The story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been told alongside many different illustrations and visuals over the years, and its evolution since its publication in 1865 has been great. From the original drawings created by Lewis Carroll to accompany his handwritten manuscript to Peter Blake’s 1970s interpretation and beyond, Alice has gone on quite a journey in her 150+ years. Though the original text of the novel was simple and meant for children, the story has stood the test of time due to its universal themes and its incredible adaptability: even noted surrealist artist Max Ernst took great comfort and inspiration in the tale. Below is a history of the illustrations inspired by the iconic story.
Lewis Carroll’s Own Illustrations
The first person to illustrate the Alice stories was the author himself. Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dawson, first came up with the story in 1862 while on a river trip with his friends, the Liddell family. According to Carroll and the Liddell family, he told the story to their three daughters Lorina, Edith, and Alice as a way to pass the time. Later, Carroll wrote the story down and illustrated his own manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which he gave as a Christmas gift to Alice Liddell. The manuscript, along with Carroll’s original drawings of his whimsical fantasy world, stayed in Alice’s possession until her husband’s death in 1928, when she was forced to sell it for financial reasons.
There has always been a fair amount of controversy surrounding Carroll and his original manuscript and intentions with the story. Many biographers have suggested, unsurprisingly, that the Alice in the stories was inspired by the real-life Alice Liddell, something Carroll always denied. Even darker, there has been a suggestion that Carroll harbored an inappropriate sexual obsession with Alice Liddell. Though this was never confirmed by Alice or the Liddell family, it understandably cast a shadow over Carroll’s original work and his drawings faded into the background, mostly seen by historians and collectors of rare books. In the years to come, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland went through many different editions and art styles, all of which cast different meanings on the Victorian children’s novel.
The First Edition Artwork by John Tenniel
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Instead of Lewis Carroll himself, the first official illustrator of the Alice books was an English illustrator and political cartoonist John Tenniel. Carroll had many drawings accompanying his original manuscript, but the publisher suggested he hire a professional for the first edition of the novel. Carroll was familiar with Tenniel’s work as a political cartoonist, and the two engaged in a lengthy discussion about the illustrations before Tenniel got to work. One of the reasons Carroll’s work has been interpreted in so many different ways over the years is because the text is relatively light in the description. Many of Tenniel’s artistic interpretations of the characters and scenes in Wonderland had an equally lasting impact on public perception of the story as the text of the novel itself.
Tenniel created 92 drawings for Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). These illustrations were engraved onto wooden blocks by the Dalziel Brothers, a famous wood engraving business in Victorian London, and then electrotyping was used to print the books. After he finished Alice’s sequel, though, Tenniel lost his passion for book illustration and largely returned to political cartoons and other forms of artistic expression throughout his life. Though it’s believed that he and Lewis Carroll had a good relationship, Tenniel refused when Carroll asked him to illustrate another creative project, saying, “It is a curious fact that with Looking-Glass the faculty of making drawings for book illustrations departed from me, and I have done nothing in that direction since.” Many published editions of Alice in Wonderland today still show Tenniel’s original drawings.
Max Ernst and Alice
Though he did not illustrate a full edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, German surrealist painter Max Ernst was greatly inspired by the children’s novel and created many works based on Carroll’s book. Ernst’s interest in the story may have been sparked by his experience as a French prisoner of war in 1936, which he related heavily to the novel’s themes of escape and distant lands. He continued to make art in direct reference to Alice for much of his life after that, until 1970. One striking example of this is his painting Alice in 1941 (1941), depicting the titular Alice in a surrealist natural world, which appears to be painted red in reference to Carroll’s novel. Painting the roses red has many different meanings in the novel and pop culture, and here it adds a sense of illusion and disguises to Ernst’s artwork.
Ernst did not create a full edition of the novel, but he did experiment with printmaking and even made several of his own surrealist visual novels titled Misfortunes of the Immortals (1922), The Hundred Headless Woman (1929), A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1930), and Une Semaine de Bonté, or A Week of Kindness (1933). It seems that Ernst stopped making these types of illustrated works around the same time he started making works based on Carroll’s novel. Looking at his paintings based on Alice, it’s interesting to imagine what Ernst’s surrealist edition of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass might have looked like!
Classics Illustrated: The Comic Book World’s Take on Alice
As common enjoyment of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continued through the 1940s and 1950s, publishers and artists began to experiment more with the popular novel’s form. The novel entered the public domain in 1907, which allowed many more adaptations of the story than before. Classics Illustrated is an American comic book series that was created in 1941 by Albert Kanter. The series published classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, illustrated in a comic book style that was both novel and familiar to worldwide audiences. Their version of Alice was a massive hit, and it ended up being translated into many different languages.
Alíkī in the Land of Wonders (1951) is the Greek translation of the Classics Illustrated adaptation of Alice. This version of the story marked the first-ever translation of what was originally a Victorian children’s novel into Modern Greek. The Classics Illustrated editions of Carroll’s story were illustrated by Alex A. Blum, a Hungarian-born comic book artist who worked on projects like Purple Trio, Neon, and Strange Twins for a company called Quality Comics. Throughout the next several decades, the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland proved its adaptability time and time again with interpretations like these. No matter what is happening in the contemporary artistic landscape, themes from Alice can combine nicely with modern, fresh work.
Peter Blake and Lewis Carroll’s Alice
Another captivating interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is that of English Pop artist Peter Blake. Sir Peter Thomas Blake, born in 1932, has made an extraordinary mark on the British art scene over the years and has become a prominent figure in pop culture as a result. He is most famous for co-creating the sleeve design and artwork for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Jann Haworth.
Blake’s work often includes elements of collage, and his contributions to the cover art of musicians like the Beatles, The Who, and Band Aid have contributed to his reputation as The Godfather of British Pop Art. In 1970, Blake presented the world with his interpretation of yet another British cultural classic: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Carroll’s 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Peter Blake’s Illustrations to Through the Looking-Glass series offers a series of bright, hyper-realistic interpretations of quotes from the novel, which Blake has scrawled below each piece. The series of prints released in 1970 actually consisted of reproductions of the watercolor paintings Blake created two years prior, in 1968. Blake was committed to a limited release of the work, so Kelpra Studio in London printed them in an edition of 100. Notable works from the collection include ‘But isn’t it old!’ Tweedledum cried (1970), which features rainbow-colored stockings and a book-accurate depiction of Tweedledum, and ‘Well, this is grand!’ said Alice (1970), depicting a crowned Alice and her frank expression as the main subject. While many artists over the years have transformed the darker elements of Alice in Wonderland in their work, Peter Blake leaned more into the absurd and whimsical qualities of the novel.