Professor Sherry Ackerman continues her reminiscences about her visit to England in 2010.
A Carrollian artefact that has fascinated me since childhood are the little white kid gloves that the White Rabbit wore. I had a pair of little white kid gloves as a youngster—and was perpetually implored to keep them impeccably clean for special occasions—but, clean as they were, they were nowhere near as grand as those of the White Rabbit. I even tried carrying them in one hand with a large fan in the other, but, somehow, I never felt that I achieved the grandeur of that Rabbit! He was a hard act to follow!
So, when I discovered, that as a part of an outing with Keith and Liz Wright last Fall, we were going to go to the Head of Steam Darlington Railway Museum to see the little white kid glove, it was like a dream come true. (The fact of the matter is that I actually still have my childhood pair, too!) The Rabbit’s gloves, as well as a few other rare items, were at the museum as a part of the ‘Lewis Carroll: Living in Wonderland’ exhibition that was geared toward exploring Carroll’s connections to the North East and Yorkshire. The centrepiece of the exhibition were several objects found in the 1950’s, under the floorboards of Croft Rectory, Carroll’s 1843 childhood home.
Alterations had been made to the nursery at the Rectory during the time of Lewis Carroll; the floorboards were taken up again in the 1950’s to reveal a cache of childhood treasures including: a letter from a child’s alphabet, broken china including a teapot lid, a single white glove, a handkerchief, a penknife, a scrap of paper with Mrs. Dodgson’s writing on it and a child’s left shoe.
Dave Tetlow, Museum Manager was away on maternity leave when we visited, but his very competent assistant showed us each of the treasures. It was a proverbial trip to Wonderland as she lifted—ever so gently and tenderly—each carefully wrapped item from the archive. The glove, a shoe, and a teapot lid made the moment magical. Wonderland became a real place in time. It wasn’t just something that existed in my imagination. Suddenly, it was very, very real.
I write books. So, I have a deep appreciation of how seemingly insignificant items can trigger an avalanche of literary associations. I remember, for example, certain items in my great grandmother’s attic that opened whole avenues of inquiry for me. Years later, I recalled how some of those same items shaped my writing style, my literary voice, my genre. Viewing the artefacts from Croft Rectory brought Carroll right into the room.
Keith Wright, though, obviously thought that Carroll needed to not only be in the room, but needed to have a full-on conversation with us. And this we did! For, the next stop was the National Media Museum where we were treated to a private showing of many photographs taken by none other than Carroll himself! I still get goose-bumps thinking about that particular afternoon! We were ushered into a special back-room—sort of like going through the little garden door—where we were seated around a light table. Then, the curator brought out a whole stack of boxes of delicious original photographs, taken by Carroll himself.
The photos were gorgeous. Carroll was such an amazing artist. He had an eye for composition that was unique and under-celebrated. One of the negatives had Carroll’s thumbprint on the edge of it, which is where the full-on conversation began. In today’s photo-shopped, digitally enhanced, multi-techno-colour world, it is a real treat to see clean, natural photography. In the simplicity of black and white photography, without enhancement, these photos were works of art. Composition mattered. Value and tone were critical. This was “art for the sake of art”. I could have stayed in that archive forever. It was a day that was marked with a white stone!
In the next issue, I will continue the story—and travel to Ripon and Richmond to connect with Carroll’s early education.
Professor Ackerman published Behind the Looking Glass in 2008 (Cambridge Scholars Press). No matter how fast she runs, she can’t seem to out distance her fascination with Lewis Carroll. It’s a love affair that has a long history!