Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

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The exhibition starts off in a pretty conventional mode, with faded old photographs, letters, original handwritten manuscripts and objects in vitrines, and an audio tape of a rowing boat paddling upstream on the Isis from Oxford to Godstow, on that ‘golden afternoon’ with the three Liddell sisters on board, with Charles Dodson and his friend, Robinson Duckworth, for a picnic. However, the deeper we go down the rabbit hole, the curiouser it becomes and the stranger it gets. The scale of the subject matter is daunting, just in the number of illustrators and artists who have turned their hand to capturing this headstrong and quizzical young girl on paper, and there are naturally a few omissions. The first illustrator was the renowned Victorian cartoonist John Tenniel, who worked closely with Carroll to produce drawings from his sketches that were then engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. After the first 2,000 copies were printed, Tenniel objected to the quality of the printing, and Carroll dipped into his own pocket to have them reprinted. Amongst the illustrators that are not represented are Mervyn Peake, the brothers Robinson, Charles and Thomas (although not, surprisingly, their brother William Heath), Harry Furniss, Arthur Rackham and Harry Rountree. Peter Blake is rightly included, but obviously not his fellow member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, Graham Ovenden, who was imprisoned for his unhealthy interest in prepubescent girls, who he photographed and painted in a series called State of Grace. Ralph Steadman is one of the few contemporary artists who truly captured the satirical nature of the characters who are recognisable from modern life.

As well as appearing in book form, Alice is portrayed in theatre productions, film, performance, music, fashion and photography, and her cultural impact on current-day thinking and creativity is immense. She has never been out of fashion, and has weathered artistic styles, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, Surrealism and Pop, for 157 years. The Beatles, and particularly John Lennon, owe Alice an enormous debt, with the band’s experiences in LSD influencing the lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and the 1967 hit I am the Walrus, which features Humpty Dumpty as the ‘egg man’, although it has been suggested that Lennon interpreted Carroll’s text as a comment on capitalist society, whereby the Walrus is seen as the capitalist and the Carpenter as the worker (Lennon later said that he should have been the voice of the Carpenter). The Surrealists also loved Alice, as their job was partially done from the outset, and the questioning nature of Carroll’s writing appealed as a source of inspiration for creative minds unravelling the seemingly nonsensical story of a young female protagonist in a dreamlike state. André Breton, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dali in the sixties, all produced work derived from the rich imagery engendered by Carroll. There is no evidence that the author and mathematician experimented with drugs, but it would not come as a great surprise if he had. 

Some of the sets on display are stunning, while others look very amateur, as though tossed together by first-year art students on a very tight budget. There is a splintered caterpillar as a crashed wooden roller coaster with a giant mushroom and a couple of deckchairs, which says absolutely nothing but has been included because it’s, hey man, like surreal, and anything goes, right? The tea party on the other hand is a class act, with a sensational digital programme in a constantly changing montage, projected onto a long table set with white crockery and cutlery, a stack of chairs rising up like a magician’s trick and a tablecloth taking off at one end like one of Soraya’s Valencian sails. Designed by award-winning designer Tom Piper, best known for his stage designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the V&A as well as his Tower of London poppies installation, the exhibition will reward Curiouser and Curiouser visitors with interactive displays. 

The exhibition celebrates one of the most iconic books of the last two centuries, with immersive and exciting displays, highlighting some of the most bizarre characters ever to appear in two books by the same author. No other works in history have produced so many quirky creatures. Carroll’s influences probably include a poem published by FT Palgrave in his 1854 collection Idyls and Songs, possibly Dante’s Inferno and traditional folk tales located in Fairyland, but the original ideas are from his febrile imagination and from his alone. Alice Liddell cajoled, bullied and blackmailed Dodgson into producing the story he told her and her sisters on the riverbank in book form, and she seemed to exert an extraordinary influence on him, until she turned It off like a tap — although her parents were becoming less tolerant of this extraordinary man turning up unannounced to take photographs of their daughters. Little is made of their strange relationship within the bounds of the exhibition or the catalogue (it is a family show, after all), but elsewhere it has been discussed at length by historians, academics and critics. The conclusions of this smudged sexuality veer between out-and-out you-know-what, a naive attraction to young girls because of their innocence, and a genuine affection for childhood and the ‘ideal child-friend’. Dodgson’s friend John Ruskin also had a predilection for prepubescent girls, and they were both asked for tea at the Liddell’s houses when Alice’s mother and her father, the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, were meant to be having dinner at Blenheim. A snowstorm forced them to return home, only to find Ruskin and the now unwelcome Dodgson about to tuck into muffins with their daughters.

Alice appeared in several films and theatrical productions while Alice Liddell was still alive, and toured America in 1932 when she was eighty, where she received an Honorary Doctorate at Columbia University in New York. The original manuscript she sold at auction for a record sum, due to impecunious circumstances, was re-sold to a syndicate of Americans who gifted it to the British Library after the Second World War, in recognition of Britain’s role in fighting off the Nazis in Europe. Disney made an animated film in 1951, and that set a standard for a ‘cute’ version of Alice, totally innocent, with blonde hair and a blue pinafore dress. In any of the adaptations, Alice never appears frightened or fazed by any of the talking animals who quiz and mock her throughout her trip to Wonderland, and remains resolutely defiant of even the most threatening behaviour from the Queen of Hearts, who is stomping about demanding beheadings. 

There are a couple of awkward areas, where two screens are arranged side by side showing early films, which is confusing at best, and distracting at worst. Other than that, the exhibition is a charming celebration of these remarkable two volumes that have enchanted children and adults alike for a century and a half. There are also stage costumes, fashion from Iris van Herpen and photography from Tim Walker and Annie Leibovitz, large-scale digital projections, and immersive areas featuring virtual reality. In other words, something for everybody, down that rabbit hole.

V&A Sainsbury Wing

Until 31 December 2021

Admission £20

vam.ac.uk

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