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