All Things Alice: It’s Alice’s Day! Calloo Callay!

Everyone’s gone Alice mad! It’s been 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published.  And on Saturday July 4th it’s Alice’s Day in Oxford. In honour of this frabjous occasion I’m doing a series of posts about all things Alice…

It’s Alice’s Day!

On this day, many, many years ago Charles Dodgson told the first Alice story to Alice Liddell and her sisters.  The day is recorded in his diary and later immortalised in the poem “All in the Golden Afternoon” which prefaces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Fittingly, it was one of those hot, blue-skied days when the buildings of Oxford are truly golden, throwing back the heat and the light of the sun all afternoon.  Today, the city was crammed with Wonderland-themed events and people wearing all kinds of fabulous costumes. As I wandered through the town I passed an elderly gentleman (walking very quickly and definitely not stopping for pictures) in a purple suit and a purple top hat, a young couple dressed as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, a small child in a pram dressed as a a Cheshire Cat and about a thousand Alices of all kinds.  There are public performances and readings; a giant chess-set in a shopping centre; and, of course, the lobster quadrille danced in front of the Museum of Natural History (where you can visit the Dodo and all the other wonderland creatures including Bill the lizard)

I made a beeline for the Dali, Tenniel & Printing Alice exhibit at the Weston library

Photo by @RareBooksOfBod

Photo by @RareBooksOfBod

There’s a display case showing rare first editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – including the first printing of the book which was suppressed (much like the mouse in the courtroom scene) after Tenniel complained about the shoddy quality of the prints. Dodgson didn’t seem to have noticed the poor quality of the print and he’d already posted out 50 copies of the book to his friends.  He had to ask for them back and then, rather than waste them, sent the book out to children’s homes and charities. The copy displayed in the Weston now had been sent to St. Raphael’s in Torquay and was later donated to the Bodleian by the writer Roger Lancelyn Green.

The first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Later editions of Alice are shown alongside so you can see the difference in the quality of the print – Dodgson later recouped some of the money he lost on the first edition by selling the bad prints to an American publisher – the first American edition (shown below) has the shoddy prints:

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The first American edition of Alice – New York, D. Appleton & Co. 1866 (all but the title-page printed at Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1865)

There are some other examples of Tenniel’s work here – including illustrations from Punch magazine and an advertisement for Pear’s Soap which borrows both Alice and the “Beautiful Soup” song:

Tenniel, Pear's Soap advert

Tenniel, Pear’s Soap advert

I was especially delighted to see a full set of Salvador Dali’s illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1969 on display. I saw these pieces a few years ago on display in Christ Church, Oxford but it is a real treat to see them all together in one case like this. Dali’s colours are incredibly rich and while each piece is beautiful on its own, the repetition of motifs through the series links the images together and creates a narrative that reflects and builds upon Carroll’s words.

Afterwards, I got to have a go of a real printing-press.

The Bodleian’s printing press is a replica made from from designs published in 1683 by Joseph Moxon in Mechanick Exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works, applied to the art of printing. You can read a facsimile of the third edition of Moxon’s book here and you can try the press yourself on Saturdays all through the summer.

The printing press is a glorious thing! There’s something amazingly physical about it – the stickiness of the ink, the weight of the levers, the sheer bulk of the machine.  You really feel like you’ve achieved something enormous by printing a page – it gave me a sudden insight into how hard printers worked to make books:

For Alice’s Day, you could print a playing card – the type had been made out of wood and lino especially for the occasion and, by the afternoon, the edges of some of the letters had already begun to show signs of wear and tear – I made a King of Hearts card and you can see where the upper arm of the “K” has worn down and it hasn’t quite managed to touch the page.

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My first print

It has a charmingly home-made look, don’t you think? Not bad for a golden afternoon…

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The first post in the series of All Things Alice on my trip to the V&A Museum of Childhood is here.

You can find the second post in the series all about tea, teetotallers and Victorian children’s literature here.

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The Modern Old-Fashioned

Sometimes my research doesn’t really work out. I was looking forward to spending some time in the Bodleian with some old books this week.  I’d ordered up some copies of Stitchery [the craft supplement for the Girl’s Own Paper] and a contemporary American periodical, The Modern Priscilla.

 

 

I was both delighted and disappointed by them both. While both publications purport to include patterns and tutorials for all kinds of needlecraft and fancy-work in reality it seems that readers were expected to read the informative articles about how to make these things and send away for the patterns by post.  So there weren’t nearly as many tutorials and things as I had hoped.  Most of the patterns are for tatting work (not among my skills) or Irish Crochet (the patterns are basically gobbledygook to me because I’m so useless at crochet).  I was really hoping to find a pattern for a shirt-waist so I could spend the rest of the week dressed up as a Gibson Girl and lounging under a sun-dappled tree with my correspondence and a badminton racket.

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I admit I can’t see a badminton racket here. But I’m sure she has one. Or a croquet mallet or something.

 

Alas, I think my chances of finding some of those original paper patterns are rather slim. But what the publications lacked in useful patterns they made up for in bonkers advertisements and editorials.  I was kind of expecting this with Stitchery – after all it was edited by Flora Klickmann, matriarch of British craft publications, prolific author and expert at telling people what’s wrong with their furniture.

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Flora Klickmann: not to be trifled with

 

But The Modern Priscilla is a whole new kind of bizarre. What were they thinking? In the first instance, the name makes no sense.

Priscilla  fem. proper name, from Latin, fem. of Priscillus, diminutive of Priscus, from priscus “antique, old-fashioned, old, ancient, primitive, venerable;” related to prior (see prior (adj.)).

So if “Priscilla” means “old” or “antique” then the name of the magazine is “The Modern Old-Fashioned” which is a bit strange. And the whole thing seems to strike this weird balance between the deeply modern (with all the fashion plates and advice on the latest gadgets) and the profoundly old-fashioned.  Look at the covers:

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If anything, the cover suggests that this is the kind of magazine you share with your granny.  Or share with your granddaughter. And the pair of you will sit merrily making lace until you’re both half-blind. But then you turn the pages and all the crazy comes out in a rush.   The Modern Priscilla presents some of the most singularly unattractive patterns I have ever laid eyes on…

But the majority of the magazine is taken up with advertisements.  Astounding, wonderful, baffling advertisements including…

Detailed editorials on the health and beauty benefits of vibration!

Racy novels!

And she was a nice girl too...

And she was a nice girl too…

Terrifying tools!

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Birds that sound like violins!

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Craft courses!

Your friends will certainly be surprised...

Your friends will certainly be surprised…

 

But every now and then the adverts are interrupted by tutorials for the most useless and unnecessary trifles ever…

 

 

Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Once I’d stopped laughing (and for a time I was afraid I might never stop) I thought that there must be a logic behind it all…

Maybe the editors were being arch and ironic?

Maybe they were so snarky that they knew EXACTLY what they meant by “modern old-fashioned”… Maybe they were hipsters – effortfully quirky, painfully postured, sneeringly, ironically chic.  Maybe this was a blackly-comic and subversive publication that, while presenting itself as a nice little guide to managing your household and embroidering every available surface with flowers and ducks, was in fact a dark howl of enraged domesticity. If a nice lady decorates things then surely a really nice lady decorates all the things!  Pile on the chintz!  More ruffles!  More cross-stitch!  More useless and delicate items for the home!  Make whisk-brush holders, lacy shelf-edgings, doilies for every available surface.  Above all, decorate yourself and any small people you happen to be in charge of.

Though, actually,  probably not…

So, in honour of Mrs. F.L Merritt and the ladies of The Modern Priscilla I give you a rescued vintage pattern for a Crochet Rose from the Coin Handkerchief…

Crochet Rose

As this is the first time I’ve ever made something in crochet, I decided to test it out in big yarn to get the hand of things.

It was a lot easier than I expected though my stitches are a bit squiffy.  I will get hold of a wee delicate little crochet hook and see if that makes a difference. Who knows…maybe I’ll be able to surprise all my friends this Christmas with coin hankies…