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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



John Tenniel (1820-1914). "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (The Mad Tea Party), 1885. Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library and Museum. Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.
If you're already obsessing about the new fall season, this review is not for you. But if, on the other hand, you've been out of town for the past few months, and still want to catch a few of the summer's best shows before they go down, may I recommend “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland,” at the Morgan Library and Museum (through October 12).


The backstory here begins on another, more remote summer’s day--July 4, 1862, to be exact--near the university town of Oxford, England.

Thirty-year-old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who taught mathematics at Christ Church, one of Oxford University’s colleges, was taking three daughters of Christ Church’s dean, Henry Liddell, on a boating expedition up the River Thames.

The three girls were Edith (age 8), Alice (age 10), and Lorina (aged 13). Their destination was Godstow, a hamlet 2½ miles northwest of Oxford, where they planned to have a picnic.

The second oarsman was Robinson Duckworth, a 29-year-old Anglican minister and a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford.

On the way, the girls begged for a story, and, as he had on previous occasions, Dodgson obliged.

Even at 30, he must have had a head full of the challenges and paradoxes in logic and mathematics, AND of natural science (from botany to extinct animals), AND of contemporary literature (for both adults and children), AND of puns, homonyms, and other forms of word play – to say nothing of a remarkable imagination, a wicked sense of humor, a masterly command of nonsense, and an almost inexhaustible ability to fantasize.

As a boy, he had invented games, stories and poems to amuse his ten brothers and sisters, creating a toy theater and a handwritten “magazine” in the process.

As an adult, he had published on a variety of subjects in a range of magazines and newspapers, but hadn’t come up with a suitable pen name until 1856, when one was requested from him by the editor of a short-lived periodical, The Train, who had accepted a poem from him.

This was when “Lewis Carroll” came into being, derived from Dodgson’s real name by way of Latin: Charles> Carolus> “Carroll,” while Lutwidge> Ludovicus > “Lewis.”

From then on, Dodgson would continue to publish books about mathematics and logic under his own name, but use “Lewis Carroll” for all his children’s literature and related undertakings.

The tale he began to tell on that memorable boating expedition concerned a little girl named Alice, after Alice Liddell.

He told how she followed a rabbit wearing a waistcoat with a watch & its fob down a rabbit hole into a bizarre world where all sorts of extraordinary people, anthropomorphic animals, curious events & even curiouser experiences awaited her.

Alice Liddell liked the story so much that she begged Dodgson to write it down for her. He obliged, taking three years of expansions and revisions to complete it, and running it by one, and probably more, other writers for feedback.

The handwritten copy he gave Alice herself had been illustrated by him, and the pictures are surprisingly pleasing, but for publication he decided he needed a professional, and hired John Tenniel, head illustrator for Punch, the storied London humor magazine.

Carroll had worked with local Oxford printers in publishing mathematics books, but he decided to partner with the London publisher Alexander Macmillan for the book that was titled, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The two of them chose a commission agreement, one of several publishing models used during the Victorian era (and not so far from self-publishing today, except that it was a far better deal for the author—if he could afford it).

In a commission agreement, the author financed the book, and the publisher, for producing and distributing it, received ten percent of the profits.

Because Carroll was bearing all the expenses, he could control every aspect of the book’s design – from hiring Tenniel and the placement of his illustrations within the book to the color of the binding.

This last is attested to by a letter from Carroll to Macmillan that is one of 106 items in the sumptuous homage that the Morgan is paying to him and his book to celebrate the sesquicentennial of its publication in 1865 .


“Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland” was organized by the Morgan’s own Carolyn Vega. It’s the kind of show that the Morgan can do better than anybody else.

Since it is both a library and a museum, it has one foot in the world of words, and the other in the world of images: pretty much anything on paper (or paper’s predecessors, such as parchment).

As a library, it collects books, manuscripts, musical scores, letters and similar memorabilia, while as a museum it collects drawings, prints, oils, watercolors, gouaches, photographs and published imagery of any and all kinds.

This show has many editions of “Alice in Wonderland,” from Alice Liddell’s priceless original handmade copy (on loan from the British Museum) to less valuable ones that the visitor can pick up and read, sitting down.

It has two first editions of “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” the sequel published in 1871, but the show as a whole is more about “Alice in Wonderland.”

There are letters and postcards from everybody to everybody, other books, puzzles and games created by Carroll, two pocket watches he owned, his microscope and his toy theater; Alice’s prayer book, her white leather purse, her gold and paste ruby ring, and her writing case.

