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

This post was first run in 2016 to promote a Cotsen exhibition about the Alice in Wonderland industry.  You can’t see the show, but you can enjoy the wonderful illustrations made by children of their favorite characters featured here.

Tenniel’s Alice and the playing cards from the end of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) 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).


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 Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications.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

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


Juvenilia from the 18th Century: Robert Brightwell junior’s Scientifick Amusement (1752)

Title page of Cotsen 34075

About twenty years ago Cotsen purchased this little manuscript bound in blue sugar paper boards from John Lawson, an English antiquarian bookseller and great collector in the field of the history of education.  The neatly lettered title page dated 1752 credits a Robert Brightwell junior as “author” when he was sixteen years old.  If Master Robert had bothered to write out the name of the town or house where he was living at the time, it might have been possible to make a positive identification in the genealogical reference sources.  There appear to be some more clues at the text, but they lead nowhere. ” Mrs. Allen My Dear Madame D” doesn’t contain enough information to attempt to identify them or if they had any connection with Robert Brightwell junior.

He must have been a  rather serious lad to have compiled and illustrated a “Useful Companion, containing Short & Necessary Instructions for Youth.” The section on astronomy is one of the longer ones in the first part.  In this opening, Robert carefully wrote out tables of the diameters of the planets and of their distance in millions of miles from the sun.

He also drew a diagram of the solar system as far out as Saturn with its rings and five moons (Uranus would not be discovered until 1781).  In the lower left-hand corner, he attempted a picture of an armillary or artificial sphere, which the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line defines as “an early astronomical device for representing the great circles of the heavens, including in the most elaborate instruments the horizon, meridian, Equator, tropics, polar circles, and an ecliptic hoop.”   A pudgy cherub holds up one hand and looks away from the fearsomely complicated machine.As you can see from this more detailed representation from an engraved plate from a 1748 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, the concentric metal bands in Robert’s drawing were not labeled.  The prospect of  finding space to write out in teeny-tiny letters all the names of the parts in such a small drawing probably seemed rather daunting.Robert seems to have been capable of finer work when motivated.  The section on geography was illustrated with tiny hand-colored maps of the continents, where he went to the trouble of designating longitude and latitude and drawing in rivers, seas, countries, and major cities.  He did run into some trouble in the map of Asia rendering the horn of Africa and New Holland (aka Australia) to scale.Neat  rows of shaded diagrams decorate the margins of the section on geometry.  They are placed opposite the corresponding definitions of solid figures–cube, cylinder, cone, pyramid, sphere, prism, scaleneous cone, etc.Feeling pretty certain that Master Robert was transcribing passages from printed books in his manuscript, I started searching distinctive phrases at random in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  The title “Scientifick Amusement” turned up once, in an Irish volume of periodical essays published in 1758.  It was used in the sentence “there are some concerns of greater importance to a human being than the most luminous conception of the full force of the thirteen cards in the scientific amusement of whist…”  The phrase “Platonic body” in the definition of a tetrahedron returned ten results, none  of the passages remotely similar to Robert’s. The preface is usually a good prospect for matching texts, but nothing turned up.  In the history of England, all I had to work with was bland sentence after bland sentence, as in this thoroughly uninspiring account of the reign of Richard III.So what was Richard’s goal in making this manuscript?  It’s possible that he was transcribing a text he  wanted to own, but could not afford to buy.  If this is the case, perhaps the book(s) he used will be digitized in the future and a second round of searching will lead to his sources.  Or he may have been copying out the contents for presentation to someone, but there is no mention of the intended recipient anywhere in the manuscript. The cryptic references to Mrs. Allen and My Dear Madame D on the final page seem to be in a different hand than Robert’s and they could have been added by a later owner.  A third possibility is that Robert was consulting several texts in order to compose an abstract of them in his own words, like the mad narrator of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.   It all sounds rather laborious, but worthy in the days before photomechanical reproduction.

Whatever his motive for making the Scientifick Amusement, Robert reminds me of the hero of Jeffrey Taylor’s Harry’s Holiday (1818), who needed something to do during the summer break and decided to make a copy of Joseph Priestley’s enormous New Chart of History  even though his father warned him off the idea.  At least Robert’s project was manageable in comparison!