There’s a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool at the moment – Alice in Wonderland. I’m not a big fan of Tate Liverpool, I have to admit, even less of the city itself, however it looks like being an interesting show. I’ve seen a few exhibitions relating to Alice in Wonderland, including an amazing one at the Barbican in the ’80’s when they discovered the original engravings of Tenniel’s classic illustrations in an old bank vault in Lndon, and made a new set of prints form thses 150 year old plates.
I’ve been collecting the illustrations of the Alice books and other Lewis Carroll works for years. I remember being eight or nine at my grandparents’ house in Dorset in the summer holidays and finding a beautiful copy of Alice through the Looking Glass in a bedside cabinet. It had all the usual Tenniel illustrations, and some were in colour too. I remember reading it and being bowled over by the whole dream-like imagery – the way things became comepletely unrelated other things. And the lushness of the chessboard landscape with the little brooks running through it. The image of the Red Queen in particular is one which stays with me today.
I remember it being a little red book too…
Those childhood memories came back when I was at art school (briefly), when I discovered the pre-raphaelite photographers and found that Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) was one of the really early photographers. Coming from a little village in North Yorkshire, Carroll found that his knowledge of this new technology could open doors into the world of his heroes. One of his earliest portraits was of the Tennysons while they were staying at Monk Coniston in the Lakes. It was through inviting himself to the Tennysons that he was introduced to Ruskin, and subsequently the families of Millais, Holman Hunt and Rosetti. In great Pre-Raphaelite style he would get his subjects – admittedly, mostly the kids – to dress up as some romantic hero character.
To put things into context, photography was invented around 1840. Two competing formats – the Daguerrotype invented in France, and the Calotype by Fox Talbot were both protected under patents. It wasn’t until the ‘wet colodian’ process was finally made available in 1855 that anyone else was allowed to start taking photos. Dodgson really was one of the early pioneers. Most early amateurs (they all were – professional photographers hadn’t been invented) concentrated on landscapes as they didn’t move around as much for the 10 minute exposure times. Dodgson, however, not only pursued portraiture, but the ultimate challenge of fidgety kids.His story-telling abilities kept them still and focussed. A prolific photographer, Dodgson took some 6,000 known portraits of people of all ages in his lifetime.
Rather like the central character in Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita‘, Dodgson used his reputation for family portraiture to enter what he saw as the glamourous world of artists and poets – hanging around with the contemporary artists of the day.
He gave up photography when the technology became simpler and more people started to do it. (Also, he was never as good as Julia Margaret Cameron).
It was only then that he started his literary career. As ‘Lewis Carroll’, he had an incredible talent for words – exploring language and creating words of his own. After Shakespeare, Carroll has contributed more words to the English language than anyone else.
Above all, what draws me to his works is the strength in imagery. It’s the creation of these impossibly imagined worlds that has continued to influence artists ever since.
I have a fair collection of various illustrated versions of Alice in Wonderland – from the tame and mundane, to the weird and frankly twisted.
Arthur Rackham – one of my personal favourites (and evidently a huge influence on Tim Burton’s film) was the first artist to tackle the story after it came out of copyright. Since then, over 500 artists have illustrated Alice in Wonderand alone.
However, it’s the second Alice book – Through the Looking Glass, which continues to inspire me. A while ago I started reading it to my young kids as a bedtime story. One chapter a night, each night a different illustrator. Even now I’m blown away with some of the visual ideas. The ticket inspector looking at Alice through binocuars, then through a microscope, then through a telescope. This was 50 years before surrealism! Or the shop where everything moves to a shelf above the one you look at. Where everything is on the fringe of your vision. Surely the stuff Dr Who nightmares are made of.
In fact Alice’s adventures in Carroll’s headspace became hugely influential in the 20th Century. The imagery and logic became key texts for hundreds of artists, designers, mathematicians and philosophers – from Bretton and Magritte to Freud, Einstein, Lennon, and hell, yes even Gwen Stefani:
About fifteen years ago, I made a – probably half-hearted – attempt to do my own version of Through the Looking Glass. It involved making lots of models and playing around with liquid photographic emulsions and stuff. I didn’t get very far, and having just dug out some of the stuff, it was probably just as well, but it’s still there. Tucked away in the back of my mind as something on the eternal to-do list.
Nowadays, it’s the playfulness with scale and perception in my work that you can attribute to my passion for Carroll’s work. And the chance encounter aspect. Oh, and the multi-layered bit. Well, that and the photography obviously….
Probably the most influential artist of all time?