Illustrating “Alice” has been likened to a metaphorical conquest of the Earth’s highest mountain peak – the Everest of an illustrator’s career. It is hardly surprising then that every year more established and emerging artists choose to leave their imprint on Carroll’s Wonderland.
Few brave soles attempt this ascent more than once, and fewer still visit it for the third time. Acclaimed Australian born illustrator Gavin O’Keefe is one such rare character with the daring to do so.
And so too this review became my own Everest, as I tried to review all three of Gavin’s “Wonderlands” in one post. It became apparent to me the further I burrowed down this rabbit hole that such an undertaking was too vast to do all three justice in one review.
This post presents the first version of Gavin O’Keefe’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, published in 1990. The second part of my review which will follow this one features Gavin’s “The Alice Books-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass”, published 20 years later in 2010. You can check out that post here.
Gavin O’Keefe’s “Wonderland” journey
Gavin O’Keefe’s Wonderland is a unique vision whose appeal to ‘Alice’-enthusiasts, ‘Alice’- lovers and ‘Alice’-obsessed I have witnessed firsthand.
Gavin O’Keefe has created two entirely different versions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In more than 150 years since 1865, when the book was first published, only a few artists have ventured to illustrate it more than once. To my knowledge they were: British illustrator Rene Cloke, Russian Gennady Kalinovsky and Japanese artist Kuniyoshi Kaneko. My Alice-brethren friends, if you know of any other artists who have produced multiple “Wonderlands” please let me know in the comments.
Gavin O’Keefe’s first version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, also known as “The GO Alice” was published by Carroll Foundation in Australia in 1990. More than twenty years later, in 2011, Ramble House in the US published Gavin O’Keefe’s second version of “Wonderland” along with the sequel “Through the Looking-Glass”.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gavin O’Keefe online through my wonderful social media friends. This has given me a rare privilege of satisfying my curiosity about his artistic journey and experience of illustrating “Alice” by speaking directly with the artist. Go here to check out my Q&A with Gavin O’Keefe – on art, music, publishing and illustrating Lewis Carroll. Thank you, Gavin, for taking the time to ponder the questions and provide such thoughtful, insightful and entertaining answers, I have thoroughly enjoyed this part of the research.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (The GO Alice)” (Carroll Foundation, 1990)
At first glance, the cover of this “Alice” told me that it may not be a children’s version, but it may very well be a must-have for my collection. Try to abstract from the meaning of words that you see on the cover below and scrutinise their composition, colours and shapes. Doesn’t this striking red on midnight-black appear like something from Dante’s Inferno? Is it not showing an entry to Limbo, dimly lit by the candle of the “i”? Petrified Alice is falling through nine circles of Hell, not the rabbit-hole lined with nine shelves; her hair stands on end and frames her horror-struck face like the infernal flames whose glow her red-lit figure reflects… And these may well be Dante and Virgil’s two eyes, on each side of Alice, watching her fall while contemplating which circle of Hell she will land in.
Okay, drawing too long and too grim a bow perhaps, but there you have it – the first associations my brain produced when looking at this cover.
I later found that my infernal reading of the above cover was probably not entirely out of line. Gavin O’Keefe elucidated on the ‘darker influences’ at the time:
I expereinced Alice’s exploration of strange worlds at the same time as discovering the atmospheric horror writings of H. P. Lovecraft, the Gormenghast novels of Mervyn Peake and the art and writing of the Surrealists, so the illustrations I made reflected not only the black humour, odd characters and weird events that fill Alice’s adventures, but also incorporated some of the darkness and strangeness not always invoked by other illustrators of Alice.2
Certain “Wonderland’s” darkness could well be seen as in keeping with the spirit of Carroll’s original manuscript titled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”. Its title was not changed from “Under Ground” to “Wonderland” until the book was ready to be published. Not that Carroll conceived of Alice falling to Hell, but certainly into one hell of a strange place, potentially lacking, as it would under the ground, any earthly delight or sunlight.
Underneath the jacket (where I most often expect the unexpected) is the inversion of red onto the image background whilst the lettering of the title changes to white, echoing the white expanse of unjacketed cover – here we get an all-round lighter and brighter experience, the inferno vibes are all gone. It makes sense.
Wonderland is surreal, “it shifts and warps” according to Gavin O’Keefe. Worth noting here, that not only is he a talented illustrator, but has also excelled in book design, which for the uninitiated might sound like the creative skill of drawing on the same faculties as illustrating, yet it’s a different realm. Gavin worked with his US publisher Ramble House for over 20 years, during which time he designed countless dust jackets and cover illustrations for their extensive published output.
