Down the Rabbit Hole

Well, the Peter Pan series occupied me quite a lot, almost as much as the Wind in the Willows one. And after a brief recess in which I explored a quite unusual British folk tale, I’m back to Arthur Rackham‘s work and I think it’s about time that I take it as a chance to […]

Well, the Peter Pan series occupied me quite a lot, almost as much as the Wind in the Willows one. And after a brief recess in which I explored a quite unusual British folk tale, I’m back to Arthur Rackham‘s work and I think it’s about time that I take it as a chance to explore a couple of themes around Alice in Wonderland.

Once again, I’m not a fan.
To say it better, I’m a huge fan of the sense of horror conveyed by Lewis Carrol’s original work, and I’m not a fan of pop culture byproducts when they fail to grasp that or they try to wash it down. There are notable exceptions, of course, in both art projects and retellings, and I’ll try and select quite a few since you all liked so much the selection I did for the Buried Moon last week.
If we never make it to the end, however, I have to give due credit to the one artist that has recently brought back to me the joy of rediscovering the charm of the original text. Mia Araujo is a Los Angeles artist whom I discovered thanks to a tweet by Neil Gaiman: she’s on Patreon and she’s creating a graphic novel with a particular spin on the tale. Here’s her Etsy shop, in which you can find sketches and artworks.

My take on this classic story is a fable of love, loss, self-discovery and reuniting with nature, as we follow Alice into a fantastical West African Wonderland.

If you’re still not convinced, this is the kind of stuff Mia Araujo has been sharing on her Patreon: go and support her.

Mia’s work helped a lot and was spot on and right on time: I recently have been writing some scenes of a novel in a fantastic version of hell and my co-author decided to go full Alice on that one.

A couple of resources

As usual, a couple of resources should you want to navigate yourself what lies behind the tale and the many illustrated editions.

The first resource is, of course, one of the “annotated” series, this time with notes by Martin Gardner.

The second resource I recommend is the “Draw Me” blog, on which I discovered a lot of the non-classic illustrators I’ll show you here. There’s also this Tumblr, which takes pride in crediting artists and has a shitload of illustrations. A similar resource is this one for books (in Italian).
But let us go back to Arthur Rackham, for a minute.

The 1907 boom

1907 is the year in which Macmillan’s exclusive rights to Lewis Carroll’s book expired. Till that year, the work was mostly known – from a visual point of view – through the work of John Tenniel, with his 42 wood-engraved illustrations, and Tenniel created some iconic pictures that were hard to shake away from people’s imaginations, like the sturdy and not particularly attractive Queen of Hearts.
With the possibility of creating new editions, 1907 was a favorable year for lots of new illustrators to try their hands at reinventing and reinterpreting the characters and situations in the book. Some of them we’ll see when talking about the different characters and themes, but those include the British painter and illustrator Charles Pears, the incredible magazine illustrator Bessie Pease Gutmann in the US and, still in the US, Millicent Sowerby; they were followed the next year by Harry Rountree, a British artist born in New Zealand. Around 20 new editions appeared between 1907 and 1909 and you can see a list of the illustrated editions on this page.
Rackham work was published by William Heinemann in a limited edition of 1.130 copies and in a smaller trade edition, a formula they had perfected together. It includes a total of 13 color plates and 15 linework illustrations and I remind you to refer here for an in-depth essay on how Rackham’s work was revolutionary, not only from an aesthetical point of view but also from an editorial and technical one.

The original cover of the first manuscript edition, when it was still called Alice’s Adventures under Ground.

1. Down the Rabbit Hole

Since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandthe expression “down the rabbit hole” has become a figure of speech. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the “rabbit hole” itself is…

…used to refer to a bizarre, confusing, or nonsensical situation or environment,
typically one from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.

Though John Tenniel doesn’t provide us with an illustration of that moment, it’s one of the most iconic scenes of the tale and we are bound to believe it meant a lot to Carroll too since the first version of the manuscript was called Alice’s Adventures under Ground. And I don’t think I have to stress the meaning of descending: Alice’s facing a proper catabasis.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

If you want to take a look at a similar theme in other legends, I suggest you read here.
It’s one of the moments Disney’s version captures best, from Alice’s point of view, with Dinah the cat waving goodbye from above.

