Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland celebrates 150 consecutive years in print, and it seems every where you look, there’s a book, exhibit, or documentary extolling the various virtues of this timeless tale. Even the British Royal Mail Service got into the spirit by commissioning a special series of stamps. The work was completed by none other than Kate Greenaway Medalist Grahame Baker-Smith. Regular readers of this site might recognize the name: In 2013 Baker-Smith illustrated an edition of The Selfish Giant (Folio Society), and we spoke then about his work. (You can read the conversation here.) Once again, the illustrator generously answered a few more of my questions and sent some stunning sketches he prepared for this most recent assignment. Join me down the rabbit hole with Grahame Baker-Smith as we talk about inspiration, design, and illustrating a legacy.
Who was your design inspiration for Alice and the other characters? (If I may be so bold, there appears to be a family resemblance between you and the Alice character.)
Well spotted Barbara! My ‘muse’ for Alice was my youngest daughter, Lillie. She very patiently and graciously let me take pictures of her doing things like pretending she was falling down a rabbit hole or being squished in the White Rabbit’s house – for which she had to sit scrunched up beneath my table.
Lillie is actually very dark-haired but the Royal Mail wanted a light brown hair color, so in the stamps she looks to me like Lillie but wearing a wig.
How did you choose which scenes to create?
The Royal Mail left the composition to me but had a ‘shopping list’ of scenes they wanted covered. It was a shame there couldn’t have been more than ten designs as characters like the Caterpillar and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee had to be left out.
After 150 years, there’s been plenty of variations in art for the book. What’s it like tackling such a legacy?
Initially slightly terrifying! But, I reminded myself of the fact that the Royal Mail chose me for the thing that I do, so I tried to blot out everything I’d seen and play my natural game. I thought of the set of stamps as pages in a book. It was fabulous when [publishing house] Walker DID actually make them into a book. [The book is published in the United States by Candlewick Press.]
What was your work medium?
Well, everything begins with drawing, lots of drawing, in pencil, crayon, and pen. I tend to paint faces and other parts in acrylic. These are scanned into Photoshop and the rest of the design is built around it using Photoshop vector tools and brushes. I used crisp, clean shapes in Photoshop and minimal texture because of the size of the finished stamp. I needed something that would be very defined and positive at a small scale.
Did you create the pieces on a small scale, or work large and scale down?
Again this was a specific part of the brief. The printing of stamps needs to be very fine to hold the color, tones and textures at stamp-size. So the original images were 170 mm square, four times the size of the finished article. The DPI or print resolution was 600, usually 300 DPI is standard for print.
Did you read Alice in Wonderland growing up? (Or as an adult?) If so, was there a particular illustrated edition that resonated most with you? (Or not at all?)
I didn’t read Alice growing up. It’s one of those stories that, because of endless adaptations, you feel you know even if you’ve never read the book all the way through. I haven’t read it all the way through even now – I really should!
As for illustrations, Tenniel’s are so much a part of the whole legend of Alice it’s difficult to think of it without seeing his version; I also think they are marvelous illustrations anyway.
How do you perceive this story – I’ve spoken to some illustrators who viewed the tale as a whimsical fantasy, and others who saw nothing but a total nightmare, and illustrated it as such.
When I read the chapters pertaining to the scenes I had to illustrate I was enchanted by Carroll’s imagination, it seemed wild and unhinged. The feeling was of someone so in command of his literary prowess that he could conjure virtually anything into being and somehow make it work. I also felt there was an underlying truth that held it together and gave it – despite the utter madness – a gravity. It has something to say about the contrariness of people, the randomness of life and events. Characters like the Cheshire Cat seem to know so much about other people and the way the world really works while the Queen and King, with all the trappings of power, are unconscious beings who, through being unaware cause chaos and feel quite destructive and dangerous individuals.
Grahame Baker-Smith’s commemorate stamps are available through the British Royal Mail here, and the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by Candlewick Press, is available for $8.99.