The history of one of the best loved books in the English language comes alive through a new exhibit at the University of Rochester.
Alice IN the Looking Glass: Illustrations and Artists' Books, 1865 to 2012, on view through August in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Rush Rhees Library, features selections from the personal collection of Jeanne Harper, a member of the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, are among the most frequently published books in the English language after the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. So it's not surprising that the popular children's story–written by Charles L. Dodgson, better known by the pen name, Lewis Carroll–would create generations of avid collectors of the world of Alice.
Jeanne Harper's collection of all things Alice began with the discovery that she owned more than a few copies of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that each book was illustrated uniquely. "I would collect as many different illustrated copies as I could find. It wasn't difficult. It was like falling down a rabbit hole–the rabbit hole of the White Rabbit and of Alice. When reaching the bottom, Alice found adventure, and I did too," says Harper.
Since the initial publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, its fantastical story has inspired artists across the world. Among the many artists showcased are Salvador Dali, who captures Alice in surrealist form, Mabel Lucie Atwell, a prolific British illustrator known for her charming drawings of children, and Yayoi Kusama, Japan's most celebrated contemporary artist whose vibrant works border on the abstract.
Co-curator Leah Hamilton, former collections manager at Rare Books, was also inspired by Alice's fantasy world. Hamilton, currently library manager at the Phelps Community Memorial Library, created an oversized playing card display and three-dimensional Alice figures to highlight the collection and capture the whimsy of the tale.
Taking visitors on a journey, the exhibit follows the publication of the Alice books from the early 1900s to 2012. The collection show how the depiction of Alice changes through the different eras. During the 1920s, she becomes an Art Deco-styled flapper, and in 1951, Disney transforms the young heroine into a wide-eyed, golden haired beauty for the animated film Alice in Wonderland. The exhibit reveals how the Alice books have become part of popular culture, including advertisements, music, and political parodies. In the 1960s, the song "White Rabbit" was written by Grace Slick for the rock band, Jefferson Airplane, and later the psychedelic era produced the parody Alice in Acidland.
In describing how Alice goes into and comes out of the looking glass, Harper says the theme "is that we can see reflections of ourselves through the decades–every illustration reflects an interpretation from the artists' point of view and in what decade the artists' live in."
The international editions of the Alice books include works from Germany, Japan, France, and the Middle East. In Byron S. Sewell's illustrations adapted for Australians, the White Rabbit becomes a kangaroo with his pocket watch suitably placed. Harper hopes viewers "will be informed, surprised, and find pleasure in seeing the artistic work in such fine books."
The exhibit runs through August 17 and can be viewed in the Rare Books and Special Collections department on the second floor of Rush Rhees Library, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For additional information, call 585-275-4477.