Saint Francis, the Caucus-Race and the Long Tale

I have an interesting project. Next year Dennis Hall at Inky Parrot Press is producing a celebratory edition of Alice in Wonderland to mark the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publishing date. Each chapter is to be decorated by a different artist, and I’ve accepted A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale. The requirement is for either two full-page illustrations or a double page spread, and I’ve elected to go for the latter. This came my way because Dennis found an online image of my Saint Francis painting, The Congregation of Birds (2009), and he thought I’d be a good match for the chapter because he liked the way I painted the birds.


My research has shown that artists have frequently expressed the chapter in terms of quite similar visual ideas. The dodo is regularly the focus of their images… dodos being lovely to draw… as is the mouse whose ‘tale’ forms half of the chapter’s title. There are also a good many circular-based compositional devices, the Caucus being described by the Dodo as a race frequently, though not invariably, run on a circular course.

Here are a small selection of past images made of the scene.

Below: Meg Hunt

Vera Berdich (I like this a lot! It has an Edward Lear vibe.)

Eunyoung Seo

From the 1951 Disney animated film

Arthur Rackham


It’s my way to subvert what might be expected of me by finding my own way into any subject. I particularly like the moment toward the end of the chapter when the Mouse, having got into rather an ill-humour with Alice, stumps off despite her entreaties for it to remain:


   “I wish I had our Dinah here, I know I do!” said Alice aloud, addressing nobody in particular. “She’d soon fetch it back!”

   “And who is Dinah, if I might venture to ask the question?” said the Lory.”

  Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: “Dinah’s our cat. And she’s such a capital one for catching mice, you can’t think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why she’ll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!”

  This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. Some of the birds hurried off at once: one old Magpie began wrapping itself up very carefully, remarking ‘I really must be getting home: the night-air doesn’t suit my throat!” And a Canary called out in a trembling voice, to its children, “Come away, my dears! It’s high time you were all in bed!” On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.

So my idea right now is not to show the Caucus-Race as described or the Long Tale as recounted, but rather to embody the anxieties of the animals about Dinah-the-bird-catching-cat.

I want Dinah to be the significant character of the composition, because I love the description of the Canary herding her brood away from Alice’s account of her cat’s predatory nature, and the Magpie ‘wrapping itself up’ in discomfort at the very thought of Dinah arriving on the scene!

Above: in the bottom left corner of the spread the Canary shields and guides her chicks with her wings as she herds them away from danger while glancing back over her shoulder. Above her the Magpie checks behind as it makes good its escape.

Below: in the full spread I’ve added the Mouse at the top of the left page… sandwiched between the Magpie’s outstretched wing and trailing tail… and a small bird in flight scarily close to Dinah’s jaws. I’m aiming for strong dynamics in the image, a sense of movement and drama. And of course for me there must always be the emphasis on positive and negative shape.

Below: trying out an alternative position for Dinah.

So… a start has been made!

In Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Carroll doesn’t describe Dinah save in terms of her character. In real life Alice Liddell had a tabby cat, which is how I’ve chosen to draw Dinah. (Right now she looks like a Devon Rex, which is no surprise as I have a great affection for a couple of Devon Rex cats known to me.)

19 thoughts on “Saint Francis, the Caucus-Race and the Long Tale

  1. OH i’m so excited about this!!! of course a favorite theme for me–alice, wonderland, the cat, the birds…and st francis 😀
    and i love the character you’ve already given dinah! this is excellent news!!!

  2. I love your birds too. We had goldfinches in the garden today and I thought of your goldfinches when I saw them – such energy, bright eyes and colour. They never stay in one place long but leave a glorious colourful memory. The birds that accompanied Joseph too were a myriad of colour.

  3. What an interesting project, and I’m loving your approach to it. Enjoyed seeing all the examples from past editions, too. What a variety! There is a maxim about invention that has always held true for me: “The more you have studied what has gone before, the more original your own work will be.” If one has only seen two examples from the past, then we will see references to those in the work. However, if one has seen/studied tens of examples, then it will be difficult to see the direct influence of any one or two. Your “take” on the animals would always be different because you are Clive—and Clive has a keen way of creating purposeful personality for animals. But, your decision to leave Alice out of the picture is, in my opinion, perfect.!
    xo AM

    • More illustrators have have failed when tackling Alice, than have triumphed. The two books are strewn with traps. This edition is bound to be interesting, as each artist will be going flat out to leave a lasting impression.

