It was my intent after publishing the Graham Ovenden post to then move on to his other relevant work. However, while considering his book, Illustrators of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” (1972), I was urged to cover a much more comprehensive volume recently published, Illustrating Alice: An international selection of illustrated editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass published by Artists’ Choice Editions in 2013.
I wanted to call this post ‘The Definitive Alice’ but the book itself admonishes its readers from regarding it that way. It is a fair argument because, after all, it only covers illustration despite including a lot of discussion about the stories and their interpretation. And instead of trying to be thorough in covering all views, we get a wonderful spectrum of personal anecdotes and revelations from artists, collectors and other lovers of Alice lore including the more prominent members of Lewis Carroll societies around the world.
Given that a definitive book on Lewis Carroll’s two stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), would require a multi-volume encyclopedia, Illustrating Alice does remarkably well, bringing out many imaginative key points. The Alice stories (and their ethnic adaptations) have been published in over 100 languages and, in proportion to total word count, are more often quoted in published works than the plays of Shakespeare. Illustrating Alice has an interesting organization. First, some discussion of Alice in different countries is offered, then numerous living illustrators were asked to discuss their experiences and views. There is also some discussion of film adaptations. For serious Alice lovers, this book is an important reference and I offer a more detailed outline of the contents of the book at the end of this post.
With respect to offering fresh interpretations of Alice, it should be recognized how challenging it has been to see past Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations in the original books and to fruitfully psychoanalyze Carroll’s original intent.
Due to copyright rules, new versions of Wonderland could not be produced by other publishers until 1907 (and Looking-Glass until 1946). In the U.K. there were already 30 new editions by the end of 1908. Millicent Sowerby had the distinction of being the first to have her illustrations published. Publishers would gradually compete to produce the most opulent editions. W.H. Walker was the first to include scenes not given in the original Tenniel and Harry Rountree had the record for the most color images published, 92. Two of the most popular editions were by Raphael Tuck: one based on early Mabel Lucie Attwell work in 1910 and then a more innovative approach in 1921 based on the work of A.L. Bowley giving us the first examples of pop-ups and a panorama scene with slots to place each of the supplied cut-out characters.
During World War II, there was a dearth of publishing because of paper rationing. One notable exception was the work of Mervyn Peake. He produced illustrations for both Alice books which were first published in Sweden in 1946, then in the U.K. in 1954. His images, considered among the best by many experts, were modeled after a neighbor girl named Caroline Lucas who, he believed, had just the right qualities. The high regard for his work is exemplified by a quote from Graham Greene, “You are the first person who has been able to illustrate the book since Tenniel.” This is even more remarkable when one considers that Greene was generally opposed to the idea of illustrating great literature at all. The work has since appeared in many editions while the original art deteriorated from neglect.
Libanus Press was later commissioned by Bloomsbury Publishing to take up the challenge of scanning the original drawings and putting in about 240 hours of computer work to restore them. The results were published in 2001 and shortly thereafter Libanus published them with the title Peake’s Alice in actual size each accompanied by an appropriate quote. One of the first artists to break through the Tenniel paradigm was Ralph Steadman in 1967, with a freer and highly political take on the story. In the 1970s, Alice became a kind of poster child for the Ruralists, symbolizing an appeal to nature. The most notable of those were by Peter Blake and Graham Ovenden—the Ovenden works being bound into a volume with only 10 copies in existence. This incredible range of production is indicative of the fact that illustration seems to be the last art form that can be produced without need of government grants or powerful patronage.
In the early days in France only the images of Tenniel and Arthur Rackham were seen. In 1930, the first native illustrator, Marie Laurencin, was published in a limited edition (790) with six colored lithographs. As Alice was assimilated into other cultures, her character would change. Henry Morin (1935) drew an Alice who seemed ill at ease while André Pécoud (1935) portrayed a more mischievous Alice who took delight in her adventures. Nicole Claveloux’s (1974) work is considered a watershed of modern French illustration offering a non-conformist Alice and a special affinity for the animal characters in the story. Her plate with the flamingos became so iconic that it was the basis of a postage stamp in Czechoslovakia. Jean-Claude Silbermann (2002) gives a highly surreal interpretation while Pat Andrea (2006), a noted artist of erotic women, necessarily makes Alice a young woman.
