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Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland

As may be evident from the name of my blog (educating alice) and recent Horn Book article (“Alice, the Transformer”), I’m a lifelong fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Naturally, I’m having a blast celebrating this year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of the first book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, along with other people all over the world. There’s already been an Alice-in-fashion conference in London; “Floriferocity,” an Indian and UK collaborative circus performance; a still-going book trailer competition in Russia; and exhibits galore. One exhibit this New Yorker was eagerly anticipating has recently opened at the Morgan Library: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland.

Curated by Carolyn Vega, the exhibit will satisfy everyone from the most ardent Carroll collector to children encountering the story for the first time. On the day I visited, the gallery was packed with adults studying the works on the walls and in the cases, along with children busily completing the engaging activity brochure “for children six and up to share with their favorite grown-ups.” (When I requested a copy, I was asked if I was with a child. It was only when I explained I was going to write about the exhibit that one was handed over.)

The focal point of the exhibit is Carroll’s original handwritten manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which is visiting the U.S. from its usual home at the British Library for the first time in three decades.

5. Alice Growing Tall

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

The exhibit is divided into five sections:

Who Are You?, an introduction to Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, provides materials to help visitors learn about these two people so central to the creation of the story. Among the photographs, letters, and objects is the charming Useful and Instructive Poetry, a small collection of comic work Carroll created (as a child himself) for his brothers and sisters. It is opened to “Tale of a Tail.” On the left-hand page is a color illustration by Carroll and, on the right side, the poem itself. The two homophones in the title foreshadow his much-later “Mouse’s Tale.

17. Useful and instructive poetry

“Tail of a Tale” poem with illustration from Lewis’s childhood collection Useful and Instructive Poetry. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Down the Rabbit Hole provides a window into the creative process of making a published book from the story Carroll first told to children on a summer’s outing. There are wonderful sets of related images, ranging from Carroll’s original sketches and his drawings for Under Ground, to illustrator John Tenniel’s planning drawings and the final illustrations as they appear in the books. Of these, my favorite is the evolution of Alice. While I’d seen Carroll’s drawings before, I hadn’t seen the different versions Tenniel tried for her. Curator Vega smartly points out that Tenniel’s portrayal of Alice growing taller shifted from an Alice who looked scared to one who looked more marveling.

Pictures and Conversations explores some of the work Tenniel did on later editions. Vega points out that when Tenniel updated and colorized his illustrations for The Nursery “Alice” some years later, he also updated Alice’s clothing to stay with the current fashion.

18. The Nursery Alice

The Nursery “Alice” first printing, bound with Tenniel’s revised colored proofs. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Through the Looking-Glass follows the development of this second Alice book, especially the complicated collaboration between Carroll and Tenniel.

Thus Grew the Tale of Wonderland provides a window into some of the ways the characters and other aspects of the books have been reimagined from their original forms. One example: a set of magic lantern slides.

20. Magic lantern slides

W. Butcher & Sons, Alice in Wonderland, Magic lantern slides issued in the Primus junior lecturers’ series. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

I think and hope that anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the books will find the original works on display completely fascinating. Vega’s wall cards provide just the right amount of information, not too much and not too little. Accompanying the exhibit’s remarkable original texts and illustrations are two comfortable seating areas (with nearby bins of Alice books) and several media panels. One of these panels features the complete Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, another shows changes in character design for several characters, and a third screens the oldest movie made of the story from 1903. All in all, this is a delightful exhibit anyone who cares about the history of children’s books and/or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is certain to enjoy.

For those unable to see the exhibit in person or who would like to know more, there is a smashing online version and an associated app. In addition to much of the material included in the actual exhibit — clearly and thoughtfully presented — there is even something extra online: a collection of Alice-inspired music.

About Monica Edinger

Monica Edinger, a fourth-grade teacher at the Dalton School in New York City, blogs at Educating Alice and the Huffington Post. She is the author of Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad (Candlewick), illustrated by Robert Byrd.

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Comments

  1. Yes , of course a fascinating exhibit for a most unusual “children’s” story……gotta wonder it some of this gets a bit too surreal, especially for a child. Rather elusive at times for the mind of a child. But I seriously question the sudden halt in the relationship between Charles aka Lewis and the Liddel family, as well as its beginnings. something very odd about his grown man’s fascination with little Alice and her sisters. I’ll not “go there” and obviously neither will the Morgan. So many different explanations have been offered as to his relationship and its abrupt halt, most of them rather strange and odd, but always exceeding awkward.
    A timeline would have been helpful in this exhibit, so many dates were thrown around as to his various publications dates, when events actually happened, and especially the publication dates of Alice Thru the Looking Glass and Alice Underground, it’s not quite clear in this exhibit WHEN things happened, hence the need for a visual timeline as part of the exhibit.

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