The two images on this page are all about reading illustrated books. In the first, after John Tenniel, Alice contemplates the tiny door leading to Wonderland. I’ve always seen this as picturing the child’s relationship with the illustrated book as an object. Compared to Alice, the little door is the size of a folio book. Hidden behind a curtain, it suggests all the secret pleasures of reading. The book makes the child’s body gigantic in comparison, and the impossibly small door poses questions about how we can imaginatively enter books. Similarly, the second image, after Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes, can be read as a formal exploration of the act of reading. It is from George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Irene climbs a spiral staircase, heading for her great grandmother’s room. As she walks, the architectural shapes, as well as her own movement mimic the physical act of turning a page. The illustration is about hiding visions (and creating suspense), rather than revealing them. When first published as a serial in the magazine Good Words for the Young in 1871, this image was printed at the bottom right corner of the page – exactly the area that we lift to turn the page.
Alice to Alice is an online exhibition presenting work made by Dalziel between 1865 and 1871. These are the dates of the first printings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They were two of the most famous books for which Dalziel engraved images (perhaps the most famous illustrations ever made by anyone). But Dalziel made a vast body of innovative graphic work, much of which has never been exhibited since its first publication. The aim of this exhibition is to draw attention to all the other things Dalziel made alongside their work on the Alice books. It includes diverse material from veterinary images of calf foetuses, to Dickens illustrations, to bizarre cartoons and industrial designs, gathered together in ten themed sections. You can enter through the link above and start at Alice’s sheep shop to browse them.
It is worth noting that even during this short period between 1865 and 1871, Dalziel made 12,855 wood engravings. This exhibition presents around two hundred of these, and those who want to see all 12,855 can consult the online catalogue for the Dalziel Archive. The archive presents illustrations as images, collected by themselves without accompanying texts. The selections for the exhibition are of images that are visually striking or curious; there has been no attempt to represent particular named visual artists, writers or historic events. Framing the exhibition with the Alice dates has been a useful discipline because it has prevented a simple gathering of Dalziel’s greatest hits (the Pre-Raphaelite illustrations to Tennyson, The Dalziel Bible Gallery, Millais’s Parables of Our Lord). Instead, alongside well known works an astonishing array of unknown but arresting material has emerged.
The British Museum’s Dalziel Archive, which houses all these wood engravings, comprises around 54,000 prints in 49 albums. Showing them online inevitably distorts their scale and many textual and material aspects. However, an online exhibition is also enabling, because it allows juxtapositions that cannot be made with the physical albums. A single album often contains more than 1500 prints, but it is only ever possible to see one page at a time. Complementing this online exhibition will be a gallery display of Dalziel’s material work that can be seen in the British Museum in Spring 2018.
All photographs of the wood engravings have been taken as part of the Dalziel Project by photographers at Sylph Editions.
In association with: