Anthea Gerrie visits the V&A’s latest exhibition celebrating Alice’s adventures in Wonderland over the last 157 years.
It may have been conceived long before the pandemic, but as it turns out, Alice: Curious and Curiouser, the V&A’s landmark show for 2021, is the perfect exhibition for an audience living in surreal times. We know what it feels like to be up, down and turned around, navigating a virtual world not so different from the one at the bottom of the rabbit hole visitors to the show get the chance to immerse themselves in while wearing Virtual Reality headsets.
The VR headsets only go on, mind, once you have literally gone down the rabbit hole by descending into the basement of the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery and spent at least an hour browsing magical rooms filled with endless fascinating ephemera. They include excerpts and illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s books, clips from the many cinematic interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, paintings and posters by the Surrealist artists Carroll’s tales inspired, costumes for worldwide theatrical productions and a stunning show-stopper of a centrepiece in a psychedelic rendition of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. It’s a spectacular projection from which the milliner himself and his companions are, sadly, absent; no doubt Covid prevented visitors being able to sit down with them and move up periodically to a clean place setting.
Highlights include the author’s own handwritten manuscript and beautifully illustrated edition presented as a gift to his muse, Alice Liddell, and the subsequent illustrations by John Tenniel which have entranced generations of children since being published 150-odd years ago. All these appear in the very first room, Creating Alice, which is hard to get through because so many small but compelling pictures command close attention. Fascinatingly surreal facts of the period which are nothing to do with the book emerge, like the fact that London and Bristol occupied different time zones in Victorian England; no wonder the White Rabbit felt compelled to keep consulting his watch.
The film clips are equally fascinating, ranging from a silent movie to a 1932 Hollywood production endowing Alice with teenage glamour to the iconic 1951 Disney cartoon, Jonathan Miller’s unsetting 1966 TV film for an adult audience and Tim Burton’s masterful 3D big-screen duo introducing the stories to a generation of Millenials who may never get as far as reading the books. Not to mention a room of world-class paintings by Surrealist greats from Max Ernst and Eileen Agar to Salvador Dali and another of spectacular theatrical costumes, plus much, much more.
But if you don’t want to be late for a very important date, do get to the queue for those VR headsets before it closes at 4.45 pm, which ideally means booking an entry slot no later than 3.30 pm if you don’t want to be rushed. The joys which await the immersed include a tumble down the rabbit hole, a chance to shrink after imbibing that potion in that Drink Me bottle and enter the Queen of Hearts’ garden with its talking flowers and playing card courtiers; here visitors are invited to grab a hedgehog and aim it through the virtual croquet hoops.
Exit is via not the gift shop but the Looking Glass in what is billed as a digital art installation but what those who remember old money would call a hall of mirrors. The actual gift shop, at the top of the stairs, can easily be missed; get there by 5.15 pm to have enough time to browse a magical range of merchandise including new editions for those who, unlike me, no longer have the falling-apart, Tenniel-illustrated Alice they have treasured since childhood.
Tell Me More About Alice: Curious And Curiouser
The show runs until December 31 and tickets, £20 for adults, free for children under 12, are currently bookable Wednesday to Sunday at https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/book-free-timed-entry