“Once Upon New Times”: An Exhibition of Retold Classics in the Cotsen Gallery Through March 2024

Tenniel's 's original illustrations from "Alice in Wonderland"

One of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” (Cotsen 657)

The best stories have always lent themselves to retelling, reillustration, or transformation into new formats and there’s a new display of some wonderful reimaginings–some of them surprises, some old friends–on display in Cotsen now through March.  It’s the first exhibition in the gallery since the pandemic, so please come see magic lantern slides of Barrie’s Peter Pan, a very early set of Walt Disney’s figurines of Snow White and the seven dwarves based on the famous animated film, Beatrix Potter’s unpublished version of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, a new take on Humpty Dumpty by Dan Santat, a growth chart inspired by the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Bremen Town Musicians,” a “Stone Soup” card game, a “Jack and the Bean Stalk” Lego set,  and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland adapted for kamishibai, a form of Japanese street theater and “translated” into the author’s cipher code and reillustrated by school children.  The last item was on exhibition in the 2016 show “Alice after Alice,” which was curated by Jeff Barton, Cotsen’s rare book cataloger.  Here’s his post about about how children redrew famous characters in Alice.


Alice in Wonderland has been delighting children and grown-ups for over 150 years now. In addition to Lewis Carroll’s text, the illustrations by John Tenniel and other, later illustrators have been a major source of readers’ delight.

Try to imagine Alice without any illustrations of the famous characters and scenes, either by Tenniel or other illustrators. Virtually impossible isn’t it? Carroll himself provided very, very little descriptive detail, if you actually look at his text. So our sense of how Alice and all the inhabitants of Wonderland look is strongly conditioned by illustration, when you stop to think about it. Textual and visual elements of Alice seem inseparably intertwined, with the illustrations shaping meaning, extending it, and sometimes commenting ironically on the text. Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatter look comically absurd, rather than menacing or hostile, illustration leavening the tone of the words, which can be quite edgy, or even scary, all by themselves.

Professional illustrators have been reimagining Alice in new versions since the nineteenth century, including names like Arthur Rackham, Willy Pogány, Ralph Steadman, or Salvador Dali. (Yes, Dali did have a go at illustrating Alice, in his own distinctive style! More on that “curiosity” in a later posting.). The flood of the new illustrations shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first century either, based on recent editions.

Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young

“Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young (Cotsen 20836).


Another “Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lee MacArthur & David Dansey (Cotsen 20836).

But it’s worth remembering that adults haven’t been the only illustrators of Alice. Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications. For instance, the Cipher Alice — a coded version of the story based on the Telegraph Cipher devised by Carroll — credits some twenty-six ten- and eleven-year old children as illustrators (in addition to twenty-nine named “code checkers” for the coder cipher text), all of whom were students at the Edward Peake Middle School in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England in 1990, when the book was printed by L & T Press, Ltd.


Alice & the “Drink Me” bottle, by Louise Lawson.

The students’ graphic renderings vary in style and sophistication, but all display the obvious pleasure that children have taken in Alice since 1865. Louise Lawson, for instance, pictures Alice as a smiling little girl with huge bow on her hair, wearing a variation of Alice’s traditional pinafore emblazoned with a super-hero’s “W” (“Wonderland”) and the name “Alice” added on her apron, just for good measure. She chooses to depict Alice theatrically holding up the “Drink Me” bottle at the beginning of her Wonderland adventures.

The book’s Preface, by supervising grown-up, Edward Wakeling, notes that the Cipher Alice was produced for the Alice 125 Project of the Carroll Foundation, Australia, which attempted “to set a world record for the number of different languages version of the same book.” Interest in Alice was indeed world-wide in 1990, and if anything, it has become even more so in 2016 (Alice 150), with the book having been translated into more than 170 languages in countless editions!

But as in so many editions of Alice, I think the illustrations in the Cipher Alice are “the thing” (with apologies to Hamlet), so I’d like to share some others with you. It’s one my very favorite editions, since it shows how child-readers responded to Alice. I also like the way that different children sometimes imagined quite different depictions of the same scene — there’s no one, “right” way to depict Alice, as the many different versions over the last 150 years have shown us! The illustrations are simply terrific fun to see too! (Click on any thumbnail image to see a larger version.)

