This is the second part of my Gavin O’Keefe “Wonderland” review. In my previous post, I reviewed the edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” illustrated by Gavin O’Keefe (Carroll Foundation, Melbourne, 1990), and noted that the artist has revisited “Wonderland” twice. Twenty years after his first “Alice” was published he has illustrated the sequel “Through the Looking-Glass” along with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, published by Ramble House in 2011, which is the focus of this review.
If you have landed here for the first time, feel free to jump in at the deep end and read on… or if you would like to start at the beginning of this talented illustrators story, please visit my previous post here. You can also 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.
“The Alice Books” (Ramble House, 2011) – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
Having produced illustrations for the sequel “Through the Looking-Glass”, Gavin realised that he had moved on artistically from his first version of “Wonderland” and felt compelled to revisit it and embarked on a new set of illustrations. The newly illustrated “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel were then published by Ramble House in 2011 as one combined volume.
Reflecting on what has changed stylistically twenty years post the first “Alice”, the artist noted:
Visually reinterpreting a story afresh is an interesting excercise. One cannot cross the same river twice, and, having embarked on the project, I found my illustrations taking a new direction: they vacillated between the literal and the surreal, between the simple and the complex.2
When I looked at this 2011 “Wonderland” the first thing I noticed was it is less dark and sombre, compared to the 1990 version. There was more air and pictorial breathing space in and around the scenes, summoning the viewer’s imagination to expand on it at will. The scenery and settings became less ornate. The flattened ornaments and Art Deco type decorations of the earlier version appear to have given way to a more pronounced three-dimensionality.
While in the first version spaces have some sense of perspective, certain scenes appear to have been deliberately flattened to suit the illustrative style. The second version’s illustrations mostly rely on classic linear perspective, with spaces receding into the vanishing point on the horizon.
Some drawings were rendered as simple outlines, others were further shaped and developed through cross-hatching technique, demonstrating this vacillation between the simple and the complex, noted in Gavin’s reflection above, which can be seen in the pair of characters below:
The linework changed also. The pronounced, clearly defined lines and strokes and dense detail of the earlier version gave way to finer, more delicate lines. The second lot of illustrations have a different, less Gothic vibe. Browse below examples of the second (2011) vs the earlier (1990) illustrations of the same scenes, juxtaposed for ease of comparison.
On the metamorphoses of his “Wonderland” characters Gavin noted the following:
On visiting Wonderland for the second time, I discovered that the characters appeared different: the Gryphon and Mock Turtle, the Caterpillar, the Queen of Hearts, the Tea-Party crew, the playing-card courtiers, were manifestly of altered countenance.2
The 2011 surrealist Hatter is quite a change from the 1990 character. His face is a watch showing months of the year. “What a curious watch! said Alice. It tells the day of the month and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!” The tag on the Hatter’s hat reads “DISCONTINUED”. In the 1990 version of A Mad Tea Party scene his hat donned the “CHEAP” tag.
Browse below images to see how some other characters changed in the 2011 edition:
In the 2011 version, Gavin has illustrated some new scenes, which were omitted from the 1990’s illustrations, including a few additional non-key episodes like Carroll’s brilliant rhymes and parodies, which I am so fond of (see examples below).
Some artists are limited by the number of pictures that the publishers instruct them to produce and so naturally opt for illustrating the main scenes. For example, limited to only 22 pictures Justine Todd was forced to combine a few major scenes in one picture plane.
As rhymes and nonsense verse, these jewels of Carroll’s literary legacy, are rarely illustrated, each example is precious like John Vernon Lord‘s “tea-tray in the sky” or ‘beautiful soup” or Gavin O’Keefe’s illustration (below) for ‘How doth the little crocodile’. The latter is a funny and witty parody on “How doth the little busy bee” rhyme popular in Victorian times.
Gavin O’Keefe’s crocodile is pictured, tongue-in-cheek, as Egyptian God Sobek, who is meant to be the protector of the Nile but is rather devouring the unsuspecting river inhabitants, in good spirits and with a gentle smile. It makes me think of some of our leaders, who are meant to protect and wisely govern us, but instead act in their own best interest…
The below picture illustrates the episode from A 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’.” Again, a rarely illustrated part of the Mad Tea party conversation, the most prominent attempt that I am aware of is that by John Vernon Lord, who has made this the book’s cover image.
Gavin O’Keefe’s illustration above is wonderfully witty and inventive. Firstly, the Mouse is pictured as trapped without a depiction of a literal mouse-trap; the poor thing is stuck on the letter “M” hovering in space up there with the Moon, which I can see no safe escape from, can you?
