A new exhibition reminds us of Alice In Wonderland’s enduring influence on visual art. But its impact extends much further. Why do Lewis Carroll’s books still have such a hold on us?by Richard Jenkyns / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nyima 438 (2009) by the Swiss artist Annelies Štrba. This Alice in Wonderland-inspired painting will be on show at Tate Liverpool
Charles Dodgson was significant in two quite different ways. By profession he was a mathematician (a don at Christ Church, Oxford), especially interested in the philosophical end of his subject. His playful textbook on symbolic logic is still read, and his contribution to the theory of voting is admired by those who study the topic such as the eminent philosopher Michael Dummett. He was also a pioneer in the art of photography, especially notable for his pictures of children. He would be remembered (just) as one of those curiously versatile minor Victorians but for an odd chance. In July 1862 he went on a boating trip with the daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. As often, he made up a story to entertain them. A few days later, Alice Liddell began to pester him to write it down. To please her, he agreed, and the rest is history—or rather, fiction. Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, and Wonderland was given to the world.
“Alice has, I understand, become a patron saint of the Surrealists,” William Empson wrote in 1935; now, an exhibition dedicated to Carroll at Tate Liverpool, which opens this November, reminds us, among other things, of the ways in which his work has fascinated visual artists.
From the first, he was clear that illustrations were essential (one among his many effects on children’s literature). “‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’” Here again, chance played its part. Carroll did his own drawings to accompany the text but, charming though they were, they proved too amateurish for publication. However, they provided a starting-point to John Tenniel, who got the commission. Tenniel’s illustrations have become canonical, but although they are good, they are not unimprovable. In the case of writer-illustrators like Beatrix Potter or Maurice Sendak, the text and the pictures form an indivisible Gesamtkunstwerk, and it is impossible to imagine the one without the other. EH Shepard’s drawings for the Pooh books are so perfect that they are now inseparable from the reading experience. How wise the little girl was who, after seeing one of the Disney cartoons, declared: “It isn’t true. The book is true.” And how odd it is to think that the first Pooh story was given to another artist, who depicted Christopher Robin as a lovable scamp, rather like William Brown; our idea of AA Milne’s world would be very different if Shepard had not taken over. As the Liverpool exhibition shows, Tenniel’s designs do not have Potter or Shepard’s absolute finality: they offer themes on which other artists can play variations.