“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set of Walt Disney’s figurines of Snow White and the seven dwarves based on the famous animated film, Beatrix Potter’s unpublished version of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, a new take on Humpty Dumpty by Dan Santat, a growth chart inspired by the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?)

Before Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch: A Window onto One of the Earliest Unique Forms of Japanese Animé at the Cotsen Children’s Library

By Tara McGowan

Popular visual culture from Japan in the form of manga, animé, and video games has attracted global attention in the last couple of decades, and, along with this interest, has come a preoccupation with origins. One frequently cited source for the origins of manga is the 12th to 13th century scrolls of animals frolicking, known as Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, and some scholars and Japanese popular culture enthusiasts go even further back to cite Heian-period (794-1195) narrative picture-scrolls (emaki 絵巻).

Fig. 1. Segment of Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, 12th-13th centuries.

Although there is little doubt that visual storytelling forms have a long history in Japan, focusing primarily on origins can sometimes overshadow the many important developments in the intervening centuries that arguably relate more directly to the emergence of the Japanese animated visual culture of today. A recent acquisition in the Cotsen Children’s Library of a “play print” (omocha-e玩具絵), entitled “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e志ん板うつしゑ), published in 1884 by Tsunashima Kamekichi綱島亀吉, sheds fascinating light on a lesser known precursor of animé and also the largely forgotten global exchange of cinematic technologies that led up to it.

Fig. 2. “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e), Tsunashima Kamekichi, 1884. (Cotsen collection)

Omocha-e play-prints were, until recently, a largely overlooked genre of ukiyo-e 浮世絵, or Japanese wood-block prints. Designed ostensibly for children, but probably enjoyed by people of all ages, omocha-e were considered inferior to the beautiful ladies (bijinga美人画) or kabuki歌舞伎 actors by Utamaro喜多川歌麿 or landscapes by Hiroshige歌川広重 that inspired modern artistic movements in Europe in the 19th century and ignited a Japonism craze in the West. Unlike the prints for adults that were meant primarily for viewing, omocha-e were even more ephemeral. Most were designed to be played with, and even, as in this case, cut up and assembled, and it is rare to find one in such pristine condition. There is renewed interest in omocha-e today, however, as historians recognize them as invaluable resources for understanding early popular cultural trends in fashion, lifestyle changes, and knowledge, especially among the socioeconomically disadvantaged classes that are less well represented in historical literature. Many omocha-e, like the one above, claim to be “the latest” (shinpan) on the given topic, and in this case, the topic is magic lantern shows.

Magic lanterns were an early form of slide projector invented in Europe in the 17th century. In Japan, this would have corresponded to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), when the Tokugawa Shogun was pursuing a policy of seclusion from the outside world. How strictly the government was able to enforce this policy continues to be a subject of debate. What we do know is that there was, nonetheless, avid interest among the general public in Japan during this period to learn about new technologies from outside, and consequently a surprising number of foreign books, ideas, and objects found their way into the country. Some were smuggled in, while others entered the mainland through more acceptable channels, such as Dejima, an island off the coast of Nagasaki where Japanese merchants were allowed to carry on a limited trade with the Dutch. Most likely, at some point in the mid to late 1700s, a magic lantern made its way from Holland via Dejima onto the Japanese mainland because, by 1801, a distinctly Japanese version of a magic lantern called utsushi-e 写し絵 (literally, projected pictures) appears in chronicles of Edo-period entertainments.

Japanese-style magic lanterns were unique in that they were small, portable, and, remarkably enough, made of wood. The projector was a box with a hole at the top (closed off in the example below) so that the glass chimney of the burning oil or kerosene lamp inside could poke out and smoke could vent. This light source projected images painted on glass slides through a lens onto a curtain or screen. Unlike the later projectors made of metal that were introduced in the 19th century when Japan finally opened its doors to the West, early utushi-e shows were projected from behind the screen, out of sight of the audience. Seeming to appear out of nowhere, this method of hidden projection made them appear even more magical.

Fig. 3. Example of a performer and slide (illustrations by Tara McGowan).

