At the Morgan, Your Passport to Wonderland

Used with permission of The Unemployed Philosophers Guild:
“Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland”
Where? The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City
When? While the global party for Alice in Wonderland just got started, the festivities at the Morgan are winding down; exhibition closes October 12
Who for? Adult fans of the Alice books; most people left the kids home
Why go? It’s a rare chance to see the original manuscript!

Who would have thought it’s only been 150 years since Alice’s curiosity got the better of her?

This year, and spilling into 2016, global celebrations of the first publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland attest to the classic’s broad appeal and enduring legacy. Having grown up an Alice fan, I couldn’t resist tumbling down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and ventured to the Morgan Library in New York. The exhibition “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland” is on view there through October 12.

If you grew up dreaming about Wonderland but only have time to visit one of the Alice-related events, the Morgan show should be it. The exhibition does an excellent job in the space given to provide insight into how the Alice books — Wonderland, published in 1865, and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, from 1871—came to be published and, more importantly, to examine why these works continue to delight and fascinate.

The draw of this exhibition is the high caliber of the objects presented. The Morgan augments their significant holdings of Wonderland-related materials with the loan from the British Library of the original manuscript Lewis Carroll presented in 1864 to his muse, Alice Liddell.

The manuscript, open to the famous scene in the hall of locked doors, is at once a cultural treasure and yet equally unassuming. Here was simply a homemade Christmas present, one in which Carroll took considerable time and care in creating. His handwriting is delicate, almost feminine, and his accompanying drawing of Alice with an elongated neck is child-like yet endearing. One can’t help but imagine the real Alice’s reaction upon opening her gift.

Image credit: British Library Board

I was equally moved by the exquisitely rendered illustrations by John Tenniel that accompanied the original publication of the Alice books. The Morgan owns many of Tenniel’s preparatory drawings and hand-colored proofs and it was pure joy to see up close these icons of children’s illustration.

Other standouts include: a carte de visite of Carroll and photographs he had taken of Alice Liddell; Carroll’s diary, open to the entry which first mentions the adventures of the fictive Alice; and copies of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — now rare because Tenniel, unhappy with the quality of the printing, had the book recalled.

The original manuscript is the first item to greet visitors as they enter the exhibition room and, given the open layout, remains a focal point that makes it easy to revisit. However, visitors can satisfy their curiosity in the manuscript at a nearby touch screen display which lets visitors flip through a digital version in its entirety.

Curator Carolyn Vega uses the backstory of the book’s publication to organize the exhibition. The section “Who Are You?” introduces the principal figures behind the Alice story, namely Carroll and Alice Liddell, with personal effects and portrait photographs to give a sense of their life and interests as well as the times in which they lived. To illustrate Carroll’s love of wordplay and lifelong penchant for storytelling, Vega includes the earliest extant example of Carroll’s creative writing and a toy theater he owned similar to the one he used as a child to entertain his ten brothers and sisters.

The section “Down the Rabbit Hole” recounts Wonderland’s creation and publication, a story conceived during a summer boating excursion Carroll took with Alice and the other Liddell sisters. On view is Carroll’s diary open to the entry of the outing. Were it not for the real Alice’s initial prompting to commit the story to writing, this might very well be the only tangible trace of it.

Carroll paid for the publication of Wonderland out of his own pocket, and an initial letter to his publisher Alexander Macmillan makes clear the writer’s desire to be closely involved in the book’s design and production. When Wonderland was published, it was an immediate and unqualified success. Intended to delight and amuse rather than instruct and moralize, readers of all ages reveled in the book’s parodies of children’s rhymes and poetry, its puns and puzzles, its unabashed nonsense. A first edition is exhibited here, as is one of apparently many unauthorized versions published soon thereafter.

Image credit: Meg Maher

One of the more shrewd decisions Carroll made was in contracting Punch political cartoonist John Tenniel to be Wonderland’s illustrator. Tenniel fused realistic detail with the fantastic, often grotesque aspects of the story. In the more extensive section “Pictures and Conversations,” Vega rightly asserts, “Tenniel’s illustrations captured the essence of Wonderland. The artist drew inspiration from Carroll’s drawings but elaborated on the author’s intention and made the characters and their interactions vibrant and magical.”

Several examples of Tenniel’s work displayed here invite close scrutiny. At a touchscreen (and also online at the exhibition website), visitors can readily contrast Carroll’s simplistic illustrations and Tenniel’s wonderfully surreal preliminary sketches and final color proofs. Making these side-by-side comparisons, one can’t help but agree with Vega’s conclusion that “it is hard to imagine the success of Alice — much less the characters of Wonderland — without Tenniel’s famed illustrations.”

Carroll had a keen visual sense and realized the importance of illustrating his story. The original manuscript contained 37 drawings and the published version is even more visually arresting with a total of 42 engravings. In considering the illustrations integral to the meaning of his text, Carroll selected which scenes for Tenniel to illustrate as well as their size and placement. In many instances, the text functions as a caption for the precisely positioned image. Carroll even played with the visual display of text. As a result of what Vega calls Carroll’s “exacting vision” and the dynamic interplay of text and illustration, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland becomes more than the sum of its parts, and conceptually close to what today might be considered an artist’s book.

The section “Through the Looking Glass” briefly discusses the publication of the Alice sequel, the difficulty Carroll had in retaining Tenniel, and the increased role the illustrator played in shaping the content of the book. A unique first edition, rebound with sketches Tenniel used to transfer his drawings to woodblocks, is open to the scene of the infamous Jabberwock.

Image credit: Meg Maher

Thanks in large measure to the visual vocabulary created by Tenniel, the Alice books immediately took hold in the public’s imagination. Through Carroll-licensed product packaging to rare magic lantern glass slides to a film dating to 1903(!), the section “Thus Grew the Tale of Wonderland” examines how the works quickly became a cultural phenomenon, one that 150 years later shows no signs of stopping.

Just outside the exhibition room a Tenniel illustration of Alice is reproduced life-sized and visitors are invited to take a selfie with it as a souvenir. While the Alice books were initially intended for children, we’ve all come to know that they appeal to the child at heart. On this particular sojourn in Wonderland, it was the adults who spent time celebrating Alice and had their photograph taken with her, not their kids.

Meg Maher is a writer and multimedia content producer based in Washington, DC. She produced humanities exhibitions at the New York Public Library for ten years.