Other displays – documenting the widespread appeal of “Alice”-- include an 1892 biscuit tin decorated with Tenniel illustrations, Alice in Wonderland magic lantern slides from 1905-08 and a 10-minute silent, sepia-tinted movie of “Alice” from 1903.

(We’re mercifully spared the Walt Disney & Tim Burton versions of the classic, launched on an unsuspecting public after Carroll’s copyright expired in 1907 and anybody could do anything they wanted with the text.)

Carroll was a talented amateur photographer, and this show has some of his photographs of Alice Liddell and other little girls.

One photograph, showing Alice as “The Beggar Maid” in a rather seductive costume, and another, of a little girl named Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin reclining on a sofa, are the sort that have caused eyebrows to raise in our post- Humbert Humbert, post-“SVU” culture.

Was Carroll’s interest in those sweet little girls purely platonic, we wonder? Well, one gathers that he was shy around grownup women, or at least he never married, and I’ve seen no evidence that he was interested in little boys, either, so one may make of all that what one will.

My feeling is that many Victorians were very much into what Sigmund Freud might have called “sublimation,” meaning that they could and did channel their sexual (and aggressive) drives into their work.

I think Carroll was far more likely a master of sublimation than a pedophile.

At any rate, he was a master storyteller, and since their publication, both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” have never been out of print. They have been translated into 170 languages, and issued in hundreds of editions.

As nobody was very scientific about counting book sales in the 19th century, and nobody that I know of today cares about counting sales of books in the public domain, I don’t think anybody knows how many hundreds of millions of copies these two books have sold (not to mention read, as Project Gutenberg makes them available in an e-book format for free).

A big reason for their continued success is that both children and adults like them. This is very true of “Alice,” which Ted Gioia, the American jazz historian, has called not only “an amusing story for young children,” but also “a multilayered work filled with many things—allusions, puns, philosophical speculations and humorous asides—far more suited to an audience of grownups.”

Gioia argues that this is because the boat on the River Thames held, besides Carroll and the three Liddell sisters, the Reverend Duckworth, thereby requiring – or encouraging -- Carroll to extemporize in a manner "suited to both young and old” (or rather, to both children and grownups, as the Reverend was only 29 at the time).


The same, I think, may be said of “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland.” I mean to say, I don’t know how many children have come to see this show, but I do think it brings in many people of all ages who are more into literature than art—children from my point of view in the sense that they are inclined to be more naïve about the visual than the verbal.

They will, of course, have seen the Tenniel illustrations when they read “Alice” at home, but may at first be mainly entranced (as I was) by the illuminating information in the labels accompanying so many of these celebrated images.

Did you know, for example, that “mock turtle soup,” a popular dish on Victorian dining tables, was usually made from veal? This explains why Tenniel created his Mock Turtle with a shell, flippers, calf’s head, hooves and a tail.

Did you know, besides, that when the Mock Turtle mentions weekly lessons in “Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils,” given by an old conger-eel, this referred to John Ruskin, the art critic? He taught the Liddell girls drawing, sketching and painting in oils.

If you can tear yourself away from these labels (as I so much hope everybody eventually will) and look at the images that accompany them, you will be able to enjoy many of the Tenniel illustrations all over again.

This is partly because — from the grinning Cheshire Cat to the Queen of Hearts screaming “Off with her head” – they are excruciatingly festive creations all by themselves. But your pleasure may also be heightened, for two reasons.

The first is that some of them may now be seen in color. The original edition of “Alice in Wonderland” had only black-and-white illustrations, but in the 1880s, Carroll and Tenniel turned their attention to an abridged “Nursery Alice” for very young children. This exhibition includes some very attractive, hand-colored proofs for that edition.

As they reproduce better than Tenniel's original preparatory drawings, I am illustrating this review with one of them, but when you get to the show itself, you will --I think -- agree with me that the original drawings are even better, and the second reason that your pleasure will be heightened is the opportunity you will have to eyeball a few of those drawings.

After Tenniel had made them, he transferred his designs onto blocks that were engraved by George & Edward Dalziel, the best wood engravers of the day. These blocks were then cast in electrotype for printing in the book itself.

Once you see the original drawings, you realize how heavy and black are the lines in these engravings.

The drawings are much more delicate, much more elegant, and genuinely extraordinary. True, you have to be able to see them on the wall to get their full effect, but when you do, you can also see how they raise illustration to a high art.

Best are “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” “Call the next witness” and “The Duchess.” But the hookah-smoking “Blue Caterpillar” is also very evocative.

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