Tuesday August 20 2019

“What is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Britten and Pears must, from time to time, have agreed whole-heartedly with Alice. Their collection is filled with books that are illustrated or, indeed, focussed on the subject of Art or Art History. Pictures fulfil a vital role in books and never more so than in the works of Lewis Carroll (aka the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). During the mid-1960s Britten was approached by the writer, comedian, musician Spike Milligan with the idea of collaborating on an operatic version of Alice in Wonderland. The composer was occupied with other projects at the time and thus unable to accept—although the mind boggles at what such a disparate writing team would have produced!

There are seven works by Lewis Carroll in our collection. No doubt Britten and Pears appreciated the inventive wordplay of his poetry and prose as much as the timeless accompanying illustrations produced by esteemed Victorian artists such as Henry Holiday and, of course, Sir John Tenniel. Tenniel was the senior political cartoonist for Punch, the pre-eminent satirical magazine of the day, but he also worked in book illustration. His pictures for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) replaced Carroll’s own original drawings. Other illustrators have interpreted the story in subsequent editions, but Tenniel’s brilliant work remains the standard complement to Carroll’s text. The detail and design are all the more remarkable when recalling that Tenniel’s right eye had been severely damaged several years earlier in a fencing accident.

Tenniel worked again with Lewis Carroll on Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). His drawings were carved onto woodblocks to make illustrations for printing. These blocks are now kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The two books on display in the Library are replete with imaginative pictures and amusing conversations that we’re sure would satisfy Alice herself. And both volumes have interesting stories behind their respective acquisition.

Lewis Carroll, Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, illustrated by Arthur B. Frost. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1919

Phantasmagoria contains several humorous poems, including a hilarious spoof on Longfellow entitled Hiawatha’s Photographing. The title poem, Phantasmagoria, is about how the world of ghosts mirrors that of humans. Early on, a phantom introduces himself to the narrator and assures him ‘That Ghosts have just as good a right, In every way, to fear the light, As Men to fear the dark.’

This edition is inscribed: ‘To dear Ben, In humble admiration, and with all my love, Kathleen, Orfeo 1947.’ It was a gift from mezzo-soprano Kathleen Ferrier following her appearance in the English Opera Group’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Lewis Carroll, The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll with an introduction by Alexander Woollcott; and illustrations by John Tenniel. London: Nonesuch Press, 1939

The poem Jabberwocky, which Alice reads with the help of the Looking-Glass, reveals one of the most extraordinary characters any reader will encounter. It is difficult not to envisage John Tenniel’s depiction of ‘the jaws that bite, the claws that catch’ when reading Carroll’s amazing poetry.

The book was a gift to Britten for his support of new building work carried out at a local prison and young offender institution. As the inscription tells us, it was ‘Presented to Benjamin Britten when he gave a concert to celebrate the opening of the Gymnasium at Hollesley Bay Colony on Friday 18th April, 1952.’