Lewis Carroll’s Photographs of Alice Liddell, the Inspiration for Alice in Wonderland

One of the great poly­maths of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Lewis Car­roll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodg­son) —math­e­mati­cian, logi­cian, author, poet, Angli­can cleric—took to the new medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy with the same alacrity he applied to all of his pur­suits. Though he may be described as a hob­by­ist in the sense that he nev­er pur­sued the art pro­fes­sion­al­ly, he nonethe­less “became a mas­ter of the medi­um, boast­ing a port­fo­lio of rough­ly 3,000 images and his very own stu­dio.”

So says a recent arti­cle by Gan­non Bur­gett on Carroll’s “24-year career as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er,” dur­ing which he made a num­ber of por­traits, includ­ing one of then-poet lau­re­ate of Eng­land Alfred, Lord Ten­nyson. His sub­jects also includ­ed “land­scapes, dolls, dogs, stat­ues, paint­ings, trees and even skele­tons.”


Car­roll excelled at a devel­op­ing method called the wet col­lo­di­on process, which replaced the daguerreo­type as the pri­ma­ry means of pho­to­graph­ic image-mak­ing. This process seems to have been some­thing like paint­ing in oils, requir­ing a great deal of dex­ter­i­ty and chem­i­cal know-how, and sim­i­lar­ly sub­ject to decay when done improp­er­ly. Car­roll par­tic­u­lar­ly val­ued this method for its dif­fi­cul­ty (he described it in detail in some lines added to a poem called “Hiawatha’s Pho­tograph­ing”)—so much so that once a dry devel­op­ing process came into being, he aban­doned the medi­um alto­geth­er, com­plain­ing that it became so easy any­one could do it. Carroll’s obses­sive focus on process mir­rored an obses­sion with his favorite pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects, young chil­dren, includ­ing Tennyson’s son Hal­lam (above). Most famous­ly, Car­roll obses­sive­ly pho­tographed the young Alice Lid­dell (top and below as “The Queen of May”), daugh­ter of fam­i­ly friend Hen­ry George Lid­dell and inspi­ra­tion for Carroll’s most famous fic­tion­al char­ac­ter.


Many of Carroll’s pho­tographs of Alice and oth­er chil­dren can seem down­right pruri­ent to our eyes. As Carroll’s biog­ra­ph­er Jen­ny Woolf writes in a 2010 essay for the Smith­son­ian, “of the approx­i­mate­ly 3,000 pho­tographs Dodg­son made in his life, just over half are of children—30 of whom are depict­ed nude or semi-nude.”

Some of his portraits—even those in which the mod­el is clothed—might shock 2010 sen­si­bil­i­ties, but by Vic­to­ri­an stan­dards they were… well, rather con­ven­tion­al. Pho­tographs of nude chil­dren some­times appeared on post­cards or birth­day cards, and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art stud­ies […]. Vic­to­ri­ans saw child­hood as a state of grace; even nude pho­tographs of chil­dren were con­sid­ered pic­tures of inno­cence itself.

Woolf admits that Carroll’s inter­est, as schol­ars have spec­u­lat­ed for decades, may have been less than inno­cent, prompt­ing Vladimir Nabokov to pro­pose “a pathet­ic affin­i­ty” between Car­roll and the nar­ra­tor of Loli­ta. The evi­dence for Carroll’s pos­si­ble pedophil­ia is high­ly sug­ges­tive but hard­ly con­clu­sive. Bur­gett sum­ma­rizes the claims as only spec­u­la­tive at best: “The entire con­tro­ver­sy is an almost cen­tu­ry-long debate, and one that doesn’t seem to be mak­ing any major progress in either direc­tion.” In a Slate review of Woolf’s Lewis Car­roll biog­ra­phy, Seth Lerer also acknowl­edges the con­tro­ver­sy, but reads the pho­tographs of Alice, her sis­ters, and friends as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of larg­er trends, as “bril­liant tes­ti­monies to the taste, the sen­ti­ment, and per­haps the sex­u­al­i­ty of mid-Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land.”


A great part of this Vic­to­ri­an sen­si­bil­i­ty con­sists of the “recog­ni­tion that all life involves role-play­ing,” hence the recur­ring pho­tos of the girls in dress-up—as fig­ures from myth and lit­er­a­ture and exot­ic Ori­en­tal­ist char­ac­ters, such as the pho­to above of Alice and her sis­ter Lori­na as “Chi­na­men.” “These are the tableaux of Vic­to­ri­an melo­dra­ma,” writes Lerer, “images on stage-sets of the imag­i­na­tion.” We see anoth­er of Carroll’s favorite pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects, Alexan­dra “Xie” Kitchin, daugh­ter of a col­league, also giv­en the Ori­en­tal­ist treat­ment below, posed as an off-duty tea mer­chant.

