#CoverStories: The best Alice in Wonderland covers

#CoverStories: The best Alice in Wonderland covers

Giovanni Blandino Published on 3/1/2024

Surreal imagery, nonsensical nursery rhymes and eccentric characters such as the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the Caterpillar make it one of the best-loved children’s books of all time. That’s right, we’re talking about Alice in Wonderland.

Dreamt up by Oxford mathematics don Lewis Carroll while out boating on the river Isis, the story was first published over 150 years ago. Originallly titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s now usually abbreviated to Alice in Wonderland.

The Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was, and continues to be, a global success – to date, there are some 170 translations (including one in emoji and another in ancient hieroglyphics), hundreds of editions and a blockbuster film adaptation by Disney.

Today, we’re looking back at the publishing history of Alice in Wonderland and some of the weird and wonderful covers that have graced editions over the years, from Salvador Dalì’s version to even more unusual and exotic designs. Come with us down the rabbit hole!

The very first, all-red cover

The first edition of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece was published in 1865 by Macmillan in London, and shortly afterwards by Appleton in New York.

It has to be said that book covers at the time were not the most imaginative, at least with the benefit of hindsight. Always the same colour and design so that a publishing house was easily recognisable, these were the only covers deemed respectable enough for publications that would sit on the bookshelf of a typical middle-class Victorian.

Macmillan’s were all green. But Carroll was adamant: he wanted a red cover because he thought that this colour would catch the eye of younger readers. The author prevailed, and the first edition appeared in a smart red cover with, on the front, a little gold medallion depicting Alice at its centre, and, on the back, another featuring the Cheshire Cat.

The first illustrated covers

Around the turn of the 20th century, publishers began to realise that an appealing cover could boost sales of a book. And thus illustrations and creative lettering started to appear on covers, paving the way for a whole new art form.

From the left: an 1898 edition with John Tenniel’s classic illustration; the cover illustrated by Blanche McManus (1899); and Charles Robinson’s innovative cover (1907).

And so, for the first time, the covers of Alice in Wonderland featured John Tenniel’s original illustrations, which, from the very first edition, had appeared inside the book. Fun fact: after printing the first 50 copies of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was forced – reluctantly – to reprint them all because of an error spotted by John Tenniel, who was not happy with the end result. Today, copies of this legendary first edition change hands for millions of dollars.

Anyway, back to the turn-of-the-century editions: one of the covers on which John Tenniel’s illustration first appeared is the 1898 edition. It is striking to note how the typography and lettering still seem modern today.

In 1899, Alice in Wonderland was illustrated by a different artist for the first time: the M. F. Mansfield & A. Wessels edition featured an illustration in red, blue and white by Blanche McManus, an American artist and writer. Another innovative cover for the time adorned the edition published by Cassel. It had a full-page illustration by Charles Robinson, who also experimented with innovative layouts inside the book, using margins and vignettes in ways not seen before.

The Salvador Dalì cover

The original title page for the edition of Alice in Wonderland drawn by surrealist painter Salvador Dalì in 1969. Image: mellontatautablog.files.wordpress.com

Few books can boast illustrations by one of the greatest artists who ever lived. But Alice in Wonderland is one.

In 1969, New York publishers Random House asked Salvador Dalì – one of the 20th century’s most famous painters and the best-known surrealist artist – to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece of literary nonsense. Dalì employed many of his signature motifs, such as the melting clock and young girl with a skipping rope. Its limited print run of 2500 copies sold for astronomical sums.

Strictly speaking, Dalì did not actually design the cover, but rather 12 lithographs – one for each chapter – and an etching for the book’s frontispiece. However, for the special edition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the book in 2015, one of these lithographs was used on the cover.

The cover of the special edition marking the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, featuring Salvador Dalí’s lithograph.

Ralph Steadman’s anarchic covers

A 2006 paperback featuring Ralph Steadman’s powerful illustrations.

In 1968, British cartoonist Ralph Steadman was commissioned to create new illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. Published by Dobson Books, this edition was a cult success.

Steadman brought Alice’s surreal adventure into the modern world: the White Rabbit became a stressed commuter with a bowler hat and umbrella, and the playing cards seem more like miners than soldiers. All 47 of these unsettling illustrations are in black and white.

While the cover of the 1968 edition did not in fact have any illustration, later editions did feature Steadman’s drawings of the absurd characters from the story.

One of the 47 ink illustrations by Ralph Steadman. Image: openculture.com

A psychedelic French edition from the seventies

The cover of 1974 French edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Nicole Claveloux. Right: one of the inside illustrations. Image: heropresstwo.blogspot.com

In the seventies, Alice in Wonderland underwent some decidedly psychedelic interpretations. A great example is the 1974 edition from French publisher Grasset, which is adorned with hallucinogenic drawings by Nicole Claveloux.

A versatile cartoonist who also illustrated erotic books in addition to hundreds of children’s titles, Claveloux’s psychedelic pop-art style was the perfect match for this surreal story.

The Sinhalese cover and 170 other translations

Another iconic foreign-language cover can be found on the 1969 translation into Sinhalese, one of the languages spoken in Sri Lanka, and features The Caterpillar nonchalantly smoking a shisha while perched on a mushroom.

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most translated books of all time: it has been published in over 170 languages. Which means unusual and exotic covers are not hard to come by. Below are covers for editions in Georgian, Armenian and Marathi, one of India’s many official languages.

The covers of translations into Georgian (1969), Armenian (1971) and Marathi (1982). Image: lewiscarroll.org

Unusual covers produced for editions marking the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland

In 2015, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Alice in Wonderland, a series of versions were published in languages often overlooked by international publishers. And so we got an edition in Pashto, one of the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, as well as Tongan, the Polynesian language spoken by about 100,000 people in Tonga.

A la izquierda, la portada de la edición pastún de «Alicia en el país de las maravillas» y, a la derecha, la portada en tongano

This renewed interest in translations led to some new editions in somewhat surprising languages. They included Old English, which was spoken 1000 years ago in Britain, and Gothic, a German language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Alice’s adventures were even translated using just emojis (but as a poster rather than a book), as well as into Esperanto and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics!

What’s your favourite Alice in Wonderland cover? Which most surprised you? And are there other noteworthy covers you know of?