The first Alice stories in Italy were adapted by Teodorico Pietrocòla-Rossetti—nephew of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a friend of Carroll—in 1872. This edition was not well-received. The first book featuring an Italian illustrator, Riccardo Salvadori, came out in 1913. Because there was not an established culture of children’s literature in Italy yet, Salvadori’s work, imitating that of Arthur Rackham, meant that this genre was strongly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon imagination. In 1938, under fascism, Carroll’s Alice books were banned. Any publisher wishing to publish had to follow certain guidelines. Perhaps the most famous version was illustrated by Enrico Mercatali (1938) who introduced an older dark-haired girl consistent with the appearance of local girls. In the 1950s, the blond Alice reappeared, partly as a backlash to fascist rules and partly because of the popularity of Disney’s animated film in 1951. In the 1970s, Gianni Celati (1978) used Alice as a symbol of counter-culture and Antonio D’Agostini (c1975) gave a psychedelic interpretation which fits well with Carroll’s fantastical imagery.
During the publishing of the Alice stories, the United States was generally regarded as an ugly stepchild of Britain and something of a rogue nation when it came to respecting copyright. A print run regarded as unsatisfactory by Carroll was sent to the U.S. in 1865. At least half a dozen companies sold pirated editions between 1892 and 1907 before the official expiration of copyright. They all used the Tenniel illustrations but would hire an illustrator for the cover and maybe a frontispiece. Interestingly, the Thomas Crowell edition in 1893 included the first instance of an Alice in a blue frock which became established as her signature color; all images and merchandise approved by Carroll had required the girl to be in a corn-yellow dress. A few publishers did use original work by American illustrators. Blanche McManus was distinguished as the first in 1899 for her husband’s company and Peter Newell in 1901, whose characters display an amusing array of facial expressions and interactions. M.L. Kirk’s rendition in 1904 is somewhat conventional but uses the correct color for Alice’s dress.
After the copyright expired, the floodgates opened and a number of notable American illustrators had their work published including Bessie Pease Gutmann (1907), a single illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1923) and Willy Pogány (1929). Walt Disney was obsessed with the story of Alice for a long time, experimenting with various treatments and designs until finally producing the somewhat unsatisfactory film in 1951. The film’s popularity had a stifling effect on innovation in the following decades. David Hall’s paintings and drawings for Disney in the 1930s did finally see the light of day in 1986 and Mary Blair’s concept art for the original film was the basis for a 2008 book.
Perhaps the first satisfactory book after this stagnant period was published in 1982, illustrated by Barry Moser and intended for adult readers. He may have been a bit gun shy of portraying the now iconic Alice and she appears only in the first and last pages as though the reader were observing things from her point of view. A number of prolific and imaginative artists have worked on Alice since then and are really too numerous to name here. An interesting historical note is that the first comic book, a distinctly American art form, was published in 1929 by George Delacorte whose fortune was later used to fund the statue in Central Park. To date, the only edition to be illustrated by a Canadian, George Walker, was produced in 1988 and may also have the distinction of being the last to be set by hand.
U.S. fans and collectors of Lewis Carroll paraphernalia contributed substantially to the scholarship and preservation of the author’s work. Lessing J. Rosenwald donated a handwritten and self-illustrated manuscript of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures under Ground to the Library of the British Museum in 1948 which can now be viewed in its entirety online. A copy of ‘The Wasp in a Wig’, a lost chapter to Looking-Glass, was discovered and published in 1972 and Morton Cohen’s biographical research on Carroll is considered to be definitive.
Alice was first introduced to Brazil by Monterio Lobato in the early 1930s using original illustrators (Tenniel and Bowley). He started with an illustration of a fantasy world including Wonderland, Neverland etc. and one from his own stories which translates as “Yellow Woodpecker Ranch”. A number of artists have used collages made from everyday materials to add cultural texture to their work. An example is Helena de Barros (Helenbar) who sewed her own dress and incorporated herself in her images.
The popularity of Alice in Japan cannot be understated. In fact, the Alice books and associated merchandise are now so popular that it could be said to be an industry in and of itself. The first Japanese illustrator was Shotaro Kawabata (1908). Kawabata imitated Tenniel somewhat but substituted Japanese everyday articles for Europeans ones. Often these treatments were introduced in magazine form rather than stand-alone books. The benefit seems to be that new artists, both writers and illustrators, have an easier way to become established and recognized.
