Oil on Canvas – 30” x 34” – 76 x 87 cm
I have always admired Lewis Carroll’s marvelous books ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and I’ve often wanted to paint a picture based on an incident in one of these stories. I decided to illustrate the section where Alice meets the caterpillar because as far as I can tell no one has ever made a definitive version of this subject. Asides from Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations I know of two other artists who have made excellent drawings based on the Alice stories, they are Arthur Rackham and Mervyn Peake, however their depictions of the scene with the caterpillar are disappointing. This is partly because Carroll has set up a situation that is almost impossible to illustrate – a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom with folded arms smoking a hookah, but caterpillars don’t sit they crawl, so creating a realistic image is not easy.
Before I get into a discussion on the pictorial development of this picture I’d like to briefly discuss the content of these books. ‘Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 during the Victorian era. The 19thcentury was an age when notions of childhood began to be developed and many books were written with children in mind. Most of these were of a moralizing nature but not so with ‘Wonderland’. Carroll cleverly sends up this kind of literature, for example he presents us with a hilarious version of Robert Southey’s poem ‘You are old Father William’. Alice in seven years old in the story and this is a time when most children first begin to take notice of the adult world. And what a world, to a child’s mind the activities of the grownups must seem utterly mad. So in ‘Wonderland’ Alice finds herself in a strange mad world, she is constantly being contradicted, told off and ordered about yet she seems unperturbed by the curious goings on. She is polite and well mannered throughout. So I think that Carroll is trying to help children deal with the world that they are growing up in. In order to achieve this he uses humour, absurdity and fantasy. His writing is very imaginative as Alice finds herself having to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and as if this isn’t enough she keeps changing her size. When Alice meets the caterpillar she is only three inches tall and what’s more she can’t even remember her name.
The Alice books are undoubtably surreal and possibly psychedelic, although this is a word that didn’t exist at the time when Carroll was writing. Back in the 1967 Jefferson Airplane recorded a song called ‘White Rabbit’ which is inspired by the Alice books however it is also an anthem in praise of LSD. Some people have speculated as to whether or not the author experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. Carroll may have known about psilocybin mushrooms and he may have experimented with opium but I doubt it, or if he did it was a rare occurrence. He was a meticulous man who led a well organised and disciplined life. He was a mathematician with a love of logic and both of these traits influence the Alice stories, for example the plot in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is based on a chess problem. Carroll loves wordplay and to this day his nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’ has never been surpassed by any poet writing in this genre.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Alice books I would suggest having a browse through ‘The Annotated Alice: Definitive Edition’ by Martin Gardner. In recent times certain writers and filmmakers have sought to sully Carroll’s reputation. I do not wish to enter into any of this controversy but I would recommend listening to the Radio 4 program ‘Great Lives – Lewis Carroll’ with Lynne Truss, it’s available in the radio archive on the BBC i-player.
I hardly ever paint onto a white canvas, I use a ground colour and for this picture I chose a grey tint. Many artists use ground colours and this practice goes back to the birth of oil painting in the 14thcentury, using a ground colour means that white is a heightener from the word go and this can’t happen when painting onto a white canvas. Although I usually have a good idea of what I want the end result to be I compose my pictures on the hoof as it were, I experiment, rubbing out and improving as I go along. This is my way, some artists like to prepare sketches which they may even scale up onto the canvas before beginning the picture, each to their own. I always use reference material, usually photographs and sometimes sketches, although these are only useful at the start. In this picture I had an excellent model, a young girl called Harvest and with the help of her mother, who chose her clothes, she certainly looks the part. Incidentally when Harvest posed for the photographs that I used for this picture she was only seven years old, the same age as Alice Liddell was when Carroll first conceived the idea of writing ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
The following sequence of images shows the early development of the composition. Alice is standing on the very edge of the picture plane so that a part of the mushroom is intruding into the space outside of the painting. I knew from the start that the caterpillar was going to be difficult to visualize, and my first version was influenced by Rackham’s drawing but soon discarded. Having decided to use a fly agaric mushroom I surrounded it with silver birches which makes sense as fly agaric mushrooms often grow close by. I took some low level photographs of a clump of birch trees growing nearby to help me with these details. I also collected some leaves and brought them into my flat to help me work out the arrangement of leaves around Alice. As you can see when I want to change something I have to go back to the ground colour because it won’t look right if I just paint over what is already there. So the first caterpillar was painted out using the ground colour and later on the birches to the left because they weren’t steep enough. And then I started to develop my own caterpillar adding some falling leaves that are dropping through the space outside of the picture. However the caterpillar still didn’t look right so I made a model out of plasticine to help me work it out. I’ve attached an image of the model, seeing an object in three dimensions was a big help. The markings and colours on my caterpillar are similar to those found on the opium caterpillar and that seemed appropriate. I also brought in real leaves to help me create a convincing foreground. Artist often create little sets to help them work out the space between things.