Down the Rabbit Hole : Keith Robinson Celebrates a Literary Milestone

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 Keith Robinson‘s raw talent for strong characterisation and indisputable drawing skills have made him an irreplaceable credit to the Bright family for the past 3 years. Therefore it came to no surprise as the 150th Anniversary of Alice in wonderland arrived this year, that the UK creative was hand picked to illustrate an issue of stamps commemorating the globally loved story. Previously, Keith had worked with Guernsey Post to create several stamp issues and their children’s character, Penny the Postie, who features in two picture books he also author illustrated. Here’s what Keith had to say about the one-of-a-kind project -

There were a few key challenges with these designs.

I’m a fan of the book, but even more so of the various illustrators who’ve approached it. There have been so many wonderful illustrated interpretations of Alice over the decades  from Tenniel’s iconic originals, through to recent versions by Emma Chichester Clark and Helen Oxenbury. (And of course, many people are familiar with the Disney version even if they haven’t read the book).  Which can all make it quite hard to approach with fresh eyes.

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The wonderful thing about Alice – probably why there have been so many illustrated versions, is that there’s so much room for interpretation and reinvention. The book is tremendously vivid, but actually quite light on concrete description so there’s a lot to play with. Now, in illustrating the book, you can do what you like as you’re able to develop the characters over the course of the story, taking the reader with you and perhaps breaking away from the more familiar interpretations of the characters. With the stamps it’s trickier. For example, a black-haired Goth version of Alice could work really well in the book, but on a stamp no-one would know who she’s supposed to be.

So the big challenge with the stamps, is that the characters have to be instantly recognisable – connecting with a sort of popular consciousness of Alice that I think we all share – but still look new and fresh in some way. 

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I approached this in a number of ways. It being the 150th anniversary, I’d been looking at vintage postage stamps from around that time. They all have these lovely decorative borders, usually with a monarch or presidents head in the middle. So I thought. ‘well OK, if stamps had been issued in wonderland, what would they look like? I thought the borders would also be a good way to incorporate details from the story that tell you a little bit more about the characters.

For the characters themselves, I went to the sort of ‘central casting’ that I carry around in my head. I quite often approach characters in this way – try to think who I’d cast as them in a film. It usually ends up being an amalgam of several people – and not necessarily famous people. There might be elements of Friends, family or people I’ve sketched on the Tube.

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I wanted Alice to be a modern little girl, so I updated her outfit, hairband and hairstyle. She’s about 90% based on my daughter actually. 

The rabbit is sort of based on Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s army as he’s a pompous character, obsequious to his superiors and disdainful to his juniors.

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I had the Beat Generation writer William Burroughs in mind for the caterpillar. He’s got that wonderful voice – that’s JUST how the caterpillar would speak!

And the Hatter is quite unashamedly Terry Thomas. By the way, you might notice his hat is a giant tea cup and the famous price tag on the hat is  like one of those dunking tea bags on a string. 

But they all have other things thrown in as well. It’s not just a question of doing a portrait or caricature of these references you understand, more that they have a spirit that somehow informs the drawing.

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abb94a4636f99b7e502f3b2b049fcf8cAnd finally the use of colour was really important – to make them vibrant with the sort of heightened reality of wonderland and also to make them distinctive when and postage stamp size, rather than being a mess – which was a danger given the amount of detail. So the colour combinations were chosen carefully and planned out at the rough stage, before making the final paintings.

This has been a lovely project and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these characters. Perhaps I’ll get around to doing a version of the book one day!

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