The dots and dashes to the right of the letter “M” are from the Morse Code, whose name aptly begins with an “M”. Quite a few other M-words can be associated with the Morse code – it includes multiple letters (26 to be exact), it calls upon our memory to remember the symbols and involves measurement in time units to transmit Morse code sequences.
Are you curious about what the Morse symbols in the picture above communicate? Here’s a hint to save you googling it: dot-dash = A; dot-dash-dot-dot = L; dot-dot=I, I am sure you get the rest. But “Alice” does not begin with an “M”, I hear you say. Yeah. That had me thinking too for a while till seeing that the big “M” + “Alice” = Malice. Doesn’t it all make sense now? Surely, it could only be through an act of capital malice that this poor Mouse got mouse-trapped up there with the Moon in the great muchness of endless space. Don’t you love the visual manifestation of wordplay!
Below are examples of some other scenes and characters that made it into 2011 “Wonderland” of Gavin O’Keefe, but were not present in the earlier 1990 version (for the comprehensive review of the 1990 version click here).
“The Alice Books” (Ramble House, 2011) – “Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there”
Reflecting upon being drawn back to Lewis Carroll’s classic, following almost two decades of a career in illustration and graphic design, Gavin O’Keefe talks about it as almost a rite-of-passage:
My desire to continue my own journey, to illustrate “Through the Looking-Glass”, took longer than the time it took for Alice to visit both Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World: twenty years later, I couldn’t resist passing through my own mirror and illustrating the second Alice story. I still found Alice intrepid, and the Looking-Glass World characters as vivid as those I’d encountered in Wonderland.2
Unlike many bright and cheerful versions, appealing to young children, the allure of Gavin O’Keefe’s world behind the looking-glass is perhaps more for adults than children. It’s the world you’d be eager to read about, but wary of entering yourself, like Alice whose hand in the image below is probing and hesitant at first, but the fear is then overtaken by wonder, so through the glass she goes. The room on the other side is familiar and queer at the same time, with things Alice would know as inanimate objects appearing alive, like that mantle clock smiling a somewhat devilish smile… Read on to tour through some of my favourite illustrations and episodes from Gavin O’Keefe’s vision of the world on the other side of the looking-glass.
Clearly fond of the Jabberwocky poem in the first chapter, Gavin O’Keefe has illustrated it profusely in a graphic novel/comic style, with two fabulous character drawings of “Jubjub Bird, Rampant” and “A Frumious Bandersnatch” on the first page of it leaving us in no doubt that what we are about to see and hear would be utterly unorthodox.
The elaborate scenes of the encounter between the young knight and the ill-fated Jabberwock follow. The final illustration is designed with the text graphics to emphasise the “vorpal blade’s” deadly sound and impact before the victorious knight “galumphs” away with the Jabberwock’s head.
The beautifully illustrated garden of flowers below is reminiscent of the symmetric and mathematically inspired illusions of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), a great Dutch graphic artist, whom Gavin O’Keefe cited amongst his artistic influences.3
The illustration of the scene on the train made me re-read this episode from the “Looking-Glass Insects” chapter. Alice finds herself on the train and is being questioned by the Guard about the ticket, which she does not have. Some of the protagonists shown below are singled out in text – the man opposite Alice who was dressed in white paper, the goat next to him and the beetle on the seat between them. But the skeleton on the other side of the man and the tall figure concealed by a dark cloak who is next to Alice are puzzling.
Carroll’s text suggests a great many passengers on the train and a chorus of voices chastising Alice for her travelling without a ticket. Most illustrators include only those characters in this scene who individually address Alice (the man, the goat, the beetle, the horse). Guess what Gavin O’Keefe underscores, when his pictures make us wonder, is that one must always expect the unexpected in this mysterious world on the other side of the looking-glass.
Below illustration from “The Lion and the Unicorn” chapter is Gavin O’Keefe’s self-portrait as the King’s messenger, Hatta. We fisrt meet Hatta in an earlier chapter “Wool and Water” in which he is a prisoner behind bars and wears the same hat tagged “Discontinued”. Below portrait shows Hatta out of improisonment with the hat tag appropriately changed to “Reinstated”, which must be alluding to his regained freedom. Gavin O’Keefe, in good humour, is testing his viewers’ attention to detail! Given that this is a self-portrait, does the artist identify with Hatta’s fortunes / misfortunes, I wonder? Note that this same hat tagged “Discontinued” was worn by the Hatter of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” 2011 book in “A Mad Tea Party” chapter (as shown in the earlier section above).
