Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated “Alice”, by John Vernon Lord

Dispensing with Alice altogether is one feature of my illustrations. The idea would be anathema to most conventional mainstream publishers. I thought there was not much point in doing Alice unless I tried to take a new approach.

John Vernon Lord, introduction to “Alice’s adventures in wonderland”

From the moment I procured the brilliant edition of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” illustrated by John Vernon Lord (Artists’ Choice Editions, 2011) for my home library, I have stared forlornly at an empty cavity adjacent to it on my bookshelf. Following years of relentless searching for what seemed like a quest for the Holy Grail of Alice, I can proudly state that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” from the very same illustrator and publisher is now happily ensconced in that cavity and rubbing shoulders with its pictorial stablemate. Published in 2009, this small print run of just 348 copies was long gone by the time I began my search, which by then was fast becoming an unaffordable mission impossible. However, now that one of the most elusive books on my must-have list has found its rightful home on my bookshelf, I can honestly say that this quest was well worth every minute and every penny. Read on to find out why…

The success and appeal of this edition rest firmly on the genius of three (wise) men – Lewis Carroll (the author), Dennis Hall (the publisher) and John Vernon Lord (the illustrator). The genius of the author, whose “Alice” books never waned in popularity since their publication in 1865 and 1872, is irrefutable. As noted in John Vernon Lord’s Afterword to “Through the Looking-Glass”:

“There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.” 

So perhaps I should say that my duty as your intrepid book explorer is to therefore offer commentary on this illustrator’s consummate rendition of Alice in collaboration with its visionary publisher.

John Vernon Lord – the Illustrator

John Vernon Lord is a British artist, author and art teacher. He has written and illustrated a few children’s books, one of which is “The Giant Jam Sandwich”, which has never been out of print since 1972. In addition to both Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, he has illustrated Edward Lear’s verse and Aesop’s Fables. He has also illustrated a few important texts for Folio Society editions: “Myths and Legends of the British Isles”, Wagner’s famous “The Ring of Nibelung” and James Joyce’s “The Finnegan’s Wake” (the latter is now rare as hen’s teeth and astronomically expensive in the second-hand market).

John Vernon Lord was the head of various departments, including the Head of the School of Design at Brighton Art School, Polytechnic and University and Professor of Illustration at the University of Brighton in the 1980s-1990s. The latter university conferred an honorary D.Litt. upon him in 2000. He also served as Chair of the Graphic Design Board of the Council for National Academic Awards in the early 1980s. In 2007 John Vernon Lord wrote a book titled “Drawing Upon Drawing: 50 Years of Illustrating” which has been published by the University of Brighton. Of the early days of his career as an illustrator he reminisced about drawing on demand, often for long hours, describing the experience as follows in his book:

As well as drawing the insides of stomachs, I tackled everything that came my way. I carried out portraits of company directors for their retirement dinner menu covers, buildings for brochures, strip cartoons, maps and humorous drawings for advertisements….gardens and their plants, vegetables, mazes, refrigerators, dishwashers, totem poles, kitchen utensils, resuscitation diagrams, all kinds of furniture, typewriters, agricultural crop spraying machines, door locks, folded towels, decorative letters, Zodiac signs, animals….When you are a student there is a tendency at first to limit yourself to draw only what you like drawing. This of course ultimately shackles you and limits your repertoire…narrows the margin of what you are able to depict in an image and consequently stifles imagination and ideas.

Conscious of never limiting his imagination and ideas John Vernon Lord became an extraordinary draughtsman. His style in both “Alice” books is cohesive and versatile, his technique combines pen and ink drawings, colour tints and watercolours with the elements of photographic collage. In the introduction to this “Alice” edition, the artist touches on his approach to making decisions about what episodes to illustrate. He concluded that:

Tenniel had hit upon choosing the right moments of action on the whole…There is no point in my avoiding some of the ‘Tenniel moments’ but here and there I have tried to do something different in my approach in order to give (hopefully) a fresh enlightenment to the familiar story.