Goodbye, Dinah! Goodbye!

It’s worth noting how the final version in the cartoon is quite the opposite of the first concept sketches: we don’t see Alice, for a while. At that moment, we are Alice.

A concept sketch for the cartoon.

Anyway, as I was saying, the actual rabbit hole is rarely illustrated.
Rackham doesn’t give us an illustration either: the first scene we get from him is the pool of tears. It is however worth mentioning a couple of other takes on the rabbit hole, starting from a very unusual one by Charles Robinson, an artist I like quite a lot for his colored plates so we’ll see him again. He chooses to represent a door, instead of a natural rabbit hole, for reasons that are entirely his own.

Charles Robinson (1907)

Most of the rabbit holes are far more traditional, like this one by an artist who looks like John Tenniel but is not John Tenniel.

Who’s this guy?

Some of them are more dynamic and some of them are significantly less. Millicent Sowerby, who published an edition by Chatto & Windus in 1907, a US edition by Duffield/Chatto & Windus in 1908, and another edition with completely new illustrations by Hodder & Stoughton in 1913, is one of the less dynamic: we see the rabbit and Alice is following in such a way that it makes really difficult to understand how is she going to fall through it. She must be really clumsy.

Millicent Sowerby

Her black and white take on the same subject is much more dynamic, although I honestly do not know if the coloured one comes first or afterward.

Tove Jasson (1966)

The scene is also on the very cover of J.R. Sinclair‘s edition for The National Sunday School Union in London and their Red Nursery Series. It is dated between 1900 and 1903.

J.R. Sinclair’s Red Nursery Books version.

If you’re looking for something a little more avant-garde, you might like Benjamin Lacombe, a French illustrator and one of the many artists who celebrated the book’s 150th anniversary. You can browse a selection of his books here and here‘s the article dedicated to him on the “Draw Me” blog. His Alice, dressed in white lace and with the traditional blonde hair, seems to be thinking about it more than rushing to follow the rabbit.

Benjamin Lacombe (2015)

2. Up is Down

While Alice is going down the rabbit hole, however, things start to get interesting and Carroll uses two narrative devices in order to tell us that we’re about to face some weird shit: gravity and time.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.

Gravity is not only defied by the slowness of the fall, but also by this idea of falling through the center of the earth and coming out the other way.

“I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The antipathies, I think—” (she was rather glad there was no one listening, this time, as it didn’t sound at all the right word) “—but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand? Or Australia?” (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke—fancy, curtseying as you’re falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?) “And what an ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking! No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.”

Charles Robinson (1907)

Blanche McManus illustrated the first American edition for Mansfield & Wessels in 1899 and she did both Wonderland and Through the Mirror. The books were published in a combined edition in 1900 by the Wessels in Mansfield & Wessels, after the partnership was resolved. McManus is awesome with her illustrations in black, white, green, and red. She gives us Alice while she takes advantage of the slowing up of time and grabs the marmalade jar.

Blanche Macmanus’ illustration for the US edition.

One of the most famous illustrations of the fall, however, is probably the color plate done by Maria Louise Kirk for a 1904 US edition by Stokes, in which her work was combined with John Tenniel’s original black and white illustrations. She was a very prolific artist and you can read something about her here: very little is known about her life, but the moment you’ll see her Alice facing a flamingo you’ll know you know her. In this fall, aside from the orange marmalade jar in which I’m not sure I don’t see leeches floating, she gives us a hint of what’s to come, with a framed portrait of the Queen of Hearts.

Amongst more recent illustrators, Emma Chichester Clark is one of the artists I discovered on the “Draw me” blog. She’s an incredible illustrator and painter, and she worked on illustrations for an Alice in Wonderland condensed version published in 2009 by Harper Collins. Among other wonderful pictures, she gives us a significantly less static Alice falling through the hole, compared to other illustrations in which Alice is always seen frontally and falling symmetrically.

