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

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

Comments