Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alice in Wonderland exhibit rounds out our trip to London

On our last morning in London we made our way to the British Library to see "Happy Birthday Alice" which celebrates 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But first we had our morning espresso with our last mince pie of the trip in the library restaurant.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865, was originally entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. It was written by the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). The tale was first told by Carroll on 4 July 1862, to the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a river boat trip. The children, especially Alice, adored the story and begged Carroll to write it down. It took him until February 1863 to write out the whole text, taking great pains to write in neat ‘manuscript print’, designed for the young Alice to read. Once the text was complete, Carroll began to add the illustrations which give a charming impression of his own vision of Wonderland and its inhabitants.

The author gradually revised and expanded the tale, publishing it with illustrations by John Tenniel. "Alice" is underpinned by encounters with talking animals, magic potions, problems with scale and nonsensical ideas.

I really enjoyed the exhibition which contains an extraordinary array of Alice-inspired material, from the original manuscript in beautiful script to computer games designed by undergraduates at De Montfort University. There were toys, tea caddies, Edwardian films and psychedelic posters. I was very pleased to find what I think was the same postwar edition of Alice that I had as a child complete with the same red cover.

The saga of the original manuscript is as surreal as anything in the book itself. Carroll gave Alice the illustrated manuscript, which, later in life and strapped for cash, she sold to an American collector for the then astronomical sum of £15,000. After exchanging hands several times, the book was bought by a group of wealthy American anglophiles who presented it to the British people in recognition of the country’s gallantry in World War II. The Librarian of Congress brought the priceless volume to Britain on the Queen Mary, sleeping with it under his pillow, and it was accepted on behalf of the Nation by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Carroll’s effortful pen-and-ink illustrations, influenced by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, clearly formed the basis for John Tenniel’s illustration of the original edition – which, despite the hundreds of subsequent re-imaginings, remain many people’s idea of the essential Alice. We were shown the original woodblocks and vintage copies, and the way Tenniel’s elaborately worked engravings maintain a poker face despite the patent absurdity of the imagery – mad-hatters, Cheshire cats and all – perfectly encapsulates the book’s eccentric Victorian spirit.

The expiring of copyright in 1907, however, brought a flood of new versions, from Arthur Rackham’s exquisite art nouveau images to Mabel Lucy Attwell’s sugary, rosy-cheeked reading. In the Thirties, Alice became a vehicle for satire, with instantly recognisable figures such as Stanley Baldwin and Hitler taking the roles of the Griffin and the Dodo, while Ralph Steadman’s extraordinary ink-spattered Sixties version is an allegory on consumerism, with the White Rabbit a harassed commuter.

Sadly, we had to leave Alice and become commuters ourselves as we returned to Piccadilly Circus to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the Picturehouse Central in part of the Trocadero building. This wonderful cinema in the heart of London includes a lovely cafeteria on the first floor and restaurant upstairs. We didn't have much time so we bought a delicious Melton mowbray pie and some salad for lunch. We had to get a doggy bag for the pie. This came in very handy in the movie when we were hungry. What can be better than watching Star Wars in 3D and eating a pork pie?

Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage followed by an interminable ride to Victoria Station for the Gatwick Express. We were lucky as we jumped on a delayed express and got the last two seats. Our plan worked out well as we just had time for a quick dinner in Jamie's Italian restaurant before our flight home.

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