Emma Chichester Clark (2009)

The illustration is a lot reminiscent of the work of Willy Pogany (a rather jazzy Alice from the 20s, as we’ll see in a bit), even if his Alice doesn’t seem to be troubled a bit by the fall and is living the dream as usual. I guess coming out of the Spanish Influenza pandemic will do that to you. I guess we’ll find out soon about that. Hopefully.


Another artist who chooses to portray Alice sideways, with a less stiff composture, is W.H. Walker, probably the pseudonym of the scientific illustrator Ada Hill Walker, who worked on an edition published by John Lane in 1907. She chooses to give us the antipodes theme by drawing a map of England and Wales next to another one of New Zealand, and she also lets us catch a glimpse of the rabbit falling closeby, something artists usually don’t do.

W.H. Walker (1907)

Another artist choosing to show us a chase, more than a fall, is Rene Cloke, who was published by Gawthorne in 1943 and will work on the Looking Glass again in 1950. One of these editions has been on sale here, where I found this picture. Here the rabbit hole seems to be less deep than we thought, but the illustration does not fail in portraying the situation in a way that’s still evocative of the dimensional portal Alice is slipping through.

René Cloke (1943)

There are also artists who are not fooled by Carroll’s narration and are probably thinking Alice is in an adrenaline rush, and they choose to show her in a proper free-fall, with flowing hair and gown. It’s the case of A.H. Watson, whose whole set of illustrations you can find here. He worked on an edition published by Collins in 1939 and he’s famous for putting his Alice with a pink dress.

A.H. Watson (1939)

The same style distinguishes the approach taken by the famous author Tove Jasson, the celebrated Finnish writer behind Moomins, who published an Alice in Wonderland version around 1966. Her edition doesn’t disappoint when it comes to anguish and anxiety. You can see some of her works here. Her falling Alice even has a bat to keep her company and she seems far less composed than the one in the book.

Tove Jasson (1966)

Among the ones who choose a more dynamic approach, I have to mention Tomislav Tomić, a Zagabrian artist I discovered again thanks to the “Draw me” blog. His work is awesome and we’ll meet him again: there’s a 2009 illustration of Alice in Wonderland on his website, so we might assume that this one comes from that batch as well. His background color varies, but all of his Alice in Wonderland illustrations are using the same technique of a black and white etching against a pastel-coloured background. Which I think is really lovely.

Tomislav Tomić (2009)

For other contemporary works, take a look at this by Anna Bond (not my favorite, all illustrations can be seen here), Christina Danilina from St. Petersburgh and her wonderfully disturbing set of illustrations including the fall down the rabbit hole, or the one by Peter Wevers, whose website is still in Flash and whose illustrated edition was published in 1989 by Random House.

Peter Wevers (1989)

You might also take a look at this by Justin Todd (1984) who, for the Cheshire Cat, will use the same trick he has used for Pan in the Wind in the Willows. You might also want to take a look at Manuela Adriani‘s version of the fall (book available here) with an incredibly smooth rabbit hole and an unusually dark-haired Alice.

Manuela Adriani (2013)

There’s also Trevor Brown, who starts off with a rather interesting Alice falling between two buried skeletons, only slightly unsettling because of the attention to her underwear, but then “evolves” into a pre-pubescent naked girl getting fucked by a caterpillar on top of a mushroom and that’s some seriously fucked up shit which is not even remotely ok.
Among contemporary artists, however, I have to mention Laura Barrett, an artist we have met for her incredible work on The Little Mermaid, and who has worked on the theme for an anthology of retellings. She has also worked on an independent, self-produced illustrated version which you can see here. Her silhouette of Alice falling is found everywhere, and lots of times she’s uncredited. When you find an uncredited picture, try and push the author to credit for sources.

Laura Barrett (2015)

As you can see, a lot of them focus on the marmalade (and some artist have even explored some themes in Alice in Wonderland through the lens of eating disorders). Some others, however, focus on different things. It’s the case of Michael Hague, who chooses to have Alice staring at a clock. But I’ll talk a little more about Hague in a minute.