One thing Lord did very differently to Tenniel is illustrating what Alice saw and experienced while not depicting Alice herself. Alice’s parts of all conversations are printed in blue text and that’s how her presence is portrayed. The idea came to John Vernon Lord from a ‘red-letter’ edition of the Bible, in which Christ’s words were highlighted in colour. The artist admitted to being cognisant of the fact that illustrating “Alice” without an Alice would be anathema for most publishers and “will horrify lots of people in the same way that it has bothered my wife!” Most importantly though, it didn’t in the least horrify Dennis Hall of Artists’ Choice Editions, who gave John Lord the green light to proceed without Alice. Having said that, I did spot Alice once in this edition. In the illustration below, Alice’s face with her eyes closed can be seen through a clearing in the leaves, in the right bottom corner (her blond hair and physiognomy a clear nod to Tenniel).

Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

Artists’ Choice Edition/Dennis Hall – the Publisher

The publisher of this all-around brilliant “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is Artists Choice Editions, the sister company of Inky Parrot Press which was started by Dennis Hall in 1980 at Oxford Brooks University. Specialising in producing books printed lithographically, the Press was described as having “an obsession about illustrations”. Upon his retirement, Dennis Hall continued to produce fine books under various imprints including Pliocene Parrot Press, Hanborough Parrot Press, Ploughman’s Parrot Press, Previous Parrot Press, Treparrot Press and Pensionable Parrot Press.

In addition to John Vernon Lord’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” Dennis Hall’s Inky Parrots Press and Artists’ Choice Editions have given Lewis Carroll’s fans some truly stunning fine-press limited editions listed below. “The Inky Parrot Strikes Again!” was the apt title of an article by The Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Every new product from this publisher indeed turns out to be a stroke of genius, and if you appreciate unique and high quality illustrated books grab them quickly and save yourself years of hunting for these titles once sold out. I can attest that they sell out quickly and become an elusive nonentity pursued in earnest on the second-hand rare books market.

Rarely illustrated scenes

“Everything that begins with an M” – Dormouse

John Vernon Lord has illustrated some of the scenes, verses and parts of the book, which I have rarely seen illustrated in other books. One of those is the illustration below, of things that begin with an “M” (which is also the cover of the book). It is an episode from the Mad Tea Party chapter, where Dormouse tells Alice the story of the three sisters who lived in a treacle well and who were learning to draw. They drew “everything that begins with an “M”, such as ‘mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory and muchness – you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’.” 

Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

John Vernon Lord noted the following about his illustration above:

Memory is exemplified by a knot, as well as a depiction of a ‘hippocampus’ [Greek for seahorse], the seat of memory in the brain, which has the shape of a seahorse. Conveying a notion of “muchness” visually has been attempted by incorporating addition, multiplication and infinity signs.

From Introduction to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Pondering the artist’s association of memory with a knot I thought of ‘mnemonic knots’ (coincidentally or not, ‘mnemonic’ too begins with an “m”). These knots were known to be tied by the peoples of the early cultures (practicing magic and religious rituals) for a variety of reasons. One reason was to stimulate the memory as well as to record dates and numbers or to help preserve the memory of traditions and laws. The ‘mnemonic knots’, even if primitive, were thus the earliest known memory tools. Note that “much of a muchness” has been conveyed by a proliferation of additions and multiplication signs that appear around the March Hare’s head. They are also scattered over the moon craters and appear on each side on the white drawing behind the March Hare.

Apart from the M-words called out in Dormouse’s story, witty John Vernon Lord has added a few other things beginning with “m”, like the Dormouses’ fellow protagonist in the Mad Tea Party chapter, the March Hare. We see him hovering over the moon, with a cursive letter ‘m’ between his ears, while ‘madness’ associated with hares is of course another word beginning with ‘m’. Moon is there twice: the big one filling up two-thirds of the illustration’s plane with craters all over it and a small bright full moon in the left-hand top corner. On the bottom of the illustration, there’s a pink strip showing the moon phases from new to full moon and then the waning crescent phases moving back to the start of the moon cycle. The white drawing behind the March Hare reminds us that what is illustrated here is the three sisters from Dormouses’ story, learning to draw. A scribble in the bottom-left corner of that drawing resembles another letter ‘M’. Similarly, the hand holding a pen and a pencil must be signifying the act of drawing and perhaps so does the blue-grid graph paper which is the general background to it all.