Tsubakibana “Chinka” Yoshimura (1911) was probably the first to illustrate Alice using strictly Japanese patterns, techniques and composition principles. The early portrayal of Alice had a curious character. Because, in Japanese culture, girls have no real transition from childhood to adulthood, girls were portrayed as very young or very mature. Girl children were expected to act very dependent until a certain age and then suddenly expected to be responsible. The idea of a transitional coming-of-age girl was new and explored seriously only in post-war interpretations. Takashi Saida (1925) was perhaps the first to create a middle class Alice with the right balance of sophistication and uncertainty seen in the English versions. In the 1930s, the rising tide of nationalism and militarism influenced the expression in children’s books and there was a decline in sweet and innocent portrayals until after the war when all constraints on style and interpretation were obliterated. The first expression of Alice as a nymphet was in 1974 by Kuniyoshi Kaneko and many have carried on this theme, exploring Alice’s emerging sexuality.
Mainland China had a strange ordinance in 1930 which banned Alice on the silly notion that because the animals talked, it put them on the same level as human beings. Also mentioned in the text is the mystery of a strange edition produced in a short run in Inner Mongolia that seems to defy Chinese convention. Writers and artists are not usually credited in Chinese Communist publications. However, this adaptation not only gives this Taiwanese illustrator credit, but seems to be observing a more international form of copyright law.
In 1879, the first translation of Alice into Russian appeared featuring the art of Tenniel. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for this new literature and a number of editions were produced before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Under Soviet domination and particularly under Stalin, artists were regarded as engineers of utopian society rather than challengers of societal norms. Carroll’s works were banned outright simply because they emphasized fantasy and nonsense rather than serving a moral purpose—expressing Socialist Realism. Artistic institutions were integrated as government unions so no rogue artist could ever hope to get a commission or be published without state sanction. The principles of Soviet Communism continued to have a hold on the artistic process even after Stalin’s death.
There seemed always to be an attempt to bring a kind of order to chaos, either literally as in Aleksandr Dodon’s (2001) framing of the text with his illustrations or in some metaphorical way, making Alice the arbiter of morality in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass worlds. The fact that both stories take place in a template of game playing (cards and chess) gave Russian artists the comfort of structure and the application of rules. Julia Gukova’s illustrations break through this convention by making Alice more an integral part of Wonderland, undermining her ability to pass judgment on these dream worlds. The Russian truism that there is no absolute truth in narrative is perhaps the unifying theme of work in the region.
The first translation of Wonderland into Polish was in 1910 which included images by Tenniel mixed with an anonymous artist. The effect was confusing since the artist made no effort to match Tenniel’s design or style. It had only one edition and was quickly forgotten. Two later translations/illustrations that did have a lasting impact were by Kamil Mackiewicz (1927) and Olga Siemaszko (1955). As a caricaturist, Mackiewicz’s illustrations predictably exaggerated distinguishing traits of its characters.
A 1955 version was written by Antoni Marianowicz adhering to Communist cultural policy; any reference to class distinctions had to be toned down or reinterpreted. The particular genius of this work is that the English cultural references and poems were replaced outright by Polish ones that readers could relate to. And since Marianowicz was a humorist, this version was certainly more humorous than the original. Siemaszko also illustrated a 1969 version and there is a noticeable refinement in her technique. Most later Polish editions used mostly foreign illustrators and so there appears to be no distinctive Polish style. Only after the fall of Communism did native artists start to come to the fore. Ironically, some of the most recent editions again make use of the Tenniel drawings and so the younger generation is likely to have the same visual associations with the Alice books as their grandparents.
After discussing illustrations, the book covers film treatments of Alice. The most interesting is an essay by Jan Švankmajer who describes his relationship to Alice and how, in combination with his own childhood, it inspired the production of an independent film. His first foray into Carroll’s world was a 1971 film based on the poem Jabberwocky. He describes it as an imaginative history of his childhood up to the point when he rebelled against his father. The film opens with a child’s voice (his own daughter, Veronika, then aged 9 in the Czech version) quoting from Looking-Glass. Because the censors saw the film as containing political allegories, it was banned in Czecholslovakia and he made an English version in 1973 which traveled the globe. Only in 1989, was the original film finally seen in his home country.
Another film, inspired somewhat by Alice, was Down in the Cellar (Do pivnice, 1983) about a girl sent to the cellar to fetch potatoes and what happens to her there. Although the film was completed, it did not see the light of day for a number of years due again to censorship. Švankmajer emphasizes the importance of the dream imagery in our human development, a trait that has been long neglected because it served “no moral purpose”.
