Brain Pickings

The Best Illustrations from 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland

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Down the rabbit hole in enchanting reimaginings.

On July 4, 1862, English mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson boarded a small boat with a few friends. Among them was a little girl named Alice Liddell. To entertain her and her sisters as they floated down the river between Oxford and Godstow, Dodgson fancied a whimsical story, which he’d come to publish three years later under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, and my all-time favorite.

In the century and a half since Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has sprouted everything from a pop-up book adaptation to a witty cookbook to a quantum physics allegory, and hundreds of artists around the world have reimagined it with remarkable creative vision. After my recent highlights of the best illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit, here come the loveliest visual interpretations of the timeless book.

LISBETH ZWERGER (1999)

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s creative vision — her illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant are absolutely enchanting — I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability to render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

Though this enchanting edition is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

See more here.

RALPH STEADMAN (1973)

Among the most singular and weirdly wonderful interpretations of the beloved story is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books), more than twenty years before Steadman’s spectacular illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm. Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the acclaimed British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to the Carroll classic his singular semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Should you find a surviving copy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. See more of it here.

TOVE JANSSON (1966)

In 1959, three years before the publication of her gorgeous illustrations for The Hobbit and nearly two decades after her iconic Moomin characters were born, celebrated Swedish-speaking Finnish artist Tove Jansson was commissioned to illustrate a now-rare Swedish edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), crafting a sublime fantasy experience that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley. The publisher, Åke Runnquist, thought Jansson would be a perfect fit for the project, as she had previously illustrated a Swedish translation of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — the 1874 book in which the word “snark” actually originated — at Runnquist’s own request.

When Runnquist received her finished illustrations in the fall of 1966, he immediately fired off an excited telegram to Jansson: “Congratulations for Alice — you have produced a masterpiece.”

What an understatement.

In 2011, London’s Tate Museum published an English edition of Janssen’s Alice, but copies of that are also scarce outside the U.K. Luckily, this gem can still be found in some public libraries and, occasionally, online.

See more here.

LEONARD WEISGARD (1949)

One of the most beautiful editions of the Carroll classic is also one of the earliest color ones — a glorious 1949 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (public library), illustrated by artist Leonard Weisgard. The vibrant, textured artwork exudes a certain mid-century boldness that makes it as much a timeless celebration of the iconic children’s book as it is a time-capsule of bygone aesthetic from the golden age of illustration and graphic design.

JOHN VERNON LORD (2011)

“Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them,” Lewis Carroll once wrote in a letter to a friend, “so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.”

That’s what British artist John Vernon Lord — one of the most imaginative literary illustrators working today, who also gave us those spectacular recent illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — sought to embody in his special ultra-limited-edition Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (public library), published in 2011 in a run of only 420 signed and numbered copies, of which 98 came with a special set of prints.

Lord writes in the afterword to his glorious edition:

There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and the journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.

Readers of the text and viewers of the illustrations also make a book their own. Each one of us interprets stories and pictures in our own way and each one of us is unique. . . . [But] I think we have to be careful not to look for too many possible meanings that we might think may be lurking within the text of Carroll’s Alice books. It is very tempting to do so and many writers have done just that, sometimes disturbingly, often without evidence, and sometimes in a most delightfully illuminating way.

And yet Lord’s own illustrations invite a wealth of meaning — the most “delightfully illuminating” kind possible. He argues that illustrators of classics like Carroll’s have the special duty of “confounding people’s expectations,” as readers are already well familiar with the stories and long “to be given a different slant to a familiar narrative.” I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of these rare editions — here’s a taste of Lord’s unparalleled genius:

If you’re able to track one down, do treat yourself to a copy of Lord’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — it’s absolutely gorgeous. See more of it here.

SALVADOR DALÍ (1969)

In 1969, Salvador Dalí was commissioned by New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House to illustrate a special edition of the Carroll classic, consisting of 12 heliogravures — one for each chapter of the book and an original signed etching in four colors as the frontispiece. Distributed as the publisher’s book of the month, the volume went on to become one of the most sought-after Dalí suites of all time — even rarer than Dalí’s erotic vintage cookbook and his illustrations for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy.

Frontispiece

Down the Rabbit Hole

The Pool of Tears

A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

Advice From a Caterpillar

Pig and Pepper

Mad Tea Party

The Queen's Croquet Ground

The Mock Turtle's Story

The Lobster's Quadrille

Who Stole the Tarts?

Alice's Evidence

See more, including a hands-on video tour of the folio case, here.

YAYOI KUSAMA (2012)

In 2012, Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, unleashed her signature dotted magic onto a gorgeous edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library) from Penguin UK and book-designer-by-day, analog-data-visualization-artist-by-night Stefanie Posavec.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant Alice artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Kusama’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a breathtaking piece of visual philosophy to complement Carroll’s timeless vision. See more of it, including a short trailer, here.

BONUS: ALICE IN WONDERLAND POP-UP BOOK (2003)

Those of us enchanted by imaginative pop-up books — from an adaptation of The Little Prince to the life of Leonardo da Vinci to a naughty Victoriana — are bound to fall in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Pop-up Adaptation (public library) by pop-up book artist and paper engineer Robert Sabuda. Originally published in 2003 — three years after Sabuda’s equally enchanting adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and five years before his take on Peter Pan — the book is a kind of “Victorian peep show” version of the Lewis Carroll classic.

Then the Queen, quite out of breath, said to Alice, ‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

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