“If you knew Time as well as I do” – Mad Hatter

Lord has also illustrated the rarely attempted depiction of Time as a protagonist of one of my favourite dialogues between Alice and the Hatter, as shown below (be sure to read the text in the two illustrations below – a fraction of timeless Carrollian hilarity and brilliance!) The only other depiction of Time I know of is in the “Alice” edition illustrated by the British illustrator Chris Riddell. If you know of any others, please comment below this post

Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

Carroll’s Poetic Parodies

Likewise, rarely illustrated are some of Carroll’s famous parodies, those brilliant and humorous twists on traditional verses, songs and rhymes. Known to me (and my Alice collecting friends) are just a few illustrators who have attempted it, amongst them is German Franz Haacken, French Nicole Claveloux and the above-mentioned British illustrator Chris Riddell (who also drew Time). Some examples of John Vernon Lord’s illustrations of verse parodies are shown below.

“How doth the little busy bee”

The first two verses of the original poem by the Victorian era poet Isaac Watts (1674-1748) about the busy bee read:

How doth the little busy bee
 Improve each shining hour,
 And gather honey all the day
 From every opening flower!

 How skilfully she builds her cell!
 How neat she spreads the wax!
 And labors hard to store it well
 With the sweet food she makes.

Carroll’s brilliant parody and equally brilliant John Vernon Lord’s illustration are shown below

"How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws"
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

“Twinkle, twinkle little star”

The universally known nursery rhyme that goes: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / How I wonder what you are / Up above the world so high / Like a diamond in the sky” becomes a story about a bat and a tea-tray:

"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky."
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

“Star of the Evening”

“Turtle Soup” (a song sung by the Mock Turtle in Chapter 10) is a parody of the popular Victorian-era song “Star of the Evening” with the following lyrics:

Beautiful star in heav'n so bright,
 Softly falls thy silv'ry light,
 As thou movest from earth afar,
 Star of the evening, beautiful star,
 Star of the evening, beautiful star.
 Chorus:
 Beautiful star,—
  Beautiful star,—
  Star of the evening,
 Beautiful, beautiful star. . . .

Carroll’s ‘star’ swapped for a ‘soup’ and the sentimentality of the song is parodied with the refrain words divided to imitate singing:

"Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, 
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
...
 Beau-ootiful Soo-oop!
Beau-ootiful Soo-oop!
Soo-oop of the e-e-evening, 
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!"
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

Rule 42: “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court” – King of Hearts

The number 42 makes a few appearances in Lewis Carroll’s works. But this number is of course best known for the significance ascribed to it in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” book by Douglas Adams, where 42 represented “the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything”. In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, “Rule Forty-two” was announced by the King of Hearts in court when Alice all of a sudden grew in size: “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”, it read. Coincidentally or possibly instructed by Carroll himself, Tenniel drew 42 illustrations for the first edition of “Alice”. John Vernon Lord’s drawing of “42” (below) is included as the tailpiece in this edition. There are 42 depictions of the number 42 in it. Struggling to count that many? Then include dice and binary representations and watch out for the small notebook on the bottom, to the left of the centre line (you may need to zoom in).

Curiously, in an article for the Oxford Mail, Dennis Hall (the publisher) recounts how John Vernon Lord had been reading Carroll the entire day of his birthday. That same evening he had friends to dinner who brought some hand-made chocolates for him as a gift. The first chocolate he pulled out of the box had the number 42 on it. He suspected that Carroll was trying to get in touch with him.

Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

More Carroll titles from Artists Choice Editions & Inky Parrot Press

  • a marvelous edition of “Alice’s Adventures Underground” (2013) with Lewis Carroll’s own illustrations enhanced through colour added by Ian Beck (watch out for a detailed review soon).
  • a stunning reference volume “Illustrating Alice” (2013) subtitled an International survey of illustrated editions of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” (watch out for a detailed review soon);
  • a renowned Spanish artist Ángel Domínguez’s spectacular Through the Looking-Glass (2015), with Special copies of the print run including the rarely published “The Wasp in the Wig” and artist’s prints; also Ángel Domínguez’s “The Hunting of the Snark”;
  • an edition of “Alice in Wonderland” subtitled Sesquicentennial Special Edition (2015) with each chapter illustrated by a different artist;
  • a reference edition of “Russian Alices” (2016), surveying a vast array of Soviet and post-Soviet times Russian editions;
  • Gennady Kalinovsky’s (famous Russian artist) two Alice books (2018), with ‘Wonderland” combining his black and white and colour versions; 
  • a great edition with the 1929 illustrations of Willy Pogany “Alice in Wonderland” (2020);
  • John Vernon Lord’s The Hunting of the Snark (2020);
  • a gorgeous “Through the Looking Glass” by Franciszka Themerson in black, blue and red.

Enjoy browsing more of John Vernon Lord’s Alice illustrations below.

To browse other editions in my collection of illustrated “Alice in Wonderland” click here. To browse other editions in my collection of illustrated “Through the Looking-Glass” click here. What is your favourite illustrated ‘Alice’? I would love to hear your feedback in comments.


Author: Lewis Carroll
Illustrator: John Vernon Lord
Publisher: Artists’ Choice Edition
Year of publication: 2009 (MMIX)
Language: English
ISBN: 9780955834318 (standard copy, reviewed above)

Published as 348 copies, of which 68 are deluxe Specials (with two signed etchings by the illustrator, one copy in the original black and one copy with added hand colouring by Anne Cathcart under the artist’s supervision). The Specials are numbered with Roman numerals. 


Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews

In-Text Color Illustrations

Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews
Is this the Holy Grail of illustrated "Alice", by John Vernon Lord Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland" Kids Book Reviews


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Lux
Lux
1 year ago

What a wonderful post!

The amount of detail and research you went into is truly Gargantuan! The illustrations are indeed magnificent. Your writing is sublime: “ensconced in that cavity and rubbing shoulders with its pictorial stablemate” – I mean, come on, ordinary people will never reach your lofty heights!

Well done!

MarmaLat
MarmaLat
1 year ago

Natasha, thank you for meeting John Vernon Lord, amazingly detailed illustrations without Alice )
Sorry, this version is so elusive… you will soon be able to organize exhibitions of rare books ) a private collection sounds cool )!

Eiry Rees Thomas
1 year ago

I’ve enjoyed a Tea Party since entering your magnificent article, Natalia: every word and illustration! Thank you so much for sharing the content, your research and so much more.

Petal & Madam Ziva
Petal & Madam Ziva
9 months ago

Natalia..your commentary and summary on John Vernon Hall and his Alice duo books is nothing magnificent…..clear, concise, informative and full of enlightening details. Your research is so in-depth …..it’s such a pleasure to read. Makes me want to race out and buy them. I give 5 out 5 for story, illustration, and overall book presentation.

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
3 months ago

Hello Natalia, I loved your article. I collect various illustrators’ versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and I too feel that John Vernon Lord's isThe Holy Grail’! How fortunate that you finally found a copy, but not `Through the Looking Glass’ yet, is that right? Though I’m not sure when your article was published, perhaps you have both now. Were you looking for a very long time? I have emailed Josie at Reed Contemporary Books (who now seem to publish Artists Choice Editions) to ask if they will print another edition … no reply. I wondered if you may have gone down that road? I will try snail mail.
It would be lovely to hear from you. Warmest regards, Mary

