Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: A Classic Illustrated Edition

The kind folks at Chronicle Books sent me a review copy of their recent release, the paperback edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: A Classic Illustrated Edition by Lewis Carroll, compiled by Cooper Edens. The biographical information on Cooper Edens says that he "owns one of the largest collections of vintage picture books in the world"; his familiarity with quite a number of editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is evident throughout the book, which utilizes images of Alice from a wide variety of editions of the work created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The book includes images from at least 30 illustrators, beginning with John Tenniel (the original illustrator) and ending (I'm guessing here based on what some of the images look like) in the 1930s or so. There are blond Alices and brunette Alices, long-haired Alices and Alices with a bob, full-color Alices, tri-color Alices (red and white and black, say) and black and white Alices.

Here's Cooper Edens's three-paragraph introduction, which explains his vision for this book:

One never forgets a trip to Wonderland. Alice's curious world is one that inspires interpretation but defies description. As a result, the illustrations the story has inspired are richly diverse. As you will see, there is no singular vision of Wonderland.

In researching the visual history of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the many different artists it has enchanted, I discovered that each artist focused on different elements of Lewis Carroll's story. Charles Robinson was drawn to its alluring wit; Arthur Rackham to its mysterious majesty; Willy Pogany and K.M.R. sought order in a disordered world; Gertrude Kay, Millicent Sowerby, and Margaret Tarrant delighted in its elegant fancy. For me, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a book so incredibly faceted that its many secrets begin to shine only when these distinct interpretations are brought together.

With great care and deep reverence, I have collected and selected these distinct illustrations to create a unique vision of a world whose boundaries are as infinite as imagination itself. It is my wish that in creating such a vision, I have further illuminated for you the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll imagined and which readers of all ages have visited for over a hundred years.
Reading this book made me aware of two things:

First, when reading a single story, I like having a single illustrator represented. There's something comforting in knowing that Alice is always 12, say, instead of sometimes 6. Especially when so many fantastical creatures are encountered and so many alterations occur to Alice, there's a continuity in having the same illustrator in charge of the images paired with the tale. Since this book is really the text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrated with a variety of prints, I found the various depictions of Alice and Wonderland to be distracting at times. There are at least three illustrations of Alice talking with the caterpillar atop its mushroom - a terrific image, to be sure, but three of the same image (albeit from different editions of the story) doesn't really enhance/advance the plot, pictorially.

I suppose what I'm saying here is that if this book is simply another edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, then I'd just as soon have a single-illustrator version. Like maybe the Camille Rose Garcia edition that I just ordered from Powell's (they allowed me to preorder a signed copy - how sweet is that?) Or the Sabuda/Reinhart pop-up edition (that I already have). Or my copy of The Annotated Alice, ed. by Martin Gardner and with the original John Tenniel artwork (and some additional Tenniel sketches).

Second, I wanted this book to be something other than what it is. I really, truly wish this book had provided me with more history of the various illustrations and a whole lot more information about the illustrators who created the work - what time period they worked in, where they were from, what "school" they belonged to if they worked in a particular style, what their perspective or point of view was. Why did Besse Pease Gutmann, A.A. Nash and Charles Robinson depict Alice as a brunette with a chin-length bob? And why did Gutmann's Alice appear to have the build of an oversized toddler, while Nash's looks more like a 10-year old, and Charles Robinson's Alice appears to have a toddler's face at one point and that of a 12-year old at another (and one with longer, lighter hair at that)?

And it's not just Alice - the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Gryphon, . . . even the flamingo croquet mallet are all depicted quite differently. Sometimes the Red Queen looks demented, sometimes benign, sometimes hideous, sometimes not - I would have really liked a thoughtful comparison as to how the other characters are presented, and why. Cooper Edens hints at knowing some of this in his introduction, but we are unfortunately not to learn more.

I get where Mr. Edens is coming from. I do. And don't get me wrong - the variety of illustrations presented is interesting, and widely divergent. But I would have liked to see a survey of "depictions of Alice and of Wonderland through time" set out in a somewhat scholarly manner, rather than a variety of wildly different depictions of Alice and of Wonderland used to illustrate the original text. In short, I'd have liked for Mr. Edens to expound on his research and the discoveries he made about what the various illustrators were trying to do. And if he has any insight on who the models were for their art (assuming there were any), and on whether they relied on the works of any of the other illustrators at least in part (I assume some may have), then that's the sort of thing I think would be fascinating to know.

And yes, I know that in reviewing this book, I'm saying that I wish it were a different book altogether. It does not mean that it is not interesting, because it is. It doesn't mean it's not worth a look, because it decidedly is, particularly if one is interested in seeing how different (and in some cases, how similar) versions of a fantasy world can appear, and/or if one is an illustrator or an Alice-phile (if that is a word).

Final word: The book design on this is terrific, including a wrap-around cover that unwraps to reveal a collage of Alice images from all over the place. And when I say it unwraps, I mean it unwraps in a big way - it's part of the back cover of the book that folds over to cover the back cover, the spine, and the front cover, while also creating the front inside flap. Way cool. And the covers of the book (front and back) are covered with images, as are the inside of the blue "wrap" cover.

I will happily keep my copy of the book on my shelves, but I do still wish for that other book - the history of Alice's illustrations.

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