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom... Past curious things on the way

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom… past curious things on the way.


Descending into Wonderland via a bucket in a well… Past dinosaur fossils on the way!


Alice and the White Rabbit “after the fall” — Alice looks distinctly unhappy (and wears a name-tag).


Alice (wearing a “Cool” tee-shirt) as she shrinks, becoming too small to reach the key on the table.


Tiny Alice after shrinking too small to reach the door key on the (now giant-sized) table.


The Mad Hatter (price tag in his hatband) with a hot-dog, a coke, and an earring!


Alice and a mustachioed caterpillar, who also wears a monocle and smokes a gentleman’s pipe.


Alice (with a name-tag), an unusual-looking White Rabbit, and the Court of the Queen of Hearts.


“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” –Alice. (And how about the Hatter’s outfit shown here?)

Fairy Tales in Vintage French Postcards

Vintage French postcards are all over Etsy and Pinterest.  Some are portraits of pretty young ladies.  Many others advertise tourist destinations or famous French aperitifs.  Sets that illustrate fairy tales seem to be more unusual and Cotsen is fortunate to have some examples from the so-called Golden Age of Postcards between 1890 and 1915.One of the most sumptuous sets in the collection (Cotsen 60506) retells Perrault’s fairy tale of  “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”) in six scenes.  They may look like postcards, with unsigned color illustrations centered on borders of attractively torn paper set on a gold background, but they were not designed to be sent through the mail. Flip any of the cards over and the back is a beautifully composed advertisement dated 1900 promoting Aristide and Marguerite Boucicault’s Le Bon Marché, the first department store in France, as one of the foremost attractions in Paris..“Little Thumb” (“Le Petit Poucet”), also from Perrault’s Histoires du tems passé is illustrated in 10 scenes reproduced from half-tone photographs of carefully posed models (Cotsen 60505).  The color was added by hand or with stencils. The man playing the ogre mugs at the camera while wielding a huge knife and grabbing one of the hero’s little brothers by a foot. Never mind if the thief Petit Poucet swimming in the ogre’s seven-league boots looks as he won’t be able to run like the wind to rescue his siblings. B. Chenas sent a one-line message on each card sometime in 1908 to Mlle Gabrielle Perez, a guest at the Patte d’oie (“The Foot of the Goose”)  in Herblay, Seine-et-Oise, a northwestern suburb of Paris about twelve miles from city center.The postcard collection has three versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” (“Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”).  The set with sepia photographic illustrations is signed in the lower right hand corner “J.K” and numbered in the lower left-hand corner “660” (presumably the publisher’s number for a title within a series).  Cotsen 60503 consists of five scenes featuring an adorable little girl with bobbed hair wearing a print apron over a ruffled skirt and sabots. The skeletal wolf standing next to her in the second card looks as fake as the wolf’s head in grandmother’s mob cap in the fifth one.  Everything after that may be missing.  There’s no publisher or address lines on the back, so perhaps these charming cards were made for another purpose.The second “Red Riding Hood” (Cotsen 60502) in twelve acts is based on “The Big Bad Wolf,” the 1934 sequel to the wildly successful 1933 Disney Silly Symphony “The Three Pigs.”  The story is a mash-up of Perrault and the English folktale.  The piggies dance with Red down a path through the woods until they are ambushed by the wolf in an outrageous fairy costume.  The girl doesn’t lose her nerve and runs away, while the cowardly pigs shiver on the ground.  They do pull themselves together fast enough to get to the grandmother’s cottage in time to save their friend from the vile hairy beast.“Le Chaperon Rose” is a slightly saucy version of the fairy tale in five beautifully produced hand-colored photographs acted out for the camera by two exquisitely turned out children around eleven or twelve (Cotsen 60501).  The wolf, played by a boy in a short suit accessorized with a cane, watch, and bowler hat, greets Chaperon Rose, dainty in a pink gown bedizened with tucks and ruffles.  She presents him with a rose from her basket and pins it to his lapel, a gesture which obviously pleases him.  She invites him to kiss her on the check, accepting his token of esteem with a coy, knowing look.  “N. Guillot” sent sweet kisses to Mlle. Yvonne Guillot in Lille—perhaps a father travelling on business or a grandparent staying in touch between visits in 1907.