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
3 months ago

Hello Natalia, thank you so much for your reply, and so prompt. How fabulous that you do have both John Vernon Lord Alices'! And thank you for explaining about Reed Contemporary Books. I see there is an address for Artists' Choice Editions in Oxford, in the back of the brilliant publicationIllustrating Alice’, maybe I should write to them? I did actually start following John Vernon Lord on Instagram yesterday and have written to him. I wonder if I will get a reply. Thank you also for offering to let me know if you see any copies that might (hopefully) come to your attention.
And thank you even more for your wonderful blog … I’ve just had an explore. So many Alices! Quite a few that I have too. I have just over 40 illustrated editions and counting! I hadn’t heard of Maggie Taylor or Vita Nova. Or `Pinerolo’! I am listening to the podcast with Freya Blackwood, as I write this.
I hope you are enjoying the long weekend. All the best, Mary

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
3 months ago

Hello Natalia, thank you for your last message and suggestions, and the fabulous listing of illustrators. Dangerous!
I was wondering do you have the original Inky Parrot Press versions of John Vernon Lord’s `Alices’, or the Artists’ Choice Editions? Also is he Mr Vernon Lord or Mr Lord?
90 is a brilliant number, not sure I’ll make it. Thought you might like to see my list of 45.

1863   Lewis Carroll
1865   John Tenniel
1901   Harry Rowntree
1902   Peter Newell
1907   Arthur Rackham
1907   Charles Robinson
1910   Mabel Lucie Atwell
1916   Margaret W Tarrant
1922   Gwynedd M Hudson
1943   Rene Cloke
1946   Mervyn Peake
1949   Leonard Weisman
1958   Maraja
1966   Tove Jansson
1967   Ralph Steadman
1969   Salvatore Dali
1982/3   Barry Moser
1984   Justin Todd
1988   Anthony Browne
1988   Eric Kincaid
1989   Peter Weevers
1990   Malcolm Ashman
1993   Tony Ross
1995   Jeff Fisher
1999   Lisbeth Zwerger
1999   Helen Oxenbury
2003   Iassen Ghiuselev
2004   Michael Foreman
2004   Greg Hildebrandt
2006   Alison Jay
2009   Mauro Evangelista
2009   Robert Ingpen
2010   Rebecca Dautremer
2011   George A Walker
2012   Ester García-Cortéz
2013   Fran Parrenõ
2013   Manuela Adreani
2014   Francesca Rossi
2014   Mary Kate McDevitt (cover)
2015   Julia Sarda
2015   Andrea d’Aquino
2015   Charles Santore
2017   Liz Catchpole (cover)
2020/1   Chris Riddell
2021   Grahame Baker-Smith

cheers, Mary

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
3 months ago

ah yes, you are correct Natalia. I’m not sure why I thought there was an earlier edition by Inky Parrot Press — maybe because the Artists Choice Editions publication was a limited edition? Silly me and no wonder it is so very hard to find.
I have just ordered the Willy Pogany Alice' reprint by Inky Parrot Press. I saw they also have an interesting publication similar toIllustrating Alice’ but for All the Snarks'. I have four -- illustrated by Chris Riddell, Mervyn Peake, Tove Jansson and one with endpapers by Malcolm Easton (1939) for Oxford University Press. The beginning of another collection? And of course you are right about Mr Lord -- I should have thought before to check the index ofIllustrating Alice’.

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
3 months ago

Brilliant article, thanks Natalia.
I’m with you re hardbacks vs paperbacks, though I guess sometimes needs must. I’m thinking a Snark I found when searching online by Mahendra Singh looks interesting. But I’m also thinking I too shouldn’t go there. Thank you for this very pleasant correspondence. Warm regards, Mary

Mary Keep
Mary Keep
2 months ago

Hello Natalia, have you seen this? or better still do have this???
https://amaranthinebooks.com/portfolio/alices-adventures-in-wonderland-through-the-looking-glass-and-what-alice-found-there/
SWOON. Especially the playing cards — another fascination and collecting obsession of mine …
Just as well it’s sold out or I might be in real trouble!
hope you are keeping dry
warm regards
Mary

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