Picturing “Alice in Wonderland”: How Do Child Readers Imagine It?

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

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

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).

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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 Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications.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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do these illustrations compare with how you visualize Alice, Wonderland, and its inhabitants?

If you’d like to see more illustrations of Alice, Wonderland, and all its inhabitants, come visit the exhibition now in the Cotsen Gallery: “Alice, after Alice: Adaptation, Illustration, and the ‘Alice Industry’!”

Alice after "Alice" at Cotsen Library

Alice after “Alice” Exhibition at the Cotsen Library:
April 15–July 15, 2016
Free & Open to the Public, Daily 9-5

 

Blood and Thunder: A Murder most Foul Drawn by a Child

One of our newest acquisitions here at Cotsen is an example of juvenilia,or a musical, or visual art created by a child artist (we apply it to works made by children who did not grow up to be famous).  This particular piece is a cleverly illustrated French-language poster presumably created and inscribed by J. M. Legeay (Jean-Marc?) September 1896 (see final panel). The poster tells a story in pictures about a murder and what ensues after the despicable act, complete with a sobering moral.

Although this murder is resolved and justice is meted out, many mysteries surrounding the piece itself.  Where was it made?  Who made it? Why was it made?  Without further ado: Un Crime Effroyable [A terrible crime].

Un Crime Effroyable

This handmade poster in ten panels of paper with a folding cardboard border is illustrated in crayon, ink, watercolor, and pencil.   All the panels are backed on black linen cloth and is carefully designed so that it can be hung on the wall or neatly folded up.

The top two panels bear a decorative title:

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

From these physical facts we might infer that this item was diligently worked on by a young (and presumably amateur artist) with a good degree of skill.  It would have taken several hours at least to illustrate, cut, lay out, and paste down on the backing.  But we don’t get a clear indication of why he spent so much time creating it.  Legeay probably didn’t create a this story of crime and punishment just for his own amusement. Rather, it seems possible that it might have been  a school assignment, an exercise in moral education.  Let’s see what the young man learned…

Un Crime Effroyable, first panelIn this first scene there are two characters: a middle-class fop in bright yellow pants, who has just left the wine and liquor store in the background, and a small green blob in the middle distance, whom we soon learn is the malefactor.

Un Crime Effroyable, second panelHere, with no explanation, our friend with the cherubic face who is feeling no pain is stabbed by a mustachioed assailant.  But notice  how the clothes of the victim and the murderer identify their respective classes.  The bourgeois with his top hat and parasol  is cut down by a working class man in his plain green coat and matching kepi. At this point we might ask if this is an illustration of class conflict; an instance of a working-class man preying on a defenseless middle class-man by a middle-class child evincing a common bourgeois fear of  the supposedly brutal and violent lower class. Of course, the artist Legeay is just a child and foisting a propagandist motivation upon him may not be warranted.  I believe he is just reflecting the world views around him in a school assignment.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

The killer smokes his victim's pipe, the scoundrel!

The killer smokes his victim’s pipe, the scoundrel!

Our murderer contently relaxes in a local café after his grisly deed, as the be-spurred officer enters. In this panel are the first clues as to the place of origin for this poster. On the door is written “Café” and “Cidre.”  “Cidre” is French for cider, specifically the kind produced in Normandy and Brittany. This familiarity with cidre might be an indication that Legeay is from one of these regions (or just a budding drunk).  But as we will see, there is other evidence that points in a very different direction.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Un Crime Effroyable, guillotine sceneIn this scene the action of the story comes to a close.  Our killer is  escorted to a smiling executioner manning the infamous guillotine.The perpetrator’s escorts are none other than our officers-in-spurs and a crucifix bearing priest. This panel, however, shows us more than just the moments leading up to our murderer’s death. Look closely at the left side of the illustration and you might just be able to make out the most puzzling feature of this item, what appears to be debossed text reading: Hollonge.

Provided here are two closer images of the text (one vertical, one horizontal):

closer image of the text, vertical

closer image of the text, horizontalThis text could be a hand-written inscription or  a trade mark on the paper itself. It seems unlikely that it is the debossed trade mark of a paper manufacturer named Hollonge, because the mark does not appear on any other panel of the poster and no such company was turned up in my research. So it might be an inscription. But who wrote it and why? What does it mean?

“Hollonge” might be a corruption of  “Hollogne,”  or short hand for the town of Grâce-Hollogne in the Ardennes.   But Grâce-Hollogne, it turns out, is located not in France, but in Belgium. Bu tif the poster is from Belgium, why the text is written in French?  The Ardennes is located in the province of Liège in the region known as Wallonia and Walloons are French speakers.  So perhaps Legeay was a Walloon.

The word “Hollonge”  seems to have been etched by a tool. It is composed of recessed markings and some of the strokes appear too thick to have been written by pencil or pen. However it was made, it appears to have been a mistake:if the word is supposed to be “Hollogne,” it is spelled wrong. Furthermore the final character “e” also resembles an “l”. Maybe Legeay wrote “Hollonge”  by mistake, which is  possible because he made spelling errors elsewhere.  But why would Legeay write the place of origin on his own work? Surely he knew (and doesn’t need to share) where he lived and where he made the poster. Though the erroneous word is an inscription, it probably isn’t Legeay’s.

It’s more reasonable to assume that the inscription was written by a later owner of the work, perhaps a collector of juvenilia or an antiquarian bookseller. This owner was probably French, considering that “Hollogne” is written with two l’s  rather than with one, which is the Wallonian spelling. The word might have been erased because of the spelling error or because the attempt to place the origin of the work in Hollogne was unfounded.

With the limited evidence we have, all I can do is offer a few guesses about this work’s place of origin. Does the mention of “cidré” point towards Normandy or Brittany or does “Hollonge” point to Belgium?   We would need more information to make this call.

But what we can be more certain of is that Legeay is probably a middle-class boy, that he was a better illustrator than he was a speller. This brings us to the final panel:

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the "m" is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. "Sep R/96" I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the “m” is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. “Sep R/96” I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

This final panel delivers the coup de grâce of the piece, a moral from our insightful creator that caps off the story: “N’assasinez point et vous n’serez point gigotiné” [Don’t murder and you won’t get the guillotine]. Pointedly, young Legeay has spelled two words wrong: “assasinez” is missing a the second double ess (“assassinez”) and the spelling of that last word, “gigotiné,”  instead of the Francophone “guillotine.” Legeay was much more careless with the text than with his illustrations. I don’t think the boy was as motivated to draw out the moral lesson as in illustrating violence (probably to the chagrin of his teacher).

But let’s return to that very odd word “gigotiné.” It might be indicative of more  a child’s bad spelling. Using “gigotiné” might prove that Legeay was cleverer than he appears. “Gigotiné,” if spelled this way on purpose, has a double meaning. Not only does it denote the guillotine, it also associates another word with that infernal machine: “gigotin,” a prepared leg of lamb. Coupled with this association, “gigotiné” reminds us of the outcome of the guillotine.. It’s tongue and cheek, of course, and  probably not meant to be taken too seriously. It was probably a common euphemism; not something Legeay came up with himself.

I can't help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay's parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

I can’t help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay’s parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

This gory but humorous poster is still shrouded in mystery.  I’ve tried my best to explain who might have made this work and why they might have made it, but my interpretation of this child’s work should be taken with a grain of salt.  Though this poster begs more questions than it provides answers, it is nevertheless a bracing look into how a child represented with gusto gory murders and swift guillotines.