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
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there