Will the real Alice please stand up?

7th February 1997 at 00:00

Warrington Museum until April 5

Lewis Carroll - mathematician, cleric, writer and prankster - would have laughed at celebrations of the centenary of his death a year ahead of the event on January 14, 1998. Warrington Museum's tribute to this eminently exhibitable Victorian (born near Warrington in 1932) contains his photographs, Alice in Wonderland knick-knacks, a life-size model dodo (which parodied Carroll's stuttered pronunciation of his real surname, Do-Do-Do Dodgson), and illustrations from the artists who have followed Tenniel, Carroll's original illustrator.

The Alice story is open to almost infinite interpretation. Is it nightmare or idyll, pre-Freudian confession or tale of transformation, light comedy, allegory or riddle? Carroll would have had a witty reply and some other answers are in the exhibition.

Being a determinedly local show, it has paintings from nearby schools. Fiona Johnson of Lymm High favours political allegory, casting John Major as the Mad Hatter saying "No room! No room!" at an empty table. The chair backs are Pounds signs. Nice touch.

Ralph Steadman's pen-and-ink drawings show an irate Alice with a Sixties spin: the Cheshire Cat is Cliff Michelmore, a smiling face which disappears when the TV is turned off; the playing cards busy painting flowers are union cards. Jonathan Cape should exploit centennial fever and republish the drawings in an annotated Steadman to go with The Annotated Alice.

Alice's power as a template for other's imaginations is best shown in a series of Salvador Dal! lithographs.

Carroll's visions are burned into the collective memory, a shared dream as strange and familiar as a personal dream. Here, Dal!'s surrealism is made specific to a text rather than his usual in-my-head showmanship. His melting watch makes a fit table for the time-obsessed Mad Hatter and familiar Alice imagery is extended by a silhouette of Alice with skipping rope. She skips through every colour illustration, transformed by magical visual pun into a butterfly.

"Being so very many different sizes in a day is very confusing." "It isn't, " said the Caterpillar.

"Well perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice (warning the stoned Caterpillar that it too will turn into a beautiful butterfly).

Another version of Alice yearns after dreamy Victorian gardens and, for those who like Alice served up as slightly lascivious rural twaddle, there are paintings by Brian Partridge and Peter Blake. (Pre-pubescent girl as sex object: discuss with reference to L Carroll.) Much of the centennial blitz will concentrate on the author's photographs of naked girls and his libidinous thoughts toward Alice. The latest theory, due for publication in a biography by Karoline Leach, is that the Rev Do-Do Dodgson's real interest was Alice's mum. "Everything's got a moral, if you can only find it," Carroll wrote. The fascination is finding it.

Alice, like Roald Dahl's central characters, is a sensible child among mad adults. Rather than lecturing children with cautionary tales, Carroll took the child's view and set enduring styles for children's literature and illustration. The exhibition, which runs the gamut from kitsch to high art, is a marvellous starting point and even has accompanying key stage 1 and 2 packs to ease the very young into Carroll's episodic tales.

School activity days on February 25 and April 1 and 4. Phone 01925 442392

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