Typically, several performers were involved. Animation was achieved, not only by the swift movement of the slides in front of the light source, somewhat like a flip-book, but also by the performers moving around the space, carrying their lanterns with them and projecting characters from different places onto the scene. Several lanterns with different slides would be used and animated at one time, causing audiences in the western (kansai) region of Japan to refer to these colorful performances as “brocade shadow plays” (nishiki kage e錦影絵). “Brocade pictures” (nishiki-e), it should be noted, was the term used for colorful Edo-period ukiyo-e prints, and there was considerable cross-over in styles and themes between the two media.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan had a vibrant theater culture, which encompassed not only the well-known kabuki and bunraku (joruri 浄瑠璃) puppet forms, but also all manner of street performance styles and spectacles performed in less formal venues. One such popular performance venue was called yose 寄席. Although today yose has become almost synonymous with a genre of comic oral storytelling known as rakugo 落語, during the Edo period, it was much more eclectic, similar to vaudeville music halls in the West, featuring a wide variety of dramatic arts, spectacular feats, magic tricks, and street performance genres. From the outset, yose theaters became the home of utsushi-e magic-lantern performances, and the glass slides developed for this venue were inspired by the stock characters and themes with which yose audiences were familiar.

In fact, the image at the bottom of the magic-lantern play-print in the Cotsen collection is designed to look like the entryway into a yose theater with the stock character of Fukusuke–who typically served as a narrator between acts—bowing his head low and inviting the audience in. Fuku 福 means “good fortune,” and Fukusuke dolls are still frequently found in Japanese shops and establishments because they are believed to promote business. The characters (大入) above his head are read ōire, which means “a full house.” Hidden among the cherry blossoms above the stage is the phrase “a new cast of characters by popular demand” (shinrenchu hiiki).

Fig. 4. The yose stage at the bottom of the play print, “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e) (1884).

To the left and right of the stage, we see the trunks of the cherry trees with messages from the publisher to the manager and patron (apparently, a fish merchant) on the right and to the child audience on the left with the promise of “plenty of diversion” (tesusabi takusan).

The owner of this print would have known that the stage was to be cut from the bottom of the print and (had they done it) would probably have reinforced it with wood or heavy cardboard. They would also have cut out the two white circles on either side of Fukusuke, so that they could move the magic-lantern slides—also reinforced on the back with cardboard or wood–across the back of the stage to simulate a magic lantern performance. Just like the characters on the print, the slides would have been read from right to left and from top to bottom.

Panorama at the top: the Itsukushima Shrine厳島神社 in Miyajima宮島町

The slide at the top of the print is a long panorama of the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, famous for having been built over the water. The torii gate, famous even today in the tourist guides, can be seen on the left with the tide coming in and sailboats floating nearby. Long glass slides, such as these, were often used for scenery in magic lantern shows, alongside the more typical sequential slides depicting action. The shrine also suggests that this magic lantern show is being performed, as some were, in the precincts of the shrine for an auspicious festival day (ennichi 縁日). The cherry trees and blossoms around the stage also suggest an impromptu tent set up for the performance, possibly during the cherry-blossom viewing season around April.

(first row)

The slide directly underneath the panorama also relates to the theme of auspicious festival days, and appears to be set within the shrine complex. Moving from right to left, we have the pine branches that would signal a sacred Noh drama. Note that the stage above has two circles, set apart by the character of Fukusuke, so the audience would first see the pine branches in the right-hand circular window at the same time that it would see the Shinto offering at center on the left.

By moving the slide over one image, the audience would next see the stock dancing figure of Sanbansō, balancing on one foot and holding a fan in one hand and bells in another. Sanbansō typically appears as comic relief (kyōgen) during Noh drama. Along with Sanbansō, audiences would see what appears to be a female shrine attendant, who may have just arranged the Shinto offering at center.

When the slide is moved once more to the right, the audience would see the Shinto offering again and a scroll (kakejiku) at the far left. The characters in calligraphy on the scroll are written in a cursive style that is not easy to decipher, but a likely reading is “tama zoroi” (玉揃). Tama can mean “jewels”, and zoroi means “a whole assortment,” but tama can also mean “circle,” and the verb soroeru can also mean to “match up.” Since the user of this print would be “matching up the circles” in order to perform the images in the stage, the writing on the scroll may be providing some hidden instruction for the user.

Typical of an eclectic yose performance with the stock figure of Fukusuke, acting as master-of-ceremonies in between acts, in the next series of slides, we transition to another genre common in magic lantern shows of the time, flowers and bonsai of the four seasons.

(second row)

In this slide, we have a better example of how the quick movement of the slides behind the stage could create the illusion of movement or animation. Again, moving from right to left, the audience would first see Fukusuke (at center), this time looking up at the audience. No doubt, he is introducing the peonies, just in bud, on the far right.

