Alice just keeps on growing: The rich legacy of Lewis Carroll's strange little girl

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

She has spawned art, films, music and merchandise and now a new exhibition

Long before Harry Potter pencil cases and Twilight lunchboxes became de rigeur, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, saw the merchandising potential of his much-loved literary creation. A few years after the publication in 1865 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he wrote to Alice Liddell, to whom he had given the story as a Christmas present, and asked to borrow his manuscript. He predicted, rightly, that facsimiles of his handwritten original would sell. The author also designed a postage stamp holder decorated with John Tenniel's illustrations, approved Through the Looking Glass biscuit tins and watched with pleasure as an industry of board games, dolls and magic lanterns mushroomed.

A selection of this memorabilia is part of a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool that celebrates Alice in Wonderland's long and varied history. In the 146 years since her first appearance, Alice has grown from an over-curious little girl into an artists' muse, inspiring Salvador Dali, Peter Blake and Fiona Banner, among others. Without Dodgson's vision, though, she may not have enjoyed such a far-reaching influence.

"Dodgson was one of the first people to engage with merchandising and the way in which people were receiving his books in such a hands-on way," says the Tate Liverpool assistant curator, Eleanor Clayton. "He got very involved and it was really far-reaching. He always had an eye on the market and how to progress it further."

In 1876, Dodgson oversaw a musical version of his story, which became a hit in the West End – as much a part of Christmas as The Nutcracker. In 1903, five years after the writer's death, Alice's adventures became a 12-minute film – at the time the longest ever produced in the UK. Since then, the bored little girl on the river bank has lit up the imaginations of everyone from Walt Disney to Tom Waits, and, most recently, Tim Burton and the Royal Ballet.

Dodgson would have been thrilled. A mathematician by profession, he was an enthusiastic adopter of technology, buying his first camera in 1856. In fact, long before he became known as Lewis Carroll, Dodgson was known as a photographer. His first subjects were Oxford parks, his friends and their children, whom he captured in dreamy, dressing-up-box scenes. In 1857, he befriended the Pre-Raphaelite painters – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. John Millais and William Holman Hunt commissioned him to photograph them. By the time Dodgson died, in 1898, he had created more than 3,000 works, some of which will be on show in Liverpool.

For her creator, how Alice looked was of equal importance to what she said and did. The handwritten manuscript for Alice's Adventures Under Ground, from 1864, featured Dodgson's own illustrations, including Alice, chin in hand and wearing a puff-sleeved dress, on the very first page. When Alice was being prepared for publication, in 1865, Dodgson showed his sketches to Tenniel, a Punch cartoonist, and gave strict instructions on how the drawings should interact with the text.

The fading Cheshire Cat and the "mouse's tale", which unwinds in the shape of a tail, were his idea. Tenniel came up with Alice's look – the long hair, the full-skirted dress and pinafore and the buckled shoes. Carroll's book was not the character's debut, though. Clayton says: "There's a cover that Tenniel did for Punch in 1864, before the books were published, and standing to the left of the lion in a group scene, there's Alice."

There are very few detailed descriptions of Alice in the text. This has left her open to reinterpretation by visual artists. "People ascribe the characteristics of their era on to Alice," Clayton says. "Tenniel's Alice looks like a 19th-century little girl, almost more grown-up than you might think. The 1950s Alice is more childish because the role of children has shifted. Then our generation's Alice, from the Tim Burton film, is more feminist and independent in feel. It's difficult to know what the definitive Alice is."

The first recorded Alice in Wonderland artwork is George Dunlop Leslie's painting of a girl in a blue dress and white pinafore listening to a story, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1879. In the 20th century, André Breton and Paul Eluard were so taken with Wonderland that they included it in their Dictionary of Surrealism. Alice was an approved symbol for the group. Magritte named a painting of a tree with a human face after her, Max Ernst painted her again and again and Salvador Dali dedicated a series to the little girl with long hair and a skipping rope.

The 1960s saw another boost for Alice and her mind-expanding adventures. John Wesley's Untitled: Falling Alice, from 1963, shows a line of girls in blue mini-dresses floating above a giant white rabbit. "Chasing the white rabbit" was slang for taking LSD. In 1968, Yayoi Kusama held an Alice in Wonderland "happening" in Central Park, in New York, rallying naked friends with: "Alice was the grandmother of the hippies. When she was low, Alice was the first to take pills to make her high." Adrian Piper and Peter Blake reimagined episodes from the book – the rabbit hole, the puffing caterpillar, the hallucinogenic cat – in psychedelic colour, and Sigmar Polke traced Tenniel's drawings over dizzying new backdrops.

Alice continues to develop. Anna Gaskell's sun-drenched snapshots, from 1996, embroider the book's themes of young womanhood and growing up; Fiona Banner's controversial, Turner Prize-nominated Arsewoman in Wonderland, from 2002, merges Carroll's title with the transcript of a pornographic film. Douglas Gordon's video work, Through a Looking Glass, creates a disorientating mirror chamber, pitting the same scene from Taxi Driver against itself on two screens. From Tenniel to Travis Bickle: you can hardly imagine Harry and Hermione enjoying such a rich and enduring artistic life.

Alice in Wonderland, Tate Liverpool (0151 702 7400; www.tate.org.uk/liverpool) 4 November to 29 January

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones