We’ve all seen the many renditions of the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland. Though each has a zanier take than the last, each and every one is wonderful, witty, whimsical and full of the magic of Lewis Carroll’s story. None more-so than the original illustrator, John Tenniel.
Catherine Nichols, author of Alice’s Wonderland, explains how these iconic engravings came to be.
(You can meet Catherine Nichols and chat about Alice and her Wonderland at New York Comic Con! She’ll be signing with us at booth 2006!)
John Tenniel (1820–1914)
Every artist who has illustrated Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass owes an immense debt to John Tenniel.
An 1878 caricature of Tenniel by Vanity Fair portrait artist Leslie Ward.
Born in London in 1820, Tenniel was a skilled artist from an early age (although his “youthful aspiration” was to be a clown in a circus). He studied at the Royal Academy Schools before dropping out to follow his own independent study of art. In 1848, his black-and-white illustrations for an edition of Aesop’s Fables intrigued the editor of Punch, a popular weekly satirical magazine. Before long, Tenniel was working for the magazine, an association that would last for nearly half a century. Throughout his long career he produced more than two thousand political cartoons for Punch. In 1893, Queen Victoria knighted Tenniel in recognition of his work at Punch; he was the first illustrator to be so honored.
Carroll, an enthusiastic reader of Punch, admired Tenniel’s political cartoons, and even kept a collection of ones he had especially enjoyed and had clipped from the magazine’s pages. So when Carroll was looking for an artist to illustrate Alice in Wonderland, it was natural that he should think of him.
Once Tenniel received the manuscript for Alice in Wonderland, he had quite a task in front of him. Carroll often was vague when it came to how a certain character looked. Even Alice, the story’s protagonist, isn’t described at length. In Chapter II, Alice says she’s sure she’s not Ada “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all.” And except for a reference from the Hatter that “her hair wants cutting”— from which can be inferred that her hair is long—there is nothing more in terms of a visual description.
Of course, Tenniel did have Carroll’s original illustrations of Alice, and it’s true that there is a certain resemblance between the two. An early version of Tenniel’s Alice can be glimpsed in the pages of Punch in 1846—an illustration of a young, middle-class girl wearing a waisted dress and pinafore and placing a garland around the neck of a lion.
Tenniel is thought to have modeled the Duchess on Quentin Matsys’ unflattering portrait. Titled The Ugly Duchess, it was painted around 1513.
In other instances, Tenniel ignores Carroll’s text and puts his own spin on a character. The Duchess that Alice meets in Chapter VI of Alice in Wonderland is described as having a chin that is “uncomfortably sharp,” and when they walk together on the croquet grounds, the Duchess repeatedly digs her pointy chin into Alice’s shoulder. Yet Tenniel’s Duchess has a chin that is anything but sharp. But when Carroll also describes the Duchess as ugly, Tenniel doesn’t fail the author.
Tenniel’s drawing of Alice with the Duchess.
The Duchess is most definitely unattractive. Critics posit that Tenniel based the Duchess on the Duchess Margaret of Carinthia and Tyrol, who lived in the fourteenth century and was reputed to be the ugliest woman in history. Quentin Matsys, a sixteenth-century Flemish painter, did a portrait of her that Tenniel very likely used as his inspiration.
Although Carroll almost certainly modeled the White Knight on himself, Tenniel also laid claim to the errant knight, making the character—in a way—a metaphor for the collaboration between these two great artists. Tenniel’s knight has the illustrator’s trailing mustache, and the resemblance between the two is striking. Tenniel might also have been influenced by the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513–14).
As expertly as Tenniel prepared the illustrations for both Alice books, he did make mistakes. In Alice in Wonderland, for instance, the illustration that opens Chapter I shows the White Rabbit in a checkered jacket over a plain vest. Yet later, when giant Alice is stuck inside the rabbit’s house and reaches out through a window to grab hold of him, he is wearing a checkered vest to match his jacket. And in Through the Looking-Glass Tenniel mistakenly gives Tweedledee, not Tweedledum, the wooden sword.
After completing Through the Looking-Glass, Tenniel all but retired from illustrating books, concentrating instead on his political cartoons for Punch. He illustrated a handful of books for other authors, and in 1881, agreed to one last project from Carroll—the colorized edition for The Nursery Alice. Tenniel made some substantial changes to some of the twenty illustrations that appear in the book. He updated Alice’s costume, pleating her dress and adding a bow to the apron, and he placed another bow in her hair. He redid the frontispiece and redrew the illustration of Alice holding the “Drink Me” bottle as well as the one of her with a stretched-out neck.
Since the later book was intended for young children, the black-and-white illustrations were colorized. Alice was given a yellow dress, and blue bows and stockings. The Knave of Hearts had his nose painted red, a suggestion perhaps that he was a lush and under the influence of alcohol when he stole the King’s tarts.
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