With a quick move of the slide one over to the left, it would appear that the flowers suddenly bloom into a vibrant bouquet, and, on the left, like magic, an arrangement of plum blossoms and chrysanthemums also appears.

With another swift move of the slide, the audience would see the plums and chrysanthemums transform into a wizened bonsai arrangement (far left), and Fukusuke would reappear, on the right this time.

The magic animation of the slides, when performed swiftly and smoothly, would have been similar to a bouquet of flowers appearing suddenly out of a magician’s hat or from under a handkerchief.

Magic lantern shows often referred to themes from popular bunraku or kabuki theater plays, and the magical transformation made possible by the swift movement of the slides, made ghost stories particularly effective in this format. The next level of this play print takes us into what would have been the familiar territory for a child audience—folk and fairy tales.

(third row)

The first two images to appear would be the man on the right, spooked by a spectral fireball (hi no tama). To the left, even the narrator Fukusuke is startled, falling backwards and crying out in fear.

By pulling the slide one image over, the fire ball turns into a three-eyed monster (ōnyūdo), while in the left-hand opening would appear the rabbit, brandishing something over its head and holding a cup of salt. Children would immediately have recognized this as the well-known folktale, Kachi kachi yama, a truly gruesome story, in which a tanuki 狸 (sometimes translated, “racoon dog”) trickster fools an old man into eating his own wife! The rabbit avenges the old man in the story by setting fire to the tanuki and cruelly offering him salt to cure the wounds, only causing him even greater agonies. Note that the three-eyed monster is facing to the right, indicating that he is taking part in the drama on the right hand-side, whereas the rabbit is facing the left, in the direction of a new, unfolding scene.

One more pull of the slide, and we see Fukusuke again on the right, responding to the three-eyed monster, while the tanuki with his back on fire is fleeing the rabbit.

At the end of the folktale, the rabbit convinces the tanuki to board a boat that he has cleverly constructed out of mud, and no sooner does the tanuki set off in the river, than his boat dissolves and he drowns. The brief reference to the story at one of its most grisly moments would no doubt have been enough to resurrect the entire tale in the minds of the audience.

(fourth row)

As we move further down the print to the last level of slides, we enter into an even more ghostly realm. This time, the audience would first see the female ghost (yūrei 幽霊) suddenly appear on the far right, coupled with the man, falling down in shock and fear with the ghostly fire-ball at center.

Moving one image over, the audience would then see two brave samurai, ready to battle the apparitions. Note again, that one warrior faces to the right, where we last saw the female ghost, whereas the other warrior faces left, in anticipation of some new drama about to unfold.

Moving one more image over, we see what is known as a tsukumogami 付喪神, or a spirit made up of a collection of discarded objects, including a Japanese lantern, that have come to life. No doubt, slides could also be moved back and forth, as well, to add further drama and animation to the scene.

As this print demonstrates, the various types of stock shape-shifters (obake), ghosts (yūrei), and monsters (yōkai 妖怪) that have become popularized in recent years through animé movies, manga, and video games, such as “Yokai Watch,” were already well developed by the time this print was published in 1884 and were arguably a product of the fascination with the animated transformations made possible by early magic-lantern technology of the Edo period. Omocha-e prints, which helped to spread these new ideas and early cinematic technologies beyond the urban centers of Edo or Osaka to remote provinces throughout Japan, also played a major role in paving the way for the widespread fascination with shapeshifters and monsters that continues in Japan to this day and that has, more recently, spread around the globe.

The unique Japanese form of magic-lantern performance, utushi-e, was all but forgotten in the push for rapid Westernization, once Japan did open its doors to the West in 1853. Ironically, by the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western-style metal magic lantern projectors were introduced to Japan as a new, foreign technology. In a direct translation of the words “magic lantern,” these new machines were called gentō 幻灯 and were used primarily in upper-class homes and educational settings. Although their popularity waned with the introduction of silent film and later television, utsushi-e continued to be performed sporadically until the mid-20th century. Recently, utsushi-e has been rediscovered in Japan, and there have been significant efforts made to collect and preserve these delicate glass artifacts, particularly at Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, which has created a digital archive. Reenactments of Edo-period slide shows based on the Waseda collection can now be enjoyed on Youtube, courtesy of the theater troupe Minwaza.


See more visual depictions of Japanese magic lantern shows at “江户の写し絵” Minwaza.com