Alice's latest adventure in a locked black box

NEARLY everyone knows that Alice fell down a rabbit hole on her way to Wonderland. The whole story is set forth in ``Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.'' And most people probably also know that she found herself on the far side of a mirror in Lewis Carroll's sequel, ``Through the Looking Glass.''

Until recently, however, nobody knew that Alice also spent over a century hidden in a black box in the vault of a London bank.

Paul Trotman, the company secretary of Carroll's publishers, Macmillan, was making a routine check of Macmillan material in the vaults of National Westminster Bank's branch in Covent Garden when he discovered the black box, marked ``ALICE,'' ``WONDERLAND,'' and ``LOOKING GLASS.'' It was locked. But there was a faded label with the words ``Keys in the Accounts Department.'' It was a kind of Wonderland touch, that label, except it didn't say ``Drink me'' or ``Eat me.''

Now, faced with this situation, Alice might suddenly have shrunk -- or gone swimming in a pool of tears, or been distracted by a hatter's tea party -- a Mad Hatter, of course.

Fortunately, Mr. Trotman did none of these things. Instead he phoned Michael Wace, director of Macmillan Children's Books.

Apparently finding no keys in the Accounts Department (they'd probably been stolen by the Knave of Hearts), Trotman and Mr. Wace forced the box open.

What they found inside, carefully wrapped and tagged, were all 92 of the original boxwood blocks on which were engraved the illustrations for Carroll's two Alice books, first published in 1865 and 1872, respectively. The blocks had long been thought lost.

``It was a great revelation and a great surprise to us all,'' says Wace. ``It was the received opinion within Macmillan that the blocks had been disposed of to some institution.''

Somewhere in the United States seemed likely. ``There's a lot of Carroll material in America. . . . I think perhaps we had just thought, `Oh well, it's over there somewhere, in Chicago, or Boston, or Philadelphia.' ''

More than this, the blocks, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel, leading commercial wood engravers of the time, are in excellent condition.

Lewis Carroll -- actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford -- chose John Tenniel (later Sir John) as illustrator for his Alice stories. He paid the artist 138 for the ``Alice in Wonderland'' drawings, actually 4 less than he paid the engravers.

The wood blocks have never been used directly to print the illustrations for the continuous flow of editions since then. Instead, the practice in the 19th century was to make durable metal electrotypes from the blocks. The original blocks would be kept in case the electrotype replicas were lost or damaged and needed remaking.

Both Carroll and Tenniel were perfectionists, and the very first edition of Alice was withdrawn because of their dissatisfaction with the printing. Only 20 copies of this edition have survived. Subsequent editions, however, met their standards.

Carroll had originally drawn his own rather amateur illustrations for ``Alice in Wonderland.'' He turned to Tenniel not for ideas but for his professionalism as an artist. Tenniel's illustrations were less gentle than the author's, and the two men did not always see eye to eye. When asked to illustrate ``Through the Looking Glass,'' Tenniel complied only reluctantly. After it was completed, he never again illustrated a book; he worked as chief cartoonist for the humorist magazine Punch.

A letter from Carroll to his publishers in 1867 indicates his concern that the original wood blocks for the Alice books be preserved. Perhaps, in the absence of any other explanation, it is to this letter that we owe their safekeeping in the bank vault. He wrote: ``I can hardly doubt that they are being carefully kept, but, considering the sum I had to pay for them, I shall be glad to be certain that they are safe from all possibility of damage.''

Prints made already from a few of the rediscovered blocks show what a spokesman for Macmillan calls ``more depth.'' There is a subtle difference between them and the electrotype impressions.

``No commercial edition of the prints has ever been published so far as I know from the wood blocks,'' Wace says. Now the plan is to make ``an exclusive and limited edition . . . to the highest possible standard of craftsmanship.'' This limited edition (of individual prints) may be available next September or October.

Although little indication can be given of price or edition size, Macmillan has already had phone calls from people who want to obtain whatever it is they do, says Jenny Marshall, the company's publicity officer. ``It is going to be, obviously, quite expensive,'' Wace concedes, ``and in a very small edition. I would think perhaps 200 sets, something of that sort.''

Sir John Tenniel would surely be delighted to think that his Alice drawings are finally going to be treated not just as renowned book illustrations, but as fine art. What Tweedledum, the Mock Turtle, or the March Hare would have to say is anyone's guess. The Duchess would probably remark: ``Tut, tut, child! Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.'' And the Cheshire Cat -- presumably -- would smile.

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