Curator Pick: Favorite Item from the Alice 150 Exhibit

For my turn at curator’s pick, I choose two of my favorite illustrated editions on display in the Alice 15o Years and Counting exhibit: Ralph Steadman’s Alice in Wonderland and John Vernon Lord’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Steadman and Lord are both contemporary British artists, known for their book illustrations and art. Each bring an unique perspective to Carroll’s classic tale, presenting the world of Wonderland in refreshing and unexpected ways.

Ralph Steadman (born 1936 in Wallasey, England) is perhaps best know for his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson and the birth of Gonzo journalism. He worked freelance for several publications, including Punch magazine- a connection shared with original Alice illustration Sir John Tenniel, who worked for Punch nearly 100 years prior. Steadman’s explosive and raw style envisions Carroll’s Victorian children’s story with a modern twist. His characters are engaging, crazed, and absolutely fitting for the madness of Wonderland.

In the introduction to his illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman describes his vision of Lewis Carroll’s unforgettable characters. He reasons that the White Rabbit is “today’s commuter”…”sane within a routine, slightly insane but more engaging when the routine is upset.” The Duchess meanwhile, is “an ex-starlet who married an aristocrat. A high class tart gone to seed.” And the Cheshire Cat “makes an ideal TV Announcer whose smile remains as the rest of the programme fades out.”

Steadman’s affinity for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is unmistakable. He wrote in 1986:

It was all so familiar when I picked it up and read it for the first time in 1967. For the first time, as I thought, but don’t you ever get that strange sensation that what you are reading or watching is something you already know? Something that is in your mind already? Bells of recognition ring as you welcome an old friend. All good ideas are like that. You already know them. The familiarity is part of the enjoyment. The words someone has taken the trouble to write down merely reveal the contents of your own mind. The picture someone has struggled to create is something you have already seen, otherwise how would you recognize it’s content?

alice-module3-aaiw1973steadman_13His illustrations are imaginative, humorous, and deranged. Beautiful in their insanity. Familiar, yet completely different. I always smile when I come across the scene where Alice encounters playing cards painting the roses red. With Steadman, the cards have become surly British workers, complete with union numbers stamped on their card face, carelessly sloshing paint about and ready for a brawl.

Steadman’s unrestrained art offers the reader a new experience with the world created by Carroll and Tenniel- one unmistakably hatched from the mad genius of an artist who feels a genuine connection to the original. As he wrote in 1967: “My only regret is that I didn’t write the story.”

Standing in stark contrast to Steadman’s visceral and unpredictable black ink drawings are the colorful, meticulous, and bold illustrations by John Vernon Lord, (born 1939 in Glossop, England).

Like Steadman, Lord also found familiarity in the characters of Wonderland. In his introduction to the 2009 illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he writes:

The disturbing characters that permeate the book seemed to be similar experiences to those I found in real life in the classroom and in the school playground…To a young child much of the behavior and conversations of adults seemed to me to be similarly irrational, bossy, and supercilious to many of the Alice characters.

alice-module3-aaiw2009lord_15In Lord’s edition, the madness of Wonderland is illustrated with delicate precision. His illustrations carefully thought out, including their placement in the overall book design. Lord offers not only full page illustrations of familiar scenes like the Mad Tea Party, but he also illustrates smaller vignettes integrated flawlessly throughout the text. Some are drawings of the puns/jokes in Carroll’s text, such as the raven and the writing desk at the beginning of chapter 7. The close placement of text and illustration is the result of Lord’s intention to emphasize the “claustrophobic”, dreamlike quality of the story. According to Lord, “it seems to me that dreams move from one situation to another seamlessly. So, in the book, the chapters butt against each other without any gaps.”

One of the most unique aspects of Lord’s illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is the absence of the Alice herself. Deliberately choosing not to picture the title character, the reader experiences the story from the perspective of a dreaming Alice. Lord writes:

You rarely see yourself in dreams, indeed you rarely see yourself at all! I wanted Alice to be somewhat disembodied whilst she lies asleep among the the field of daises in the state of a dream.

Throughout the book, Alice’s words are highlighted in bright blue lettering. Her face may not appear, but the highlighted text ensures her presence is still a visual element throughout the book.

There is an touch of madness in Lord’s illustrations of Wonderland, although perhaps a bit more subtle than Steadman’s frenzied style. Introspective and precise, Lord’s detailed artwork is mesmerizing. His illustrations hold unexpected details as well. For the cover, Lord choose to illustrate exclusively words starting with the letter M, a nod to Carroll’s Tea Party scene:

They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; `and they drew all manner of things–everything that begins with an M–

There’s the obvious mousetrap, moon, and March hare, but Lord also includes abstract concepts like memory, illustrated by infinity symbols and a brain. This thoughtful approach to illustrating Carroll’s text lends itself superbly to the humor and wordplay throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And that is exactly how Lord sees it: “one always hopes that illustrations may enhance the experience of reading and help the reader to see, especially to see familiar texts differently.”

Ralph Steadman and John Vernon Lord’s unique illustrations highlight just how well Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland lends itself to the creative expression of illustrators and book designers. And that is what lies at the heart of the Alice 150 years and Counting exhibit. Lewis’ Carroll’s classic tale has been transformed again and again over time, by artists from across the world- spanning diverse cultures, artistic styles, and time periods. Picking up a different illustrated edition is like discovering the Wonderland all over again.

Whether it is the unique characters, the appeal of Alice’s story, the wit in Carroll’s text, the artwork on the page, or any combination of the elements that went into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Tenniel and Carroll were able to capture the magic of illustration and storytelling in the Alice books that continues to captivate new audiences today. As Lord wrote: “if we all know the successful recipe why certain books and illustrations become popular, we’d all be able to create classics. There lies the enigma, thank goodness.”

Amber Kohl is co-curator of the Alice 150 Years and Counting exhibit in Hornbake Library, and Special Collections Services Coordinator in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. She received her MLS from UMD’s iSchool and MA in History from the University of Connecticut. Her interests include the history of radical thought/revolution, book illustration, and book design.


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