Alice at the British Library


Last Wednesday I visited the British Library and managed to squeeze in a visit to the exhibition, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, celebrating 150 years of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s book. This much loved story has been published in numerous editions with a huge variety of illustrators, though Lewis Carroll , pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832- 1898), was its first.

Lewis Carroll was not a trained artist but his illustrations have a certain delicacy about them which I rather liked. The idea of a story came from the daughter of the Dean of Oxford, Alice Liddell. Lewis Carroll was friends with the family and he modelled his Alice on Alice Liddell. Lewis was also friends with the Rossetti family and one can see this influence in the drawing of Alice’s hair.


John Tenniel, 1865

The first title was Alice’s Adventures Underground and not Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Friends urged him to re-write and enlarge the original story. In 1865 Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland was published by Macmillan.. The illustrations are ones we all recognise. They were created by the Punch illustrator, John Tenniel ,though Lewis Carroll was heavily involved in the book’s design and binding. It was delightful to see the original boxwood engraving containing more than twice as many words and illustrations as in the first edition .


Lewis Carroll then wrote a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Alice Through the Looking Glass and a Nursery edition of Alice for smaller children.

In the early 1900s Macmillan adopted new technologies allowing for a four colour printing process. Harry Theaker created the colour plates for the next edition which again we all recognise- the Alice with the blue dress, white apron and blond hair.

The copyright for Alice’s Adventures expired in 1907 and a flood of new editions emerged. These ranged from Arthur Rackham’s and Mervyn Peake’s darker and more menacing approaches through Charles Robinson’s dark haired Alice, subsequently classed as ‘the Art Nouveau Alice’, and on to  lighter and softer editions by Margaret Tarrant, illustrator of fairy tales and religious stories and Caldecott Medal winner, Leonard Weisgard

Walt Disney did an animated version in 1951 and then in the 1960s Alice became an attractive subject for the counter-culture movement with psychedelic posters of Alice produced by Joseph McHugh. Rather surprisingly to me, Salvador Dali took an interest in Alice’s Adventures and produced his own lithographs. Ralph Steadman, famous for his social caricatures, illustrated an edition of Alice that won him both a prestigious award and a certificate of merit.

220px-AAUG_p06Of all the illustrations I saw, my favourite was that of Lewis Carroll’s himself because I liked his courage in attempting to illustrate his story, but I am also mesmerised by first editions ! If you find yourself in London, with an hour to spare, then do make time to go.

If you are interested in book illustration you will find material in the Library at 741.64.



The exhibition is at the British Library and  runs until the 17th April 2016. There is also a fabulous Alice inspired pop-up shop open in the foyer of the British Library until the end of the exhibition.

Judy Russell