Wood Engraver Barry Moser Carves a New and Darker Alice in Wonderland
04/12/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
Some illustrators seem able to capture the characters and landscape of a book and make them their very own. It is hard to imagine Dante's Inferno except as Gustave Doré saw it, or Treasure Island in any eyes but those of N.C. Wyeth. But for readers who think of Lewis Carroll's Alice and her delightfully mad friends in Wonderland only as the Victorian images of the original artist, Sir John Tenniel, there is now an extraordinary alternative. To mark the 150th-anniversary year of the birth of Carroll (born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), a new, critically acclaimed Alice has appeared. It is the creation of Barry Moser, 41, a Massachusetts art teacher and master wood engraver. Published by Moser's Pennyroyal Press, the limited edition of 350 copies is all but sold out at a daunting current price: $1,250 apiece. (The University of California Press plans a trade edition later this year.)
The new Alice is a far cry from the prim, pinafored and neatly combed blonde conceived by Tenniel. She is, instead, a mischievous tousle-haired brunette, and Moser's Wonderland denizens are creatures out of a nightmare rather than a cozy dreamworld. The Mad Hatter is demented, holding an empty teacup upside down; the Cheshire Cat, no longer a round and grinning tabby, has become a frightening razor-toothed feline. The model for the terrifying March Hare was the head of a rabbit killed and decapitated by Moser's cat. Alice herself appears in only four pictures, before and after her dream of Wonderland. "I wanted the reader to see Wonderland," Moser explains, "the way Alice saw it."
Moser's Alice is completely his own creation, from its leather binding (purple, for the color of Carroll's favorite ink) to its hand-set type and final printing at Pennyroyal Press. Alice is the 60th book Moser has illustrated; others are Dante's The Divine Comedy and Melville's Moby-Dick. He drew the 75 sketches for Alice in two feverish days, but the painstaking job of engraving them took six months and the task left him with a thumb and index finger numb for weeks afterward.
The roly-poly artist shares an 1846 farmhouse in West Hatfield, Mass. with daughters Cara, 18, Romy, 17, and Maddy, 9 (who bears a marked resemblance to Alice Liddell, the 10-year-old Alice for whom Carroll wrote the book). He teaches life drawing (with nude models), calligraphy and illustration at the nearby Williston-Northampton prep school. His ex-wife, Kay, a watercolorist, lives in the next town and visits often.
Moser has lived in the area since 1967, but his east Tennessee twang betrays his Chattanooga origins. He studied industrial design at Auburn and the University of Chattanooga and along the way became a licensed (but not ordained) Methodist minister. He has left his religious calling, and indeed sips his favorite J.W. Dant bourbon when he "invents" his illustrations. He paraphrases George Bernard Shaw, with a (Tenniel-type) Cheshire Cat grin: "Inventing is such a torture, only whiskey makes it possible."