Carroll’s care­ful­ly staged child pho­tographs are very much like those of oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers of the peri­od like Mary Cow­den Clarke and Julia Mar­garet Cameron, who also pho­tographed Alice Lid­dell, even into her adult­hood. Cameron’s pho­tographs also includ­ed child nudes, to a sim­i­lar effect as Carroll’s—the depic­tion of a “state of grace” in which chil­dren appear as nymphs, “gyp­sies” or oth­er such types sup­pos­ed­ly belong­ing to Edenic worlds untouched by adult cares. Giv­en the con­text Woolf, Lerer and oth­ers pro­vide, it’s rea­son­able to view Carroll’s child pho­tog­ra­phy as con­sis­tent with the tastes of the day. (Though no one sug­gests this as an ali­bi for Car­rol­l’s pos­si­bly trou­bling pro­cliv­i­ties.)

As it stands, the pho­tographs of Alice and oth­er chil­dren open a fas­ci­nat­ing, if some­times dis­com­fit­ing, win­dow on an age that viewed child­hood very dif­fer­ent­ly than our own. They also give us a view of Carroll’s strange inner world, one not unlike the unset­tling fan­ta­sy realm of 20th cen­tu­ry folk artist Hen­ry Darg­er. Unlike Darg­er, Carroll’s work brought him wide­spread fame in his life­time, but like that reclu­sive fig­ure, the author of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land and Through the Look­ing Glass was a shy, intro­spec­tive man whose imag­i­na­tive land­scape pos­sessed a log­ic all its own, charged with mag­ic, threat, and long­ing for lost child­hood inno­cence.

See a gal­leries of Carroll’s pho­tographs of Alice and oth­er chil­dren here and here, and see this site for more gen­er­al info on Carroll’s pho­tog­ra­phy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See The Orig­i­nal Alice In Won­der­land Man­u­script, Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed By Lewis Car­roll (1864)

See Sal­vador Dali’s Illus­tra­tions for the 1969 Edi­tion of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land

Free Audio: Alice In Won­der­land Read by Cory Doc­torow

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (10)
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  • Phantomwise says:

    “Woolf admits that Carroll’s inter­est, as schol­ars have spec­u­lat­ed for decades, may have been less than inno­cent”

    If you tru­ly think she “admits” that, then you com­plete­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed what she wrote and you need to read clos­er. Woolf is one the major biog­ra­phers AGAINST the pedophile the­o­ry.

    Oth­er than that, fair arti­cle and you seem to under­stand the Vic­to­ri­an Child Cult bet­ter than oth­er writ­ers have.

  • Mochni (Talking Bird) says:

    Well, I’m not from the Vic­to­ri­an Age, and I must say that a book of Lewis Car­rol­l’s pho­tographs dis­com­fit­ed me some­what. It’s curi­ous how cer­tain aspects of an ear­li­er era can run counter to our gen­er­al per­cep­tion (or learn­ing) about them.

  • Ari says:

    The writer of this arti­cle Wolfe is pure dis­gust! I won­der if your child gets molest­ed will you have doubts if you find naked pho­tos or maybe you will be a par­tic­i­pant!!! Shameful…Victorian times were about puri­ty and grown
    wom­an’s rep­u­ta­tion was extreme­ly impor­tant a naked child was not the sign of the times!!! You are lying and any­one that has stud­ied that time peri­od is ful­ly aware.

  • Teresa McKimmey says:

    That ‘kiss­ing’ pho­to is a fake. Do some research

  • Goetz Kluge says:

    Tere­sa McKim­mey is right. https://snrk.de/page_constructing-carroll

  • Goetz Kluge says:

    Ari, attack­ing Wolfe ad hominem like that is dis­gust­ing. Vic­to­ri­an times (and of course not only those times) also were about dis­play­ing “puri­ty” as a means to deal with “impu­ri­ty”. Each era has its ways of rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment. And child labour was one of the signs of those times. As almost all eras, this one had shiny sides as well as dark sides.

    Fur­ther­more, once new media ar avail­able, it takes time to define the do’s and don­t’s for using them. That applied and still applies to pho­tog­ra­phy then as much as it applies today to what you can post or should­n’t post in the inter­net.

  • Richard says:

    She was tru­ly beau­ti­ful but Lewis took it too far. He should have been her pro­tec­tor.

  • Landon says:

    What did he not pro­tect her from? There is nev­er any evi­dence he ever hurt her.

  • Observer says:

    The Vic­to­ri­an Child Cult still exists, right down to the com­plete denial of chil­dren’s sex­u­al­i­ty (a well-doc­u­ment­ed sci­en­tif­ic fact) and the oblig­a­tory dis­ap­proval of Car­rol­l’s “pos­si­bly trou­bling pro­cliv­i­ties.” This is still a realm where sex­u­al­i­ty can only be con­sid­ered dirty, shame­ful, per­verse etc etc. A shame for Car­roll and peo­ple like him that we’ve yet to progress in this area.

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