Inside the mind-bending world of Alice in Wonderland

From Walt Disney to Salvador Dalí, the influence of Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s book runs deep through popular culture. A new blockbuster exhibition at the V&A in London takes us down the rabbit hole of its fascinating history

The story of one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time began on a boat trip one golden afternoon in Oxford in 1862, when writer Charles Dodgson was out for the day with a group of friends, including the Dean of Christ Church College, Henry Liddell, and his family.

Along the way, Dodgson entertained Liddell’s three children with a dreamlike tale about a curious girl called Alice and her adventures underground. The ‘real’ Alice – Alice Liddell – begged him to write the story down for her as a keepsake, and the seeds of what would become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were planted.

Top: Down the Rabbit Hole © Kristjana S. Williams. Above: Installation at the V&A in London. All installation images © Victoria and Albert Museum London

Penned as Lewis Carroll (Dodgson’s pen name was a Latinised and reversed version of his first and middle names), the book was first published in 1865, and hasn’t been out of print since. It is widely regarded – by children and adults alike – as one of the most iconic, imaginative and inspiring stories of all time.

As the book celebrates its 150th anniversary, the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition delves into the origins, adaptations and reinventions of Alice in Wonderland over the years, charting the book’s evolution from manuscript to global phenomenon. Featuring over 300 objects across five Alice-inspired worlds, it marks the first time a museum has fully explored the cultural impact of the book and its ongoing inspiration for creatives.

Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by John Tenniel, 1865

The show’s first section, Creating Alice, looks at the story’s origins in Victorian Oxford. It introduces visitors to the real-life Alice, delves into Dodgson’s mid-Victorian era inspirations, ranging from a kaleidoscope to a dodo skeleton, and showcases the brilliant work of Punch magazine’s lead cartoonist John Tenniel, who brought the story’s characters to life.

The birth of the movie industry in the 20th century opened up Alice’s story to new audiences. The most obvious examples are family favourites such as Walt Disney’s seminal 1951 animated version of the story, which featured work by the likes of concept artist Mary Blair, and Tim Burton’s 2010 adaption, which was the first to blend CGI, animation and live action, creating hybrid characters such as Helena Bonham Carter’s giant-headed Red Queen.

Alongside Disney and Burton’s adaptions are more niche examples produced in countries from Argentina to Japan, where the book remains one of the most popular sources for manga and anime.

Aside from film, Alice and her distinctive blue pinny and black headband have made their mark right across the creative industries. The 1950s, for instance, marked the start of a three-decade advertising partnership between Guinness and the world of Wonderland, while in the 60s surrealists adopted the story’s spirit of psychological mayhem, with Salvador Dalí creating an illustrated edition of the book complete with melting clock motif.

Concept art by Mary Blair for Walt Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland © Disney

More recently, rapper Little Simz used the tale as a metaphor for her own life growing up in inner-city London in her 2016 album, Stillness in Wonderland, and in 2018, photographer Tim Walker recreated Wonderland with an all-Black cast including RuPaul and Naomi Campbell for his take on the annual Pirelli calendar, styled by British Vogue’s now-editor Edward Enninful.

It wouldn’t be a blockbuster V&A show without some spectacular set design, and Tom Piper does not disappoint. Best known for his stage designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company and his Tower of London poppies installation, Piper’s latest project sees visitors progress through a series of immersive ‘portals’. Each portal is signalled by an installation embodying an event or character from the story, including the pool of tears, the Cheshire cat, and the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

In a first for the V&A, there is also a VR experience created in collaboration with HTC Vive Arts and produced by games studio Preloaded. During the experience, visitors enter a hall of doors before emerging into the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground to pit their wits in A Curious Game of Croquet.

After a year that has been sorely lacking in gallery and museum visits for all of us, the mind-bending, jaw-dropping world of Alice in Wonderland feels like the perfect return to form for the V&A – and perhaps the dose of escapism that we’re all in need of right now.

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on display at V&A London until 31 December; vam.ac.uk

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes