Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow

Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell

Charles Dodgson, Alice Lydell, 1859;

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898 ) was a prominent member of Victorian society, who possessed a ministry degree and a lectureship in mathematics at Oxford.  He was described by many as a natural storyteller; from a young age, he wrote poetry and short stories. Long before he published  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll, however, Dodgson had taken up photography as a serious hobby. From 1856 to 1880, he created something on the order of 3000 studio and landscape photographs (although less than a third have survived). In his 20s, Dodgson developed a close and lasting relationship with members of the pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as AletheaJulia Morgan, Alice-as-Alethea, 1872

(Both above) Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as Alethea, ca. 1872

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was born in India, educated in France and married to a jurist 20 years her senior. They lived in India until 1848, when Charles Hay Cameron retired, at which time they moved to London.  In 1863, when she was 40, Cameron’s daughter gave her a camera, thus facilitating the birth of her career as a photographer, predominantly of portraits (eminent and ordinary Victorians) and allegorical tableaux. She was greatly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites—the romanticized themes of her allegories are plucked pretty directly from Rossetti et al.’s playbook.   Many of their circle sat for her, including Dodgson. Cameron was more interested in evoking an emotional aura than in photographic accuracy, and this resulted in deliberately gauzy, out-of-focus images. Diaries record that Dodgson wasn’t so keen on her technique. He thought she was sloppy.

Alice Liddell (Lydell) brought them together, at least briefly, artistically. Alice Liddell was one of eight children of Dr. Henry Liddell and the middle of three daughters. In 1856 Liddell assumed his position as the new Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and it was soon after that the family became acquainted with Charles Dodgson. He began taking the older children on afternoon boating excursions, during which he’d relate fanciful stories to pass the time.  Alice joined the outings slightly later. It was on one such outing with Alice and her sisters in 1862 that Dodgson related the tale which would later become his most famous book.

About this time Dodgson began using Alice regularly as a portrait subject for his photographs. Dodgson made hundreds of works featuring young girls, a lot of them nude. There have been ample rumors and refutations that Dodgson was a pedophile and assertions that these portraits constitute pornography.  From the sweet fetching expression Dodgson coaxed out of little Alice, you can certainly imagine how fond he was of her; you might be inclined to believe he was in love with her.   (Was this the look that inspired the opening lines of poetry— “Child with a pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder!”— in Through the Looking Glass?). That fetching look would make an older Alice the perfect pre-Raphaelite model for Cameron’s later photographic allegory of Alethea, Greek goddess of truth. It’s a beautiful, haunting picture.

Is there truth in the rumors? Go ask Alice.

3 Responses to “Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow”

  1. Cathy Stanton Says:

    Both Virginia and Vanessa Stephens were considered beauties. I don’t think anyone would have thought Virginia to have “bug eyes” Vanessa, however looks more like Julia.

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