Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser (V&A)

This is not a review. Just a few thoughts.

‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, original manuscript. Photo: British Library

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is a huge, expensive (as in a lot of money has clearly been spent on it – entry with an Art Pass is a very fair £10) V&A spectacle. As a former long-term V&A volunteer who never made it to the next stage there or at any other museum, I was worried that it would be an emotionally triggering trip down the rabbit hole but the company of a good friend and fellow ex-volunteer helped me to relax and enjoy it and marvel over the objects and the sheer weirdness that came out of Lewis Carroll’s polymathic brain.

The exhibition does an excellent job of placing Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell and their circle in a literary, artistic, scientific and social context. This part of the exhibition is designed like a Victorian cabinet of curiosities featuring all sorts of fabulous phenomena, including a reassembled dodo skeleton. We agreed that the ‘original’ stuff was our favourite part and that the ultimate treasure is Carroll’s own manuscript with his own illustrations that he presented to Liddell (he had wonderful handwriting). The Arthur Hughes painting The White Hind that hung in Carroll’s study at Christ Church is a credible source for Alice’s trademark long fair hair (in contrast to Liddell’s dark bob). All the John Tenniel drawings are exquisite and it’s lovely seeing his illustrations referencing Millais’s My First Sermon next to the painting itself.

Pauline and Winifred in ‘Ballet Shoes’ illustrated by Ruth Gervis

Aside from the original material, I of course gravitated towards the sections about Alice in performance. It isn’t featured in the exhibition, but my primary reference for Alice on stage is in Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes – and when I told my aunt about this exhibition, she said the same thing. The pretty, blonde Pauline, wearing a brand-new velvet frock, gets the part over the plain, shabby Winifred. Winifred is more talented and does a much better audition but Pauline has the ‘perfectly Tenniel’ looks. Learning that life isn’t a meritocracy and hard work and talent doesn’t always pay off is quite a harsh lesson for a children’s book and shows how the prescribed idea of the Alice ‘look’ established by Carroll and Tenniel provided little scope for deviation.  

I find it interesting that few of the young actresses to have played Alice on screen went on to stardom (Ruth Gilbert, Charlotte Henry, Anne-Marie Mallik, Amelia Shankley, etc. Mia Wasikowska is doing quite well). Charlotte Henry, who played the role in the 1933 Paramount version, reflected, ‘With that costume, I was transformed in their minds to the creature they had read about as children. My identity was gone.’ Rather than providing a launch pad for an aspiring actress, it seems as if Alice is more successful in providing an opportunity for an ensemble of character actors to do their thing (or schtick, as in the dreadful Tim Burton versions).

Film clips playing side by side are too much and left us unable to focus. Quite a bit of space is given to the 1951 Disney film, which cemented the blue frock in the public consciousness (the first colourised illustrations showed Alice in yellow).  It’s fascinating to learn about what might have been: minutes from a meeting with Aldous Huxley, who was approached to adapt in the 1940s, seem to make reference to a framing device involving Ellen Terry (not sure what the target audience would have made of that). There’s a very oddly worded notice regarding Disney and their loans (copies, not even originals). Negotiating with Disney is one curatorial task I’m not jealous of.

I’m not the biggest fan of Surrealism but the Dali illustrations are fantastic. The influence of Alice on drug culture is addressed pretty frankly but the dodo in the room, the can of caterpillars, is not mentioned – by which I mean Carroll’s problematic interest in young girls. I appreciate that it’s too complex to address properly on a panel but it does feel like a gap. Perhaps it’s discussed in the catalogue.

My friend ‘discovered’ this poster!

Of the ‘immersive’ aspects, the illuminated Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (accompanied by a clip from Jonathan Miller’s 1967 TV version, which I now want to see in full) is definitely the best. The final exhibit is inspired by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research’s ‘Alice’ project. I’m not clever enough to grasp exactly how it relates to the original but I’m sure it represents something very important and far-reaching indeed and perhaps the culmination of Carroll’s influence on the arts and science. I emerged a little woozy due to the heat and the impact of so much mixed media but of course I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t been a suitably psychedelic experience.

Bob Crowley’s designs for the Royal Ballet – an adaptation I have seen!

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser can be seen at the V&A until 31 December. Have you got a favourite version of ‘Alice’?