Alice in Aotearoa

Alice in Aotearoa

Alice, Wonderland, and New Zealand have a close relationship – in fact, New Zealand is one of the very few real places Alice mentions in the two iconic books by Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871).

Curator Stephanie Gibson recently read the books for the first time in preparation for Wonderland, an exhibition exploring the history of Alice on screen. She notes her favourite things about the original stories, illustrated by magic lantern slides and playing cards in our collections.

Down the rabbit hole

When Alice falls down the rabbit hole she muses to herself:

‘I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think … I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand or Australia?’

Illustration of Alice chasing the white rabbit down a hole
Alice in Wonderland (Part 1), Down the rabbit hole: suddenly a white rabbit, with pink eyes, ran close by her, about 1900, London, by W. Butcher & Sons, Sir John Tenniel. Te Papa (LS.007300)

Ever since publication, both books have been regularly sold in bookshops throughout New Zealand. By 1870, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was not only firmly cemented in local children’s literature – it was sometimes even advertised among bibles and dictionaries. One journalist declared: ‘no family ought to be without these nursery requisites’ (New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, 1 March 1900).

Our collections focus mainly on the first book, including wonderful magic lantern slides which were screened through a projector. Narration, sound effects and music could be added to the show to bring the slides to life.

Ready for adventure

As can be seen in these images, Alice is dressed in a typical Victorian girl’s knee-length, full-skirted dress with short puff sleeves.

Illustration of Alice picking up a key from a table
Alice in Wonderland (Part 1), Down the rabbit hole: ‘Curioser and curioser!’ cried Alice, about 1900, London, by W. Butcher & Sons, Sir John Tenniel. Te Papa (LS.007301)

Lewis Carroll himself drew the very first Alice, but for the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, renowned illustrator Sir John Tenniel streamlined her image and added a pinafore.

The pinafore indicated that Alice was ready for adventure, as Victorian girls wore pinafores to keep their dresses clean as they went about their daily activities.

Drink me

I really like Alice’s character – she’s very curious and a great risk taker – who would dive down a rabbit hole then drink from a bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’ without checking first what was in it?

This is a pertinent question considering that at the time Carroll was writing in Victorian Britain many people were concerned by the lack of safety standards in food.

Playing cards with illustrations of Alice and a bottle with a label saying 'drink me'
Alice in Wonderland cards, about 1940, London, by Thomas De La Rue & Company, Limited, E. Gertrude Thomson, Sir John Tenniel. Te Papa (GH025114)

Alice is continually up for the challenge as to who or what she is – no matter what size she becomes and who she interacts with. Childhood can be a time of great frustration – not only growing pains, but the way children are defined and constrained by their size and age: ‘you’re too big to cry’, ‘you’re too little to stay up’, ‘act your age’, ‘stop behaving like a child’.

Seen, not heard

Alice stands up for herself – she even challenges the King and Queen in court when they try to get rid of her by making up new rules. Well-behaved children were expected to be seen, not heard in the Victorian world, but Alice always has a voice.

Illustration of Alice challenging the king at court
Alice in Wonderland (Part 3). Who stole the tarts: the King had been busily writing in his notebook, about 1900. Illustration based on original by Sir John Tenniel (1820–1914), published by W. Butcher & Sons, United Kingdom. Te Papa (LS.007322)

She questions authority and shows up adult behaviour when it appears irrational and unjust. My favourite image of all is when Alice accuses the whole court of being ‘nothing but a pack of cards!’

Illustration of Alice surround by a flying deck of cards
Alice in Wonderland playing cards, about 1940. Illustrated by E. Gertrude Thomson (after John Tenniel); published by Thomas De La Rue & Company, Limited, United Kingdom. Te Papa (GH025114)

Wonderland at Te Papa

I also love the small details in the books – such as the gardeners painting the white roses red for the very demanding Queen of Hearts.

Illustration of men with playing cards for bodies, holding paint buckets and brushes. They're standing by some roses
Alice in Wonderland playing cards, about 1940. Illustrated by E. Gertrude Thomson (after John Tenniel); published by Thomas De La Rue & Company, Limited, United Kingdom. Te Papa (GH025114)

This has been turned into a wonderful interactive within the Wonderland exhibition where visitors can literally insert themselves into the Queen’s Croquet Ground.

A little girl looks at a digital projection which includes red and white roses
Kids in the Wonderland exhibition, 2019. Te Papa
Photo of man’s face is inserted onto the animated face of a card soldier from Alice in Wonderland
Put yourself in the story in Wonderland. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse

You can see more beautiful magic lantern slides in the Wonderland exhibition, and over 300 fascinating artworks, costumes, puppets, props, animation sketches, first edition books, and film posters which bring the history of Alice on screen to life.

Download Alice images for free

All the playing card and magic lantern slide images in this blog are available for free high-resolution download on Collections Online.

Download the playing card images

Download magic lantern slide images

See the exhibition

Wonderland was created by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and runs at Te Papa until 8 March 2020. Entry fees apply.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    If you ever get something like Alice for Wind in the Willows or Winnie the Poo I will be here

  2. Avatar

    I have a friend here who is from New Zealand. She knows about your museum. I expressed to her how much I enjoy your website, I view every one and enjoy them.
    Wayne King from British Columbia, Canada

  3. Avatar

    Great to see the images as I will not get to see exhibition,thanks Steph!

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