Gavin’s White Knight from “It’s My Own Invention” chapter is one of my favourite illustrations of that character, whose countenance is often depicted as the likeness of Lewis Carroll himself. Below is no exception. What a beautifully executed portrait of the clumsy White Knight who is tumbling off his horse one minute and singing the next, all the while thinking creatively. Here the Knight is pensive, perhaps captured in a moment of contemplating a new invention, however useful (or, like with most of his inventions, not so useful) it might turn out to be.
Note that practically every character is adorned with Gavin O’Keefe’s signature jewellery (present in his other art not just “Alice” illustrations) – earrings, bangles, chains, rings; even the flowers in the Garden of Flowers wear these (check the image above)! Humpty Dumpty’s ring (in the image below) hangs on the tree branch next to him. When I asked Gavin about the potential symbolism of rings and chains in his pictures he said: “All I can honestly offer is that they feel and look right to me. They must mean something, I’m sure…something important.”1
Enjoy browsing below images of the beloved characters such as Tweedle Dee and Dum, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, Queen Alice, seen through the unique artistic lens of Gavin O’Keefe.
If you are collecting illustrated “Alice” editions, you would want to include both Gavin O’Keefe’s versions of “Wonderland” and its sequel, which add to the illustrated Carroll output in a truly unique way. Not for nothing has Dennis Hall, while at the helm of the Artist’s Choice Editions, asked Gavin to contribute an entire article and has included multiple reproductions of his art in “Illustrating Alice” – the splendid authoritative anthology surveying illustrations of Carroll’s classic from 1865 to 2010 (check out my review of this anthology here). For a comprehensive review of Gavin O’Keefe’s 1990 “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” click here.
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. 3 "Alice 125. A celebration of the world's favourite book", Carroll Foundation, Melbourne, 1991, p.216.
Thank you for this wonderful review of my 2011 illustrated Alice books. Your comparison of my two versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an excellent study.
You are most welcome, Gavin, I’m glad you’ve stepped by and read it. I found comparing versions very interesting indeed! We were discussing it with the others on Insta, that one might have easily assumed the 1990 and 2011 versions as being illustrated by different artists. I guess everyone *is* indeed a different person at maturitry compared to their youth.
A superb follow-on read, Natalia. The illustrations and your thoughts and comparisons are inspirational. They need revisiting many times to be fully appreciated.
Appreciate your kind words, Eiry! I know what you mean about revisiting. I always revisit anything that inspires me. I’m very glad that you have stepped by to read the full review. I cannot ever convey the true worth of the books I write about in the format of Instagrem / Facebook posts.
Thank you for bringing this talented illustrator to my attention Natalia. I like his style very much. Your analysis and interpretation of Gavin’s illustrations are like a forensic investigation. And your comparisons between his first and second Alice are extremely insightful. Well done.
Thanks for yoru feedback, Richard! I am extremely pleased that you found it insightful! Are you on Instagram by any chance? If yes, I’d love to connect with you on there too. We have some lively discussions happenning about artists and art (including Gavin’s) on there, with a group of very engaged followers of this blog on Insta.
Thank you, Richard! 🙂 I agree with you that Natalia’s analysis and interpretation are peerless, and I am flattered to receive such attention.
Another fascinating post. I really like Gavin’s illustrations because they’re so detailed and mysterious; I think most people are used to more simple pictures for children’s book but he (and your whole blog!) show this is a very diverse branch of art. And what can be more appropriate for a book like Carroll’s Alice than the orignal vision of O’Keefe? It fits the spirit of nonsense and weirdness. It’s understandable as coming from an artist who resembles Hatta sometimes, as seen in the photo included in the post 😉
I had seen some of his pictures before; I especially like the one with Carroll as the White Knight. When I looked at it some years ago, I didn’t expect that one day I’ll be talking to the artist himself on Instagram 🙂
Judith, thanks for taking the time to step by this post and leave this wonderful note! I am very pleased that you’re discovering through my blog that illustrated / picture books aren’t all about children as audience. A few artists whom I admire openly admit to not thinking about audience at all when creating, rather focusing on their ideas and ways of expressing them. I am a big believer that the best picture books tell the best stories that defy age categorisation and, as such, wholeheartedly agree with C.S. Lewis who said: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story”. As for Gavin O’Keefe’s “Wonderland” you’re so right – it is very much in keeping with the original’s spirit! His White Knight (as Carroll), which you said you particularly like, was the illustration that caught my eye and drew my attention to Gavin’s art. I’ve first seen it years ago in the “Illustrating Alice” anthology (my “Alice” Bible), published by the Artists Choice Editions.