Artists' Adventures in Wonderland

JUST about everything that might be expected, or unexpected, on a zany afternoon tea table is here: a snail that shares a plate with a slice of Swiss roll; a fish on a plate of cupcakes and other colorful sugary dainties; a green doll's shoe and a tiny bowler hat on the edge of a plate holding a chocolate-chip cookie; a slice of fruitcake; a meringue; and a jam tart. A frog squats beady-eyed next to a slice of raspberry sponge coated with baby-pink icing, and on the same plate, a fob watch - almost certainly mislaid by the white rabbit - lies there pretending to be edible. A banana, two glac'e cherries, and a tangerine turn yet another plate into a smiling face. And one plate has nothing on it but a single, lone strawberry. Anthony Browne - a very recent addition to the extraordinarily long line of artists who have illustrated ``Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'' since its publication in 1865 (when its first illustrator was John Tenniel) - must have decided that here was an opportunity for a great deal of fun depicting all the little delectables from chocolate eclairs to coconut cones that belong on a children's party table.

This is an excellent illustration for a children's book, and Browne has justly achieved considerable recognition for his imagination and skill in this branch of illustration. But ``Alice in Wonderland'' is that difficult thing, ``a classic.'' As such, it is probably enjoyed today as much by adults as children. Its illustrators can't fail to be conscious of this, any more than they can easily ignore all their predecessors - well over 100 of them, varying from the tasteful to the satirical, the spooky to the spoofy - sentimental, playful, outrageous, or forgettable.

To keep a light touch now when illustrating ``Alice'' can hardly be easy, though the book itself demands just that. Browne has, in fact, succeeded in balancing the lighthearted child's-story aspects of the book with its more sophisticated, riddle-me-ree side. He is particularly adept at visually witty transformations, owing a certain debt to the surreal surprises of Magritte. His Cheshire Cat, for instance, is in three compartments like a strip cartoon: (1)full, smiling cat sitting on a branch, (2)cat fading, (3)cat gone - smile, and no other evidence of cat, like a minute UFO in the blue sky. He shows the Duchess's baby changing into a pig with a similarly progressive magic.

Browne recognizes a characteristic of a dream in his illustrations that is inherent in Carroll's text: that the real world keeps entering it, in distorted form. Alice's own real cat, called Dinah, pops into her mind at different moments: The Cheshire Cat might well be Dinah transformed. Anyway, Browne doesn't hesitate to reintroduce the smiling puss whenever possible. His ``Mad Tea Party'' illustration has it reappear in no fewer than seven guises - as the teapot, as an apple, as tiny knobs on the chairs, as a topiary shrub in the background.

The Mad Hatter himself is a test for Alice illustrators. As Martin Gardner notes in his book ``The Annotated Alice,'' there is ``good reason to believe that Tenniel adopted a suggestion of Carroll's that he draw the Hatter to resemble one Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer near Oxford.... Carter was known in the area as the Mad Hatter, partly because he always wore a top hat, and partly because of his eccentric habits.''

Not all illustrations of the Hatter (who is ``mad'' surely only a child's sense of the word - bonkers, nutty, funny, and odd) give him a topper. One illustrator of 1907 gave him a cheap bowler. Another, an illustrator to an American edition of 1898, Blanche McManus, gave him three top hats (that's mad). Anthony Browne in 1988 increased this leaning-tower headgear to six assorted hats (that's madder). I also like his Hatter's cheerful butterfly bow tie. I'm not sure, all the same, that I'd like to meet this leering Hatter in my dreams.

Browne has, overall, made illustrations different in feel from any earlier ones. What his illustrations never forget is that ``Alice'' is a dream - the dream of a little girl who falls asleep on a grassy bank in the garden, just before teatime, on a hot summer's day. She's been bored, ``having nothing to do.'' Her sister's book has been no help - it has ``no pictures or conversations in it.''

The dream Alice then tumbles into (literally, down a rabbit-hole) is marvelously full of conversations and pictures. They are word pictures. But the book also has to have illustrations. Carroll himself immediately recognized this, making its very earliest pictures himself for the version he wrote out in neat longhand for Alice Liddell, the real child to whom the story was first told.

When eventually the Alice in the story wakes up, she tells her sister all about the ``curious'' dream she's had, and her sister, after agreeing it was indeed curious, hurries Alice in to her tea, because ``it's getting late.'' The narrator adds: ``So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.''

It is a wonderful dream, and not basically a horrific one. Some illustrators have, however, gone to town on its wilder, weirder, or more haunting sides. Arthur Rackham, who specialized in grotesque trees whose gnarled trunks seemed to have eyes and faces, when he illustrated Alice in 1907, did so characteristically.

Rackham's ``Mad Tea Party'' is in a twilit world of shadowy browns and silver-grays. Alice is a demure and rather delicate little Edwardian girl. She sits in a solemn trance dwarfed by a gigantic, winged armchair at the far end of the table. Her dotty table companions, the Hatter and March Hare, are goggle-eyed and spindly fingered, both.

The Hatter (his top hat labeled ``The Latest'' has come down in price from Tenniel's 10/6 to a mere 8/11) is a seedy and far-from-benevolent escapee from hobgoblin land. The table is set for many people - just as Carroll describes it - but the cups and plates are empty, except for one larger plate sporting a few mean crusts. This Rackham vision of ``Alice'' comes rather close to nightmare.

Tenniel's black and white illustrations are so definitive and vivid - and humorous - that they have been a hard act to follow. They are still very popular. They surely don't need the color that has sometimes been added to them in later editions. They have an advantage in belonging to the same period as the book itself. His Alice is a small crinolined Victorian girl, and somehow she seems archetypal. Alices of different periods have followed, but they generally have something unconvincing about them.

Anthony Browne's version of the book's protagonist is quite acceptable - a more or less real little girl in a green party frock, by turns bemused, miserable, quizzical, skeptical, or standing as a small, still point in a maelstrom of curious events. It's interesting that he chose to leave her out of his picture of the mad tea party. After all, she knows she's there, and you know she's there.

One of the more over-the-top Alice illustrators is Ralph Steadman. This satirical cartoonist instills his 1967 ``Alice'' with an exaggeration that uses Carroll's book as a diving board, a pretext for his own linear fantasies. His ``little girl'' with long spaghetti hair and beady eyes is Tenniel gone rampant: She's virtually a '60s teen-ager masquerading as a child, too old and knowing for her clothes.

Steadman's drawings are spiky and fluid, sharp and baroque extravaganzas. His hysterical ``dream'' is as crazy as he could make it (which is very). He also converts the other characters in the book into recognizable caricatures of modern types that belong to his vision rather than Carroll's. His Hatter, as he has described him, ``represents the unpleasant sides of human nature.'' He wears earphones over his bowler. His spectacles are decorated with Union Jacks. A loosely laced leather jerkin ill-fits his torso. He's not mad, he's obnoxious. He is, writes Steadman, ``the bully, the glib quiz game compere who rattles off endless reels of unanswerable riddles....''

In a small book that makes a praiseworthy stab at discussing the band of illustrators who have tackled ``Alice'' over the years (``The Illustrators of `Alice in Wonderland' and `Alice Through the Looking Glass,''' edited by Graham Ovenden), John Davis writes that Carroll's descriptions of his characters are so ``meticulous'' that they leave little room for the illustrators to fantasize. It's true that Tenniel found Carroll ``fussy'' to deal with. But most of the evidence shows that ``Alice'' has proved to be a field day for illustrators, and appears set to go on being so.

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