By Sophia Whitfield
This weekend a particularly cold spell hit London after a rather mild November. We picked the day it began sleeting and reached one degrees to venture out to the British Library to see the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.
My daughters both seemed keen on the excursion, mostly because the British Library is right next to King’s Cross station. This meant we didn’t need to be outside in the cold for more than two minutes. A necessary consideration when the cold is something quite foreign. My daughter’s Instagram accounts are currently full of their friends in bikinis sweltering in forty-degree heat in Sydney.
The Alice in Wonderland exhibition celebrates 150 years since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s classic. As it is a free exhibition attendance is guaranteed but you do need to queue, thankfully inside the building.
The exhibition was full of young people, many of whom seemed to be art students, looking at the original manuscripts and many of the illustrations – the illustrators have changed over time.
Lewis Carroll (his real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a student at Oxford when he started writing the story that would become his most successful book. A mathematician, he became fond of his Dean (Henry Liddell) and spent much time with his wife Lorina and their three daughters Lorina, Edith and Alice. He is said to have fashioned his character Alice on Alice Liddell.
It was during an outing with the family in 1862 (according to Carroll’s diary) that he first told his story, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Alice begged him to write it down, which he did after a delay of two years. Carroll initially illustrated his own story and some of these illustrations are on display.
Once a publisher accepted the book, John Tenniel was contracted to illustrate Alice in Wonderland. It is Tenniel’s illustrations that remain, for most of us, the visual interpretation of the iconic Alice. His illustrations for the Alice books were engraved onto blocks of deal wood. These engravings were then used as masters for making copies for the printing of the books. A few of the original wood blocks form part of this exhibition. It was interesting to discover that Tenniel objected to the print quality in the first print run of books. The publisher (Macmillan) had to reprint and Alice became an immediate bestseller. The rejected books were then shipped off to the US.
The exhibition doesn’t take long to move through. The diaries and original manuscripts are fascinating as well as the variety of different illustrators used to engage new audiences once Alice in Wonderland was out of copyright. It is testament to the timeless tale Carroll penned back in 1862.
I remember being read this story, as do my children. From the ages of those moving through the exhibition Alice still remains a well-loved character. It is perhaps thanks to the many contemporary re-imaginings, including Tim Burton’s most recent and upcoming film, that Alice is still beloved by many.
If you are after an adventure on a cold Saturday I would highly recommend you go down the rabbit hole at the British Library.
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