the artist: neat sailor-style dress or Brownie costume; hair-band or bobbed cut; little girl or teenager; blond or dark or ginger hair; wonder or apprehension on her features… Some labyrinthine dream scenes are whimsical, others outright satirical, others deeply unsettling.

An illustration of Alice with the White Rabbit from an illustrated edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Leonard WeisgardThere are also an artists’ book with abstract paintings and large prints of an Alice episode by Salvador Dalí. I found the multi-layered, rainbow-coloured Alice scenes by Leonard Weisgard (1949) particularly appealing.

Marvelling at the spin-off merchandise – games and toys, tea-tins and tea-cups – I was surprised to learn that it goes back to the 19th century and indeed to Lewis Carroll himself.

Long before the animated Walt Disney film, a silent feature already tried to visualise the fantastical incidents underground. The British Library has even mustered up a computer game and a rock song… from the aptly named album Surrealistic Pillow (1967)!

© The Estate of Leonard Weisgard

Here is a gem for lovers of libraries: The original handwritten booklet had been sold to the United States by the heirs of the real-life ‘Alice’, but was given back to the United Kingdom as a thank-you for the war effort against fascism. It was so important that it was handed over by the director of the Library of Congress to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the British Library.

Illustrated music cover of ‘The Wonderland Quadrilles…for Pianoforte’ composed by Charles Marriott in 1872, showing scenes from Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandAlice in Wonderland is free of charge and open until April 17th; I suggest you go soon, because it is packed even now – and because it is fun!

The Newsam Library & Archives held their own little exhibition of ‘Alices’ a few years ago. You can find all our titles related to Alice by Lewis Carroll in the library catalogue. This includes one with illustrations by Mervyn Peake, as shown in the British Library exhibition.

We also hold a book on the illustrators of the Alice stories. It struck me that many of the illustrators of Alice in Wonderland, going back into the 19th century, were women.

© The British Library

Finally, if you are wondering how you could use the Alice stories in the classroom, there are resources for various subjects at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which holds a centenary exhibition at the same time: click here for the Lewis Carroll Guide for Educators.

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