The Glass Table and the Golden Key

Last week we followed Alice down the rabbit hole and I brought you quite an extensive selection of illustrations depicting her fall, at the end of which I’m sure some of you felt like Loki. I certainly did. At the end of the first chapter, a couple of things happen: the rabbit disappears, and Alice […]

Last week we followed Alice down the rabbit hole and I brought you quite an extensive selection of illustrations depicting her fall, at the end of which I’m sure some of you felt like Loki. I certainly did.

At the end of the first chapter, a couple of things happen: the rabbit disappears, and Alice finds himself in «a long, low hall» with «doors all around», «all locked». It’s the main environment things go down in chapter two, alongside the main prop: «a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass».

The Hallway with Doors

Carroll chooses the corridor to enhance the sense of disorientation we’ll feel. Corridors should be predictable, but they’re the place in which optional illusions are easier, as our eye starts expecting things, things that might not be there. And if you’re interested in this, I suggest you read this article, in which connections are made between Alice in Wonderland, perspective tricks, and how they’re used in architecture.

It is not particularly common for illustrators to focus on the hallway or on the glass table, if not to show a shrunken down Alice (spoiler alert: we’ll see it in chapter 2). Among the few exceptions, one of my favorites is Eugene Antonenkov, a Russian illustrator who unfortunately seems to be living just on Pinterest (God, how I hate Pinterest). He illustrated a couple of books for children, that you can still find on Amazon, and there’s a trace of some Russian Fairy-Tales. His hallway is lovely and he chooses to have fun by hanging paintings from the ceiling. He also did another one, which really confuses me, with winged rats walking on top of a garden wall, and I like it significantly less.

Eugene Antonenkov

Anthony Browne (not to be confused with creepy-ass Trevor and his pedophile take on Alice) recently reimagined Alice in Wonderland (you can read about it here) and his corridor seems to come out of a David Lynch thing. There’s even a ghostly white rabbit, fading in the distance, and what’s with the creepy tree branch coming out of the wall?

Anthony Brown (2015)

Among the artworks for Disney’s Alice, it’s also worth mentioning this concept, which has been on sale here. Curtains and chandeliers are a big thing, whereas other visuals stress the pavement for a sense of disorientation.

The corridor, in fact, hasn’t been much of a theme for classical illustrators but certainly struck a chord with contemporary ones. It would be impossible to collect all works, but I can at least mention my favorites.

This one by the people at Visual Impact was done for an event in the City of London. More Alice-themed props can be seen here.

Visual Impact

There are also some nice derivative works done on the 2010 videogame (based on Tim Burton’s movie, of which I am really not a fan). See this one, for example.

The Glass Table

The same goes for the glass table: not many illustrators focus on the moment right before Alice makes a mess of things. One exception is, again, a Russian artist: Victor Chizhikov, who worked on Alice in 1971.

Victor Chizhikov (1971)

This might be a good time to bring Disney into the picture, specifically with these amazing concepts by David Hall. We’ll get a chance to talk more about the studios when we’ll get to flowers and the incredible work done by Mary Blair, but for now, let’s leave it at that. Other versions of this sketch can be found here. In these sketches, the whole hall has become crystal, and you can see the desired effect here.

David Hall


Among contemporary illustrators, I think it’s worth mentioning Cory Godbey, who did a very charming set of illustrations based in 2010 and gives us a tiny, white-dressed, raven-haired Alice. She’s always incredibly sad and incredibly tiny. The same artist also did some folktales (here).

Cory Godbey (2010)

The Golden Key

On the glass table, Alice finds a golden key which doesn’t fit into any door, until she discovers a curtain, and behind a curtain, the right door. As Martin Gardner points out in his Annotated Alice, the mysterious gold key that unlocks a mysterious door is «a common object in Victorian fantasy». Andrew Lang uses the same device in his Ballade of the Bookworm:

One gift the fairies gave me (three
They commonly bestowed of yore):
The love of books, the golden key
That opens the enchanted door.

The most famous item with this name is probably to be found in George MacDonald‘s The Golden Key. MacDonald was a close friend of Lewis Carroll and, though his Golden Key was first published in 1867 in the collection Dealing with Faeries, while Alice came out in 1865, an Annotated Alice by Roger Green quotes sources that might prove Carroll indeed saw MacDonald’s first draft and was inspired by it. Another source of inspiration might have been a poem, also by MacDonald, called with the same name and published in 1861.

Alice trying the golden key is the first illustration John Tenniel gives us for the first edition of Alice in Wonderland.

John Tenniel (1865)

Some pencil sketches of the same illustration can be seen here.

One of the most beautiful illustrations for the peeking scene, however, is the one by Adrienne Segur, who did a version of Alice in 1949. Her Alice is always portrayed with her eyelids almost closed, a wonderful choice for a book that is – spoiler alert – a whole big weird dream.

Adrienne Segur (1949)

The Secret Garden

The Golden Key opens the door behind the curtain, but the passage is too small for Alice and, as clearly hinted to those who pay attention, too small even for the rabbit himself. She kneels down and looks through the passage, only to see «the loveliest garden you ever saw». The line was of great inspiration to T.S. Eliot, both for the secret garden in his The Family Reunion and for the poem “Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Eric Kincaid, a British illustrator who worked on Alice in Wonderland a couple of times (some works can be seen here, with a horrid watermark) gives us a peeping Alice instead. We don’t see the gardens, if not reflected on the wonder in her face.

Eric Kincaid

Kincaid’s point of view is great, but the door is rather out of scale: Carroll says the door is the size of a mouse and I don’t really want to know which kind of mice Kincaid is used to.

A better job at that is done by Jessica Gadra, a contemporary illustrator who works very much in the style of Arthur Rackham and who has some beautiful illustrations on her website. Her door is still for a big-ass mouse, but it’s much closer to what Carroll describes. And I love those curtains.

Jessica Gadra

The garden is not often illustrated, however. Among the pictures we have, Charles Robinson gives us a beautiful black and white full plate in his edition published by Cassell in 1907.

Charles Robinson (1907)

As we’ll see in the next chapter, that’s a garden we won’t get to see anytime soon.

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