In the 150 years since it was first published, Alice in Wonderland has come to be associated with a very specific kind of visual architecture; much of which has been underscored – and occasionally undermined – by the thousands of different interpretations in book, film and theatre. However it's the literary world that's given rise to some of the most iconic and subversive depictions, everything from Sir John Tenniel's traditional depiction of Alice, through to Yayoi Kusama's pattern-led reinterpretation.
Some of these covers are the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood, which brings them together alongside clothes and photographs to mark the novel's 150th anniversary this year.
“Some really successful covers pare it right down to a single visual element. These are usually really identifiable, often associated with the text, like flamingos, teapots or watches,” comments the exhibition's curator, Kiera Vaclavik. “There have been such a huge number of editions across the world in all kinds of formats – from early readers to luxe art books.”
Alice herself has played a key role as the singular visual motif of many of these books, from the first ever edition which shows a golden cameo of the heroine holding the pig, or the many times she's shown in the company of various Wonderland creatures (particularly the White Rabbit).
The exhibition features covers taken from across the last century and a half, showing both the famous – Helen Oxenbury's cover – and those that have been forgotten, or are lacking attribution. “The covers were selected from a dizzyingly enormous choice to show how Alice specifically has been kept up to date or made familiar to local readers through domestication,” says Vaclavik, commenting on a couple of particularly unusual examples – a cover from the Nineties that shows Alice in Jeans, notable because she's so infrequently shown wearing trousers in any format, and a Provencal edition that shows Alice in a sun frock and tropeziennes.
Early editions of the book were often surprisingly radical in their portrayal of the protagonist, with one American edition depicting Alice with blue hair, and another doing away with the now-iconic dress and pinafore combination in favour of a blue and gold daisy-covered jacket (a link to the opening moments of the book when Alice is making daisy chains).
Some of these early editions were also surprisingly inconsistent with their depiction of the main character, with illustrations inside often not matching the cover portrayal. “The record so far goes to an American edition which features no less than four different versions of Alice within a single edition,” recalls Vaclavik. “Some seem to have been chosen completely at random – Alice with a tennis racket anyone? Or feeding ducks with a male companion?”
Not just books, Alice has found her way into films, plays, theatre posters and even advertising, with some authors creating entirely new versions of the tale, and a completely new visual language to accompany it (Whoopi Goldberg's Alice, or Grazia Nidasio's illustrations for Alice in 2000 for example.)
Together with Vaclavik, Grafik looked through Alice's cover history to find some of the most iconic, and unusual, examples from its 150-year history.