I wonder what the artist would have made of the above hellish read of his “Alice” cover… He once said that all kinds of interpretations and questions asked by the viewers of his art turn him around and get him intrigued about his drawings. 2 Speaking of drawings – these are executed in his preferred medium of pen and ink, which is a tedious, patience-testing medium. Just look at the number of pen strokes, lines and elements, the amount of dots, cross-hatched areas, backgrounds filled with intricate details, swirling patterns, curls, decorative motifs and Celtic knots interlacing in a unique graphic symphony orchestrated by the artist. Gavin remarked that it “takes a focussed brain, a steady hand, but mostly lots of time”2 to produce such illustrations – I stand in admiration!
A closer look at each atmospheric illustration or character drawing reveals a wealth of details. “Wickedly witty” details, as one of my “Alice” collecting soulmates put it. Take a look around the rabbit hole, which Alice is falling through. On the top shelf are “Snarks” and “Verse” books nodding to Carroll’s literary nonsense masterpiece “The Hunting of the Snark” and his well-known love of verse, rhymes and wordplay which abound in Wonderland. On the same shelf is an almost obligatory presence of the “Orange marmalade” jar, explicitly referenced in Alice’s fall episode. On the shelf below, however, is the less expected and most clever allusion to René Magritte‘s famous work “The Treachery of Images”, captioned with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, French for “This is not a pipe” (rather just a representation of it). Gavin’s rabbit-hole is decorated with a painting that reads “Ceci n’est pas une FINE ART“, poking fun (is my guess) at some (questionably ‘fine’) contemporary art, doubling as a witty allusion to Alice’s adventures not being reality but a dream.
That is as far as my wits can decipher the “Alice fall” picture. When it comes to the two eyes on each side of the bottom shelf, I can only offer wildly ranging speculations – from Dante and Virgil suggested above, to fragments plucked off a Russian icon by Rublev, to possibly something Kafka-esque, or even something spiritual like a third or inner eye. As with any good surrealist art, particularly when it comes to illustrating “Alice”, it is the questions to which there are no apparent answers that fascinate me the most.
Gavin’s “Drink Me” bottle, in the image below, is by far my favourite Wonderland bottle from a great many I’ve seen in the various illustrated “Alice” editions. Some of the artist’s fans likened it to a beautiful lounging odalisque by Goya (“La Maja Clothed” or “La Maja Nude” ), others suggested that they couldn’t help but think of the bottle’s overt femininity as pointing to our society’s stereotype that females “are to be consumed”. Whatever you read into it, isn’t this odalisque-bottle just gorgeous?
I like the humour in this “Wonderland”. For example, the Hatter’s hat has “cheap” written on it instead of the typical “10/6” of John Tenniel’s Hatter hat, which became a canon quoted by many illustrators.
I like Gavin’s playing-card courtiers who, in an attempt to escape the fury of the Queen known to love red roses, decided to paint the white roses red. These courtiers are often pictured as anthropomorphic and echo John Tenniel’s canon again. Gavin’ courtiers are unusual in that they appear as headless cards, yet he managed to endow them with the personality of any sentient and animated creature.
Instead of the hand rests, the armchair, which Alice sits in at the Mad Tea Party has beautiful hands each holding a candle, in an attempt, perhaps, to give this decadent and discordant tea party some air of affability.
The White Rabbit, forever scared of being late, has a huge waist-pocket watch and a grandfathers-clock built into his hat (or his head?). This has to be an allusion to our relationship with Time and the constant rush that many of us find ourselves in whilst running around in our hamster wheel type reality, too often propelled by fear of missing out perhaps.
Prior to my concluding comments, please indulge me if I brag a little about the autograph that generous Gavin O’Keefe has included for me in this book. Not your typical “best wishes” inscription, but a full page illustration in his unique signature style! The scene echoes the one above, but I see in it my own self, not the White Rabbit, bravely jumping into the rabbit-hole of Gavin O’Keefe’s black-and-white Wonderland. And as Alice herself has done before me, I don’t appear to have once considered how in the world I was going to get out again. Brave enough? Sure is. But the smile of contentment indicates that it was right to take the plunge! Gavin, I can’t thank you enough for this book and the wonderful autograph!
As noted above, Gavin did not stop at one version of “Wonderland” but produced a second one, 21 years later, along with illustrating its sequel “Through the Looking-Glass”. Click here to read on about the second version, which is very different from the first.
If you are a collector of illustrated “Alice” or just an enthusiast about uniquely illustrated books, you would want to consider acquiring all Gavin O’Keefe’s output of illustrated Carroll. The above 1990 version, in particular, is quite hard to come by these days, but you may be lucky to find a copy on Abebooks. Until then you can browse more of the fabulous Gavin O’Keefe’s 1990 “Wonderland” illustrations below and above in this post. Enjoy!
1 Unless another source is mentioned, this and other references to Gavin O'Keefe's remarks are quoted from my personal interactions with the artist. 2 "Illustrating Alice", Artist's Choice Edition, 2013, Gavin O'Keefe's article on "Chapter 9. The Mock Turtle's Story", pp. 146-147.