‘Enchanting Alice! Black-and-white
Has made your charm perennial;
And nought save “Chaos and old Night”
Can part you now from Tenniel’
(From a poem by Austin Dobson as quoted in The Annotated Alice (Penguin: 1970), p. 352)
If you missed my introductory post on this ‘Alternative Alice’s’ series click here (alternatively don’t and I think you’ll manage, read on, read on!).
The above quote kind of sums up the close association between Carroll’s Alice and Tenniel’s illustrations of her in our minds. It seems that Alice will always already be the fair-haired little girl with tiny black-and-white striped feet sticking out from beneath her black-and-white umbrella-like dress. It is Sir (he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1893) John Tenniel that we have to thank for that.
Tenniel’s artistic life pre-Alice consisted of a marathon stint as Punch magazine’s principal cartoonist, creating over 2,000 cartoons for them. It seems a tittle wonder then that Tenniel’s Alice is rendered in the precise and distinctive, cross-hatched, clearly outlined, black-and-white style characteristic of a snappy satirical cartoon based on a carved-wood engraving. (Although some have attributed his distinctive style entirely to loss of sight in his right eye caused by an early fencing accident.)
As inspiration for Tenniel, Carroll sent a photograph of his child friend Mary Hilton Badcock. However, in a later letter written by Carroll we learn that from his point of view:
‘Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to model, and declared that he no more needed one than I should need a multiplication table to work a mathematical problem. I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of “Alice” entirely out of proportion – head decidedly too large and feet decidedly to small.’
Tenniel brought his own interpretations to the story.
In the first picture in this post, and the one immediately above, we see Alice stepping though the Looking-glass from two viewpoints. In the second illustration the hand that is pictured on the mirror in the first is partially hidden by the gauziness of the mirror as seen from the other (second) side. The focus here is on the mysterious Looking-glass itself rather than on providing a view of the extent of either the room that we are leaving or the one that we are entering. Tenniel still manages to provide tantalising tasters of the topsy turvy reflection that the reader has arrived in by paying attention to the details. For example, items such as the clock and the vase of flowers, objects immediately associated with the Looking-glass and the mantelpiece are shown, in the second illustration, with faces in a typically fairy tale move to anthropomorphise household objects. These details emphasise the magic in the text as well as the transition from the ordinary home to the Looking-glass room where things are ‘…as different as possible’ (Carroll. Alice, p. 186). The detail goes beyond the narrative as far as the monogram at the bottom right of the first picture which has been flipped into its Looking-glass position and form. However, the mark of the engraver, the Dalziel brothers (the wood engravers responsible for all of Tenniel’s illustrations) remains the same. This amount of detail is part of the charm of these illustrations.
Tenniel’s satirical background is evident through nods to the world outside of Wonderland or the Looking-glass world. For example, it has been suggested that the man dressed in white paper pictured in the above illustration of Alice travelling by train through the Looking-glass world, resembles Tenniel’s illustrations of Benjamin Disraeli in Punch, and that Tenniel and Carroll may have had in mind the ‘white papers’ often found engulfing statesmen. Alice herself is modelled on Millais’s painting My First Sermon (1863), but here the bible becomes Alice’s pocketbook.
Tenniel’s experience as a cartoonist inevitably brought the kind of clear and distinctive illustration necessary for the conveyance of a snappy message or joke, as well as the pop-culture references of the time, that become shorthand for a satirist. Tenniel’s illustrations thus seem to inform the reader about Carroll’s story and characters, but also about the period in which they were created and the man/men that made them.
Another instalment of the series is on its way soon…