Ralph Steadman’s Warped Illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the Story’s 150th Anniversary


This year, read­ers world­wide cel­e­brate the 150th anniver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land. (Click to see the orig­i­nal man­u­script, hand­writ­ten & illus­trat­ed by Lewis Car­roll.) Car­rol­l’s fan­tas­ti­cal, unex­pect­ed­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al chil­dren’s tale has inspired writ­ers, artists, and oth­er cre­ators of all ages since it first came out in 1865. New edi­tions and adap­ta­tions have kept appear­ing, each reflect­ing the spir­it of their own time through the askew prism of Alice’s sen­si­bil­i­ty. And which liv­ing illus­tra­tor could pro­vide more askew imagery than Ralph Stead­man?

A Mad Tea Party

We all know that Alice’s dream­like jour­ney begins in earnest when she drinks from a bot­tle labeled “DRINK ME” and eats a cake labeled “EAT ME.” See what metaphors you will, but to my mind, this alone makes the sto­ry obvi­ous Stead­man mate­r­i­al: many of us dis­cov­er his art through its appear­ance in Hunter S. Thomp­son’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a col­lab­o­ra­tion that qual­i­fies Stead­man as no stranger at all to visu­al­iz­ing unre­al cir­cum­stances height­ened, or induced, by one ingest­ed sub­stance or anoth­er.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared in book form in 1972; Alice in Won­der­land Illus­trat­ed by Ralph Stead­man appeared the next year, and went on to win the Fran­cis Williams Book Illus­tra­tion Award.

His ver­sion, writes io9’s Cyr­i­aque Lamar, “has gone through var­i­ous print runs through­out the decades, and he mod­eled sev­er­al of the char­ac­ters on decid­ed­ly mod­ern per­son­al­i­ties. For exam­ple, the Cheshire Cat is a tele­vi­sion talk­ing head, the Cater­pil­lar is a grass-smok­ing pedant, the Mad Hat­ter is a bark­ing quiz­mas­ter, and the King and Queen of Hearts are a melt­ing mass of polit­i­cal author­i­ty.”


See more of Stead­man’s pieces by pick­ing up your own copy of the book, or vis­it Brain Pick­ings, where Maria Popo­va describes them as bring­ing “to Carroll’s clas­sic the per­fect kind of semi-sen­si­cal visu­al genius, blend­ing the irrev­er­ent with the sub­lime.” Though by all avail­able evi­dence thor­ough­ly sane him­self, Stead­man’s illus­tra­tions have, over his fifty-year career, lent just the right notes of Eng­lish insan­i­ty to a vari­ety of sub­jects, from wine to dogs to psy­cho­geog­ra­phy. Only nat­ur­al, then, to see them accom­pa­ny the insan­i­ty — which, sen­tence by sen­tence and page by page, comes to seem like san­i­ty by oth­er means — of a clas­sic Eng­lish tale like Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land.

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

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

When Aldous Hux­ley Wrote a Script for Disney’s Alice in Won­der­land

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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