Michael Hague (1985)

There are also some examples of Alice-less rabbit holes. The most significant is probably the one by Barry Moser, a guy who is definitely not well, and who worked on an edition of Alice that was published in 1982 by what looks like his own publishing company. If you don’t know why I’m saying he’s disturbed, you google his caterpillar. For now, I’ll leave it at that.

Barry Moser (1982)

It is also worth mentioning an exception to all these situations: Iassen Ghiuselev‘s Alice is not falling at all. She seems to be riding the air like Storm of the X-men, while nonchalantly inspecting the orange marmalade jar in what looks like a wunderkammer. His edition was published by Aufbau-Verlag in 2000.

Iassen Ghiuselev (2000)

If you’re not tired from falling, you can also check out this one by Philip Lyford (1911), this one by Dina Geller, this one by Elena Korobova, or this etched plate by Franco Bruna, which kind of defies gravity and gives us a glimpse of both playing cards and the Cheshire Cat. Bruna was an Italian cartoonist and caricaturist who worked for a bunch of newspapers and he did a set of illustrations on Alice in Wonderland, but I was not able to dig up the date. You can find an old auction here.

Franco Bruna

Alice comes out “on the other side” and falls on a heap of dry leaves. Carroll knows very well that this kind of fall is bound to kill someone, in real life, and hints it quite plainly when Alice brags about never complaining again after a fall.

“Well!” thought Alice to herself. “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!”

He wittily adds “Which was very likely true” and if you’re looking for an analysis of the many death jokes we’ll find in the book I suggest you read William Empson‘s classic criticism book Some Versions of Pastoral, which has a section on Alice in Wonderland.

Very few artists decide to show us the moment when Alice stops her fall and lands flat on her butt. Peter Newell, who illustrated a 1901 US edition, is amongst them (you can see all the illustrations here).

Peter Newell’s illustration of Alice’s fall coming to an end.

The end of the fall is also something of a climax in the 1934 animated short Betty in Blunderland, in which the Fleischer brothers have of course a lot of fun having Betty Boop landing on her ass, but at least they let her grab a pillow.

3. The Rabbit

Before that, however, we make the acquaintance with one of the central and most beloved characters of the tale: the talking, punctuality-savy White Rabbit. And Alice doesn’t wonder much about the talking part, «when she thought it over afterward, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural»: it’s the waistcoat and the watch that really get her attention.

when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it

The White Rabbit is the first illustration by John Tenniel, with his waistcoat, but he decides to give him more props, just as Ernest Shepard will do for his Mole in The Wind in the Willows: he has a tartan jacket, an umbrella, and a neck-handkerchief.

Some illustrators use this chance to introduce us to both the rabbit and Alice. It is the case of the Hungarian-born artist Willy Pogany, for instance, who studied in Paris and worked in London for a while, before moving to the US on the eve of World War I. He worked on Alice in an edition that was published in 1929 in New York and his Alice is so characteristically from the roaring 20s to be known as “flapper Alice”. You can read more about him here, but I suggest you check out his whole production because some of his works are awesome. His white rabbit is clearly going to a party and wearing a tailcoat, with a walking stick instead of Tenniel’s umbrella.

Willy Pogany (1929)

He’s not the first one to give the white rabbit a tailcoat: Bessie Pease Gutmann, who did illustrations for an edition in 1907, had the same idea and gives us a shot of the rabbit from behind in the very first pages. A copy of this edition has been on sale here, and it’s where I took this picture. When she does a colour plate (also visible at that address), she reveals us that the jacket is red, which is indeed very fancy.

Bessie Pease Gutman (1907)

Another artist who presents us both Alice and the Rabbit is Ada Leonora Bowley, an illustrator and postcard designer who lived and worked with her sister Sophia May Bowley. They were both designers for Raphael Tuck, a legendary shop founded in London by a Prussian immigrant and his wife, and which mostly specialized in Victorian postcards. Bowley worked on Alice around 1921 for a panorama and pop-up book in which she was uncredited. She gives us a very small Alice and a very puffy rabbit, with a checkered coat and elegant black slippers.
Again I have to credit the “Draw Me” blog for this article on her work.

