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Peter Blake on Lewis Carroll’s Alice

My friend Graham Ovenden and I were commissioned to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass some time around 1969. I took on Looking-Glass. The cost of making the books eventually became prohibitive, so my watercolours were made into silk-screen prints, and existed only as prints until about five years ago, when D3 Editions published Alice: Through the Looking-Glass.

I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s books until I was an adult – if a child were to read them for themselves, it would all be pretty incomprehensible, wouldn’t it? I became intrigued by the idea of someone taking a magical journey, like Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz. That was the initial point of interest. And Alice anticipated certain kinds of surrealism – Salvador Dalí may have picked up on its strange beasts when, for example, he hugely extended the legs of a giraffe.

I’d already begun my watercolour A Mad Tea Party at Watts Towers a year or two before the Alice pictures. Watts Towers is a folly in Los Angeles made by an Italian tile-setter called Simon Rodia, who lived on a tiny plot of land where he built these huge towers. I thought the idea of the tea party happening in this other, magical place would be interesting.

The Alice pictures were begun at a house in Holland that was owned by a friend, Peter Gatacre, who used to be a director of Madame Tussauds. It was a perfect location because the garden was based on Wonderland: there were sunken flower beds, little houses with thatched roofs, a pond, a river with a boat, a wood with plane trees. Everything I needed was there, and Peter’s daughter Amelia posed for my photographs. I rented an Alice frock from a theatrical costumier, which I took over. I’d tell Amelia something like, “The soldiers are approaching through the wood. You’re frightened – put your hands to your ears.” Then I’d take a photograph of her in that pose and work from it later on in watercolour.

The secret of watercolours is to retain the white paper as long as you can – if you want a yellow and you paint over white paper it sparkles far more. Only then do you begin to put the darker colours in. So that was the process. It’s quite a discipline, because you’re dying to do more all the time. When Chris Prater made the silk screens he actually invented a new way of printing, so the brighter transparent colours stayed very thin, whereas with the dark browns and deep blues and blacks you got a physical build-up of ink.

My daughter Liberty was born in 1968, so I think having a girl child at that point also influenced what I was doing. And I was very interested in illustrated books, in Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and the Detmold brothers. And Maxfield Parrish, especially.

John Tenniel’s original illustrations for the Alice books are definitive. You can’t get away from them – everybody relates back to Tenniel. Because he sticks so much to the facts, it’s only when you find a fact he has neglected that you can do something new. For instance, Lewis Carroll didn’t actually write that the label on the Mad Hatter’s hat said 10/6, as Tenniel has it, so I changed mine to a different sum: five shillings. But he did it so perfectly that there are only a few little gaps where you can invent.

Amelia, who was nine when I took the photographs, now has a daughter. I stayed with them three years ago when she was about five, and we talked about the possibility of my illustrating Wonderland and the daughter playing Alice. She looks very like Amelia, who could perhaps appear as the Queen of Hearts.

Interview by Joe Murphy
“Peter Blake: One-Man Show” by Marco Livingstone is published by Lund Humphries (£35 hardback)

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!