Finally, he decided to attempt Alice (Něco z Alenky ,1988). The filmmaker wanted to emphasize dream imagery but reminds us that dreams are also filled with familiar objects. All the voices, appropriately altered, would be done by the same child actress consistent with the theory that we are all the characters in our dreams. The idea is that Alice is the only live person in the film and there are no intrusions of adults in voice or body. The other characters were constructed from everyday objects from Alice’s world. The Czech studios took no interest in his work, so he got financing from foreign companies and enlisted the support of art institutions to give his work credibility. The filming was done using old discarded cameras and editing equipment and in 1986, the first Czech independent film saw the light of day. Then in 2006, a Japanese publisher asked him to illustrate both Alice books and he leapt at the chance.
“Lewis Carroll’s Alice is one of the basic books of this civilization, one of those we should take with us to a desert island, just in order to survive.” –Jan Švankmajer (2011, translated by David Short)
Another essay discusses how Alice lends itself so well to animation. Considering the fantastical nature of the stories, it seems that only this medium would have any hope of effectively portraying these magical worlds. Kamilla Elliott, in her book Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (2003), has identified over 50 film and television adaptations. As mentioned before, Walt Disney was obsessed with producing Alice very early on and in the 1920s, he experimented with a combination of live action and animation for Alice in Cartoonland. The 1951 film distinguishes itself by featuring an actual child’s voice—that of Kathryn Beaumont who also did Wendy in Peter Pan—as opposed to young women used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.
A number of living artists shared their experiences illustrating Alice and the philosophy behind their approach. Michael Foreman, for example, noticed how few illustrators tried to make Alice look like the original Alice (Liddell). He also made a deliberate effort to distinguish reality (sepia) from dream (color) and insists that the real background for Wonderland must be his native Cornwall. Barry Moser muses how the story is really about loneliness because of how often the words “alone” and “lonely” appear in the text. John Vernon Lord is a stickler and points out that in the actual text, “Mad” is not applied to any particular character but rather all characters in general. Over the years, we have inherited certain assumptions because of past illustrators: the Hatter is mad, the Hatter wears a hat with a price tag on it and that, at the Mad Tea Party, things other than tea are served. Tatiana Ianovskaia observes a lightly etched eroticism implied by the various metaphors of two things being one: most notably, how playing cards are a kind of marriage of two bodies sharing one space. The other artists featured were John Bradley, Chiara Carrer, Emma Chichester Clark, Gavin O’Keefe, DeLoss McGraw, Helen Oxenbury, Ralph Steadman and Justin Todd.
A short afterword, written by Graham Ovenden, comments on the modern estrangement between adults and children and that we are often deprived of the full potential of illustrators’ talent and imagination because of economic considerations.
Some of the contributors have observed some developments in the evolution of children’s books. First of all, they feel that there is a lack of charming little details. There is an assumption that children’s books should have simple illustrations. There also seems to be no adult market for illustrated books except in France and Russia. And one final observation is that with the onset of the digital age, Illustrating Alice may distinguish itself as the last time we see this kind of compilation in hard copy.
This post is quite timely as this year is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Illustrating Alice was published in a run of 500 for the Standard edition (68 for the Special edition which comes with signed prints) and can be purchased through the Inky Parrot Press. This publisher also sells other Alice volumes including a version where each illustration is from a different artist. For those wanting a more comprehensive analysis of the Alice texts and history should read one the editions referred to as The Annotated Alice.
Illustrating Alice summary of contents:
- Foreword by Marina Vaizey
- Alice in different countries: Brazil by Adriana Peliano, China by Richard Newnham, England, 1865–1939 by Selwyn Goodacre, England, 1940 to today by Dennis Hall, France by Michèle Noret, Italy by Caterina Morelli, Japan by Mikiko Chimori, Poland by Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, Russia by Ella Parry-Davies, United States and Canada by Mark Burnstein
- Alice in Film: ‘Alice’ by Jan Švankmajer, ‘Animating Alice’ by Karen Lury
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (artists credited above)
- Alice Through the Looking-Glass (collected illustrations only, organized by chapter
- Alice: as through a Glass Darkly (afterword) by Graham Ovenden
- Alphabetical Checklist of English Language Editions from the lists compiled by Selwyn Goodacre and Edward Wakeling
- Index of Artists of non-English Language Editions and individual paintings