Ada Leonora Bowley (1929)

A checkered jacket is also the choice of wardrobe done by another incredibly talented artist, Charles Robinson, who did an incredible work on Alice and also authored some wonderful illustrations for Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s The Secret Garden (1911). You’ll probably be unimpressed by this Alice, but remember his work on the falling Alice and prepare to be amazed while we set our feet in Wonderland.

Charles Robinson (1907)

Mabel Lucie Attwell, published by Raphael Tuck in 1910, decides to focus mostly on the encounter and the rush is completely lost. The rabbit seems to be looking for the car keys, more than running for his life in a strenuous attempt of saving his own neck. She’s not one of my favorite artists, but we have met her for her work on Peter Pan.

Mabel Lucy Attwell (1910)

Around the same year, we have the rabbit by Margaret Tarrant, who illustrated Alice for Ward Lock in 1916. She was an English illustrator and worked on books such as The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1908) and Fairy Stories from Hans Christian Andersen (1910), Charles Perrault’s Contes (1910) and Robert Browning‘s The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Margaret Tarrant (1916)

A very interesting white rabbit from the 1960s is Ralph Steadman‘s who gives us a British commuter with a bowler hat and a walking cane similar to Pogany’s one. The difference between the rabbit from the 20s and the one from the 60s speaks volumes: Pogany’s rabbit is late for a party, while Steadman’s is clearly late for work. Unfortunately for the rabbit, the latter is closer to reality than the first. Ralph Steadman’s Alice in Wonderland was published by Dobson in 1967 and it’s very particular: we’ll see it again.

Ralph Steadman (1967)

For more fancy rabbits running amok and meeting Alice, you might also want to check out this one by Philip Gough (1949).
Among the most fancifully dressed rabbits, it’s impossible not to mention Rebecca Dautremer‘s Alice (it was translated in different languages and you can see it reviewed here in Italian, for instance). Her rabbit wears a petrol-blue coat with a fur neck and wrists, on top of another lavender coat, with red trousers and fancy shoes. And he looks like a rabbit on a mission. Look at the eyes, the stance, the pace. You do not mess with Rebecca’s rabbit, I’m telling you.

Rebecca Dautremer (2010)

4. The Sister

Another character we meet at the very beginning is Alice’s sister, on which we rarely focus. We know very little about her: we know she’s by the riverbank reading (a book with no pictures nor conversation in it), and we know she’s ignoring her little sister. For some reason, Carroll himself decides to show her to us, in the first illustration of chapter 1.

The only other picture I was able to find, if we of course do not consider the Disney version, is by Fanny Y. Cory, an illustrator who worked on Alice two times, in 1902 and then again in 1905 on a combined edition of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (both of them were published by Rand McNally). I couldn’t find a good version of this picture and I don’t even know if it’s indeed from this work or from some other book she illustrated throughout her career. She was a US cartoonist and she also worked on a couple of works by Frank Baum.

This Fanny Y. Cory’s illustration might depict Alice and her sister.

However, the most beautiful illustration of the opening scene is, in my opinion, the one done by one of my favourite Tolkien illustrator: Michael Hague. His edition of Alice in Wonderland was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1985. He gives us a full figure sister, dressed in pink, and young Alice is playing with daisies at her side.

Michael Hague (1985)

The other character we meet, of course, is Alice, but we’ll get to know her better as we progress with the tale.
It’s so important that we have a clear picture of her in mind, however, that Arthur Rackham decides to open his illustrated edition with a full figure of her, and that’s in reality his first illustration.


That’s all for now. Next week, if we manage, we’ll shrink down and risk drowning in a pool of tears. If not, at least we’ll get ourselves a creepy corridor and a glass coffee table.


      1. @Shelidon Alice is seen watching rabbit pop down a large rabbit hole in magic lantern slide from 1892 approved by Carroll still she haunts me phantomwise website confirmed they are from 1892 in her blue dress post.
        In article through the looking glass Alice and multiple child studies it is mentioned Carroll created spin-offs including magic lantern slides from 1893.

          1. @Shelidon If you Ever decide to do Snow White i have knowledge about illustrators who worked for the brothers Grimm.

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