      I agree completely about the research. Study reveals much, both about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to overdo the preparation, and shall err on the side of caution by looking at everything I can lay my hands on.

      Glad you approve of my plan to leave Alice out of the picture. Dinah must stand in for her!

  4. How exciting is this! I adore Alice in Wonderland, and must confess that I still read the book from time to time, recapturing the joy I had as a child . He had such clever ideas, and I cannot think of a better collaboration than CH-J and LC/ CD. Who ‘d have thought any more illustrations could be imagined? but Dennis Hall was right to choose you as one of the artists, once again it looks as though your unique imagination is unfurling, I love Dinah’s whole demeanor, and the birds, wonderful! I was lucky enough to be ask to theme a room in a country house here, and I chose to do The Alice Room, where I illustrated the Tenniel drawings here and there. Wouldn’t it be fun to do an Alice room with your drawings!


    • I love the way the text gallops along. Funnily enough, it’s the text that so often goes wrong in screen adaptations of the book. I hated the recent Tim Burton film because he played so fast and loose with the text, and the poems were gabbled and lost there wonderment. No respect for the words.

      My favourite Alice film pretty much abandons the text to create a visual equivalent to it, and that’s the fantastic version by the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. Cinema heaven!

      • That film is still one of my all time favorites!!!! You will do an amazing job. Perhaps there might be a stray feather in Dinah’s grin, just to amp up the animals distress a bit more?

        • Well that’s generous of you. I shall aspire to be ‘amazing’, though this is new territory for me. (I really don’t consider myself an illustrator, as most of the work I’ve done has been for friends who happen to be published writers. This is a different league. Still, I’m excited at the prospect.)

          Feathers in Dinah’s maw? Yikes! Poor little canaries!

    • Hi Phil! Well, it’s just a start, though I feel I’m heading in a profitable direction judging from the first sketches.

      I’m interested in the way Carroll deploys Dinah to remind readers that Alice is away from home. The girl’s affection for her pet grounds her in a pre-Wonderland condition, and it’s a delight to hear her prattle away about Dinah, realisation dawning too late that she’s committed the most frightful faux-pas in terms of Wonderland etiquette by having boasted of the cat’s bird-hunting prowess. Here birds talk like humans and engage in behaviour quite unlike in the real world, and Alice has clear trouble making the leap in terms of how one should speak to a bird that in all but appearance seems to be like a person! For her, birds have always known their places, in cages or in gardens. But here in Wonderland they argue, philosophise, and have all the concerns of adults, and Alice must renegotiate the rules of engagement as known to her. The latter exchanges of the chapter, with the animals sloping off to leave Alice quite alone to ponder on how she’s offended them, really catch my imagination.

      I’ve always thought that grappling with a subject as iconic as Alice, whether she’s in Wonderland or through the looking-glass, would be daunting to the point that I’ve never given the matter any serious thought. But interestingly, now I’m thinking less about what has been done historically, and I’m instead enjoying engaging in the delights of the text, I find myself thinking that I’d really rather enjoy the challenge of illustrating the whole book. (Or even the books!) No chance of that here, though, and so I’ll just get on with my double-page spread.

      Things have been rather quiet at Hedgecrows. Might we be seeing some activity there soon?

      • The sketches look so fresh – daunting prospect as it is, going back to the text seems the best way to go and you’re obviously finding all kinds of things to delight in! That bird hurrying her brood away is such a great image, I can see you having fun with it 🙂
        Yes, April and May disappeared into a black hole at Hedgecrows, actually I’m probably posting up my first clumsy attempts to get back in the saddle today, not very good but the longer I leave it the more difficult it will get! x

  5. I love your birds, I love your animals, I love your plants, but, most of all, I love your portraits of young women, and young, ( or old ) men, as virgins, as angels, as heroes, as daemons…

    I hope to see their faces ( and the rest of them too ), in any disguise whatever, on that double page…

    Please !

    • Thank you, Maria. This one will be completely made up of animals, as there won’t be room to foreground Alice when I want the cat to play the principal role. (From what I’ve seen so far Alice will be portrayed in many diverse ways by other artists engaged on the project, so she probably won’t be missed in my short chapter.) But hopefully there will be lots to enjoy, from the canary chicks being shuffled to safely by their mother, to the vivacity of the magpie’s markings and Dinah’s brindled and tiger-striped coat.

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