A new landmark exhibition at the V&A looks at Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, tracing its evolution from page to worldwide sensation

Text by: Josephine Giachero 

Spanning the course of 157 years, the V&A is presenting a mesmerising and theatrical exhibit which documents the history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Alice in Wonderland is a phenomenon that has permeated our collective unconscious. There are influences everywhere and countless exhibits, films, and objects that could be included in an exhibition,” Harriet Reed, the exhibition’s assistant curator, explains to Collectible DRY via email.

From manuscript to global phenomenon beloved by people of all ages, the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition not only showcases fascinating and thought-provoking installation pieces but also guides its visitors through a mind-bending multi-sensory journey through video and sound design. “To understand ‘Alice’ and the impact it has had across art, film, music, technology, science, and fashion we need to understand the minds behind the words, characters and worlds developed by these inspiring creatives,” she adds.

The plan for this exhibition has been in the works for a while as, already in 2015, the V&A Museum of Childhood had curated a smaller exhibition named The Alice Look to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. In 2017, the V&A in South Kensington created a hugely popular exhibition on ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ another classic of children’s literature, demonstrating how culturally important these works are to their audiences. “This exhibition has also been inspired by a fantastic opportunity to showcase object highlights of the V&A across our collection,” explains Reed. 

Without the support of Alice Liddell (the “true” Alice who inspired the book), Alice in Wonderland would not be the influential work that it is today.  For the V&A, it was imperative to explore both productions. “The Disney film, released in 1951 with concept artwork by Mary Blair, would redefine the image of ‘Alice’ for a generation and spark a new cultural wave of ‘Wonderland’ interpretations,” the assistant curator continued. “These are just two of the ‘Alices’ represented in the exhibition, which will show the breadth and diversity of the character across two centuries.”

Illustration from first published edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel, 1866. Victoria and Albert Museum London

Illustration from first published edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel, 1866. Victoria and Albert Museum London

There are several objects from the V&A collection which were particularly inspiring to feature, which span from John Tenniel’s authentic annotated proofs for Through the Looking-Glass to the V&A’s Photography collection that holds an exhaustive collection of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, including images of Alice Liddell. “These photographs of Alice at age 20 show her as a confident, forthright and intelligent young woman in her own right, who first encouraged Carroll to write down the story,” reads the caption written by Reed about the portraits featured in the exhibit. 

Featuring photographs by Tim Walker on display, as well as fashion designs by Vivienne Westwood and Viktor & Rolf, the ‘Alice’ books have had a worldwide cultural effect, prompting generations of dressmakers to investigate the character’s sensibilities. “From high street fashion in Japan to political activists in South Africa inspired by Alice’s empowerment. The ideas at the heart of Alice – rebelliousness, and paradox; distortions of space and time, logic and proportion; assimilations of dreams, wordplay, and the nature of childhood can be found all around us,” Reed argues. 

Pomona, photograph of Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872, England. Museum no. RPS.1271-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pomona, photograph of Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872, England. Museum no. RPS.1271-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are unique elements coming from the museum’s Theatre and Performance Collection too, that revealed how, in the 1910s, Alice became a symbol of empowerment and inspiration for the Suffragette movement, with plays like Alice in Ganderland portraying Alice claiming her rights at a Mad Tea Party. Because of the story’s long-spanning history and richness of historical materials, the biggest challenge that the curators of the exhibition faced was choosing what to leave out, “to allow visitors the space to imagine their own wonderlands and journey with Alice.”

In Reed’s words, the other challenge came from an exhibition design perspective. “When you think of ‘Wonderland’ you conjure up iconic scenes of the tea party, the rose garden and the rabbit hole. For designer Tom Piper and architect Alan Farlie, the challenge was to avoid the obvious and re-imagine a space that would be unique, immersive, magical and still true to the books.”

Alice Curiouser and Curiouser, Book cover

Alice Curiouser and Curiouser themed book by Kristjana S. Williams

The Icelandic artist and Saint Martin’s alumna Kristjana S. Williams, was commissioned by the V&A to create a new Alice in Wonderland themed book to accompany the 2021 exhibition, with her illustrations also coming to life in a virtual reality experience created by the V&A, HTC Vive Arts, and PRELOADED. The artist, whose primary medium is collage, has drawn inspiration from the V&A library’s vast collection of breathtaking dioramas and paper peepshows. Williams’ illustrations expertly combine traditional Victorian engravings with digital collage techniques to produce lively scenes brimming with hidden details.

“I usually work on narrative with historical things, and the resources I make most use of are all pre-photography. I remember walking into a room where the best of the V&A created this incredible mood board about anything that’s got to do with Alice,” Williams explains to me over Zoom while sitting in her London studio, surrounded by hanging kimonos and mirrors. 

Carly Bawden as ‘Alice’ and Joshua Lacey as the white rabbit in Wonder.land, Royal National Theatre, London 2015. © Costume design by Katerina Lindsay, 2015. Design by Rae Smith. Photo Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The V&A shop has on sale a range of all-things-Alice merchandise, from William’s book, 1,000 piece jigsaws with her artworks, bookminders, to a stylish Cheshire cat clutch. “Even in our colloquial language, the accessory the ‘Alice band’ can be traced to Tenniel’s detailed illustration of Alice’s outfit. Carroll and Tenniel created themes, images, and language that will remain endlessly relatable and inspirational,” Reed concludes on the enduring influence of the magical character. 

As a result of the UK’s lockdown constraints, the museum’s opening date for this immersive trip down the rabbit hole has yet to be confirmed.