Jenny Stevens, Curator of the Willis Museum looking through the glass
An acclaimed exhibition about Alice in Wonderland which opened in Basingstoke earlier this month uniquely features a very special object – Alice’s real-life looking glass.
Alice in Wonderland opened at the Sainsbury Gallery in Basingstoke’s Willis Museum, operated by Hampshire Cultural Trust, on 12 November. The exhibition follows a chronological path from the first time that Lewis Carroll told his story to Alice Liddell and her sisters during a boat trip on the Thames in 1862, through to the different ways in which generations of illustrators, artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers have interpreted the story and its characters in the 150 years since it was first written.
A touring exhibition from the British Library, Alice in Wonderland draws together an astonishing array of material from the original manuscript to computer games. However the undoubted star of the show is the mirror itself. On loan from the New Forest Centre in Lymington, Alice Liddell’s mirror – or looking glass – was a cherished possession when she live at Cuffnells House in Lyndhurst. Carroll, or Charles Ludwidge Dodgson as he was actually called, was a family friend of the Liddell family. A lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, he invented the story to entertain the daughters of his friend and colleague, Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church Oxford.
A key highlight of the exhibition is a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by John Tenniel. Carroll’s own pen and ink illustrations for the original manuscript were influenced by the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and, in turn, these clearly informed Tenniel’s illustrations. The original printers’ woodblocks for this first edition are also on show, and these have a strong local connection. Macmillan Publishers, who have a long association with Basingstoke, were the original publishers of Alice in Wonderland and the woodblocks, which were used to create the electrotypes from which the Tenniel illustrations were printed, were held for many years by the company. In 1985, they were "rediscovered" in the vault of Macmillan’s bank, and a unique printing was made from them before they were deposited at the British Library in 1991 so that they could be conserved and made available to exhibit.
Also on display are a silent film from 1903 by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow which was the very first film adaption of the book, early Alice memorabilia including wooden figurines, tea tins and a postage stamp case, plus two new computer game concepts created by winners of the 2015 Alice in Wonderland-themed Off the Map competition run by the British Library and GameCity.
Janet Owen, Chief Executive of Hampshire Cultural Trust, says “The story of Alice has fascinated successive generations and we are delighted to host this touring British Library exhibition, which is part of national and international celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the publication of this iconic book. We are also delighted that we are able to give visitors the unique chance to see the very looking glass that inspired a classic. We hope that visitors to Alice in Wonderland will find new enjoyment and inspiration from the collections on show.”
The Sainsbury Gallery at the Willis Museum is the only venue in the south to host the show, which runs until 14 January of next year. Admission is free.