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A very merry unbirthday: 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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On 4 July 1862 Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Rev. Robinson Duckworth took three little girls – Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell – on a rowing trip up the Isis in Oxford. On that journey Charles told a story about a very bored little girl who followed a tardy rabbit down a hole on an adventure that would see her drink tea at a Mad Hatter’s tea party, play croquet with a flamingo and have a few fantastical conversations with the elusive Cheshire Cat.

The girls enjoyed the story so much that Alice asked Charles to write it down – he began work on the script the next day. Charles finally published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, and it has delighted generation after generation.

As I reconnected with the story of Alice I began to look at what we have here in the National Collection.

Firstly we have a couple of photographic portrait of Charles. This one shows his right hand resting on an open book, which points to his literary pursuits.

Portrait of Lewis Carroll, c.1867. Lewis Carroll. RPS Collection at National Media Museum

Charles was one of a very small number of mainly British amateur photographers who excelled during the early years of photography. He began taking photographs in 1856 and was soon producing far less stilted and artificial portraits, especially of children, than those taken by the vast number of professional portraitists at the time.

We care for a number of images of the Liddell girls who were enthralled by Charles’ first tales.

Edith, Ina and Alice Liddell on sofa, 1858. Lewis Carroll. National Media Museum Collection

This image shows Alice, on the right, often cited as the inspiration for Charles’ lead character. The three girls are the daughters of Henry Liddell, who was Dean of Christ Church at Oxford University at the time.

As well as images of the characters behind the book, we have a series of colourful magic lantern slides, purchased by the Science Museum along with a number of other slides for £41 in 1951 from the Royal Polytechnic Institution.

Magic lantern slide: Alice in Wonderland, Alice and the White Rabbit, by Sir John Tenniel

Alas, Charles’ artistic skills did not match his literary aptitude and it is thought that his drawings in the original manuscripts held the book back. Consequently he approached Sir John Tenniel, a cartoonist for Punch magazine, who produced a series of illustrations. Alice became an instant best seller and Tenniel was honoured with a Knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1893.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still as loved and enjoyed today as it was 150 years ago. The quirky and eccentric tales of smoking caterpillars, playing card guards and the cruel Queen of Hearts screaming ‘Off with her head!’ continues to delight young and old alike. This is most evident with our recent installation, Read Aloud, in our Open Source exhibition.

In his piece, digital artist Ross Phillips asks our visitors to perform a line from a story in a collective effort to read the whole book. We’ve had an overwhelming response so far – visitors raced through the Alice text.

If you’ve never read about Alice’s adventure, can’t quite remember or just want to be delighted by a truly imaginative tale, I recommend you enter Alice’s magical world. Perhaps watch our visitors reading aloud – some participants did get a little carried away!

In summer 2013 we will host a family exhibition about children’s storybook illustration, so watch this space!

To explore more of our Collection, join us at 1pm every Monday – Friday for a look behind the scenes with our Insight Tour or take a peek at our Collection online.

Written by Beth Hughes

  1. Adam

    There is a prequel to Alice in Wonderland. Please help bring this to life! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1620124177/grin-the-unauthorized-biography-of-a-cheshire-cat

  2. goetzkluge

    http://www.ipernity.com/doc/goetzkluge/35542575 is a comparison between Sir John Tenniel’s “Alice in Wonderland” (shown in your blog article) and two paintings by Bonomi Edward Warren. — Best regards, Götz

  3. goetzkluge

    Tweets on whether Tenniel is the artist: https://twitter.com/Bonnetmaker/status/525660964700848129

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