David Hall’s Wonderland – book review

Robin Allan has been reading a newly published edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It contains previously unpublished illustrations from the Disney archives by David Hall, and has an Afterword by Brian Sibley.

Brian Sibley, Methuen and Justin Knowles are to be congratulated on the publication of a newly illustrated Alice; as Brian Sibley points out in his Afterword, “the close relationship between Carroll’s words and Tenniel’s pictures make it very difficult for other artists to succeed in illustrating the stories but there has never been any shortage of those willing to try”. The David Hall pictures, beautifully reproduced in this edition, a model of good production, reveal the extraordinary dimension of his talent. Not only are they exceptionally mobile and fluent and reveal the film artist’s knack of capturing movement with pen or pencil, but they add an original dimension all their own, funny, ironic, disturbing and horrifying by turns.

David Hall illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Hall’s work, commissioned for Walt Disney in 1939 but never used, lay in the Disney Archives until the mid-1970’s when the brilliantly coloured inspirational sketches as they were called – there were more than 400 of them – were rediscovered while material was being selected for a touring exhibition of Disney artwork. I saw the exhibition in December 1976 at the Victoria and Albert and was struck by Hall’s astonishing originality.

David Hall illustration.

I don’t think Hall’s Alice is particularly successful; she’s different from Tenniel’s and that is about all that can be said for her but the other characters and creatures swarm convincingly in almost every picture. This is distinctly Alice’s Nightmare. She is menaced at the Mad Tea Party by the Hatter with a large pair of scissors and the March Hare brandishing a knife (p. 78), while the Cheshire cat’s grin is diabolical (pp. 72 and 76).

The draughtsmanship, flexibility of pen-and-ink and water colour are all remarkable, with the pencil sketches equally confident and bold. For instance, the cook and duchess who face each other on pp. 68 and 69 are worthy of Daumier.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

And then there are the vivid landscapes, or rather dreamscapes – the fantastic rabbit hole; all tree roots, spirals of colour and falling water, is closer, I think, to Dante than to Carroll. Indeed Botticelli in some pen and ink illustrations to The Inferno draws Dante and Virgil in various stages of the journey on one page, just as Hall in his pictures of Alice’s fall shows us Alice in four positions from top right to bottom left of the page. We animate, in our mind’s eye as it were, the path of the fall. It is an astonishing work, filling us with a sense of awe at the immensity of the fall.

Brian Sibley also draws our attention to the picture of the trial on pp. 130 and 131 where lack of description in the narrative gives Hall “the freedom to elaborate many of the original settings such as the courtroom which becomes, in his pictures, part of a huge castle with a sinister guillotine towering high above the turrets”. This picture has the feeling of nightmare as Alice is led towards the block by a hooded executioner, her retreat cut off as the stairs collapse be hind her into cards, which fall into the abyss below.

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