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R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton exhibit honors Barry Moser’s version of 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland'

  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser displays an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser displays an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser displays Tweedledee and Tweedledum, an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser displays Tweedledee and Tweedledum, an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS

    Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHELSON GALLERIES<br/>Barry Moser's illustration "The Cheshire Cat in His Tree," from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

    PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHELSON GALLERIES
    Barry Moser's illustration "The Cheshire Cat in His Tree," from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES<br/>Barry Moser's "King of Hearts"

    PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES
    Barry Moser's "King of Hearts" Purchase photo reprints »

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES<br/>Just like the real-life girl, Alice Liddell, who served as inspiration for Lewis Carrol's character, Barry Moser's Alice is a brunette.

    PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES
    Just like the real-life girl, Alice Liddell, who served as inspiration for Lewis Carrol's character, Barry Moser's Alice is a brunette. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Barry Moser displays an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Barry Moser displays Tweedledee and Tweedledum, an illustration from "Through the Looking Glass" in his library at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Barry Moser in his studio at his home in Hatfield Oct. 23.JERREY ROBERTS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHELSON GALLERIES<br/>Barry Moser's illustration "The Cheshire Cat in His Tree," from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES<br/>Barry Moser's "King of Hearts"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R. MICHAELSON GALLERIES<br/>Just like the real-life girl, Alice Liddell, who served as inspiration for Lewis Carrol's character, Barry Moser's Alice is a brunette.

“Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland” has been variously described as a children’s book, an adult satire, an example of literary nonsense and the prototype of the fantasy literature genre. But since its publication in 1865, the story — both as a book and in other media forms based on it — has long featured one near-constant: a little blonde-haired girl named Alice.

But Barry Moser, the children’s book illustrator and fine-book maker, saw Lewis Carroll’s book and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” differently.

In 1982, the Hatfield artist published his own version of the classic tale, printing just 350 17-inch-by-11-inch copies under his Pennyroyal Press label. In that, and in a subsequent trade-edition version published in 1983 by the University of California Press, the young heroine sported an alternate look, and the story became less a lighthearted romp and more a tale of brooding menace and darkness.

The book earned Moser an American Book Award for Design and Illustration and a national name as a children’s book artist.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication and Pennyroyal Press, R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton has opened an exhibit, “Alice,” featuring much of the original artwork, including Moser’s detailed wood engravings and many of his preparatory sketches.

The “Alice” exhibit, which runs through Dec. 15, includes dozens of engravings both from “Alice in Wonderland” and Moser’s version of “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There.” Moser has added several new drawings based on the books, and the exhibit also includes Alice-themed work by other artists influenced by Moser.

Case in point: Moser, who used a picture of former President Richard Nixon as the inspiration for his original engraving of Humpty Dumpty, one of the celebrated characters from “Through the Looking Glass,” has updated the egg-like creature in a new drawing. This time Humpty Dumpty has the trademark snarl and bespectacled eyes of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Moser said that his artwork from the two books has been displayed in many other exhibits over the years. But this is the first show to feature any of the pencil sketches and pen-and-ink drawings he did as blueprints for his engravings.

“I probably did hundreds of sketches,” said Moser, who spent the better part of a year working on the 75 engravings that appear in “Alice.” Many of them, he noted, “were done very quickly, in maybe 30 seconds, just to jot down an idea, almost like taking shorthand.”

One of the appeals of the exhibit is seeing the transition of Moser’s early images into the finished engravings in his two books. There’s a portrait of dark-headed Alice herself, who in a pencil sketch consists of a mass of dark, tousled hair and a few quick facial lines. In an engraving that appears very early in the story, Moser has filled in Alice’s details, giving her face both an inquisitive and slightly mischievous look.

In the original edition of the book, illustrator Sir John Tenniel depicted Alice as a prim, neatly combed blonde who meets a collection of delightfully mad friends — a cozy Victorian vision of a charming dreamland.

But Moser’s view is of a more sinister world, where the Cheshire Cat, for instance, has an alternately vulpine and bat-like look, with elongated ears and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. The King of Hearts, a mostly amiable goofball in the original story, and in interpretations like Walt Disney’s 1951 animated movie, is considerably more threatening looking in Moser’s version, with one protuberant eye visible in his gnarled face; the other is hidden behind a greasy mane of hair.

The character of the March Hare in Moser’s “Alice” was inspired by the decapitated head of a rabbit that Moser once found on his doorstep; the rabbit may have been killed by his family’s own cat.

“I didn’t see ‘Alice’ as a children’s story,” said Moser, who didn’t read the book until he was in his early 40s. “To me, it was a much darker tale, and I wanted people to see Wonderland the way Alice saw it — less whimsical and more nightmarish.”

Turning point

The original printing of Moser’s “Alice” came at a critical time in his career, when the former full-time art teacher at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton was trying to make the jump to being an independent artist. With a few financial backers and partners, he had formed Pennyroyal Press, a business that produced small, limited edition books with his wood engravings and hand-lettered type.

In the early 1980s, Moser and his colleagues compiled a short list of notable books, including “Alice,” and quizzed rare-book sellers and others who worked with specialty books on which title they thought might sell best in a special edition by Moser. The consensus was “Alice,” although Moser said some of those he queried specifically warned him not to do that story.

“Some people believed that the illustrations Tenniel had done were definitive, almost sacrosanct, and that most everyone who had done a version of ‘Alice’ since then owed some debt to him,” Moser said. “I just didn’t see that.”

Moser also notes that Carroll — whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — based the character of Alice on a real girl of the same name: Alice Liddell, the youngest daughter of family friends. The young Liddell was a brunette, not a blonde, and Carroll’s original illustrations for his book included a dark-haired Alice.

In developing his own take on Carroll’s two books, Moser also fully developed an idea with which he’d experimented in some of earlier books: using real people, including friends, as the models for some of his illustrations.

For instance, the artwork now on display at Michelson Galleries features a Red Queen and a White Queen modeled on Hatfield children’s book author Jane Yolen. The late Allen Mandelbaum, a professor of Italian literature and a friend for whom Moser had illustrated another book, served as Moser’s model for the Mad Hatter, and Richard Nixon (and now Dick Cheney) became the face of Humpty Dumpty.

More notably, Moser took his youngest daughter, Maddy, then 10 years old, as his model of Alice. He found a circa 1850s daguerreotype of Lemuel Shaw, a rather florid looking Massachusetts Supreme Court justice of that era, and used that as his blueprint for the twin characters Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

“He had such a great face,” Moser said of Shaw. “I had to use him.”

The exhibit includes pictures of Yolen, Shaw, and the other people who served as models for some of Moser’s characters. Visitors can also view trade copies of “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass,” as well as other books Moser illustrated with his distinctive wood engravings, including “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

Richard Michelson, owner of the gallery and a poet and children’s book author himself, notes that when he opened his Northampton gallery over 30 years ago — in a much smaller space in Thornes Marketplace — his first exhibit featured Moser’s work. Now, he says, it feels fitting that he’s again featuring Moser’s defining work 30 years after the artist created it.

“It’s a wonderful way to take another look at a wonderful book,” Michelson said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Alice” will be on view at R. Michelson Galleries through Dec. 15. Hours are Mondays through Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 586-3964 or visit www.rmichelson.com.

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