Reading the Collections, Week 11: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Having just been on holiday to the Lake District with its numerous literary connections, and having visited several of the places relating to the children’s stories of Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, I thought how much these books are defined as much by the story as the perhaps more well-known illustrations. You only have to read the Tale of Peter Rabbit to have the picture of Peter Rabbit eating a carrot come to mind. Seeing Arthur Ransome’s line drawings for Picts and Martyrs on the wall at the Museum of Lakeland Life in Kendal, the story and words describing the scene in the illustrations immediately sprang to mind. I decided for this post to look though the Special Collection books to see if there were any similar story and illustrator pairings amongst the collections.

Amongst the many classic children’s books in our collections are Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrated by John Tenniel and the C S Lewis Narnia books illustrated by Pauline Baynes. The initial author and illustrator pairings have become so tightly linked in the reader’s mind that even though other illustrators may have illustrated later editions, the first pairing of author and illustrator are regularly re-issued and even used as the basis for the style of films.

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“Yet you balance an eel on the end of your nose – What made you so awfully clever” p42 – Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel r PR4611.A6F90

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it could be said that this book’s presentation has never been bettered since it was first published. Tenniel’s name is now linked to Alice almost to the exclusion of all his other work, even though he was not satisfied with the illustrations for the first edition and asked for them to be destroyed. The University Library holds several copies of Alice illustrated by Tenniel, including: one copy published in 1870; a Folio Society edition first published in 1961 and re-issued in 1990, with the illustrations printed in burgundy colour rather than black; and a copy illustrated by Margaret W Tarrant, a renowned children’s author and illustrator, published in 1929.

Before Alice in Wonderland was published Carroll had already produced a manuscript version (called ‘Alice’s Adventure Under Ground’) of the tale for Alice Liddell which he had illustrated himself. Alice’s manuscript is now held at the British Library and can be seen on-line.

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The Mouse’s Tale p 37 –Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

He carefully planned the layout and style of the writing and positions of the illustrations set within the text and used this to show the publisher how to layout the text and images – forcing the publisher to use new and unusual methods of printing – such as setting the Mouse’s Tale in the shape of a mouse’s tail so it curled to and fro across the page.

Tenniel was Carroll’s choice as illustrator: Carroll probably hoped that the style and depth of detail that Tenniel brought to his Punch cartoons would match the mood generated by the book. Tenniel, however, did not have complete freedom of expression in his work as Carroll knew how he wanted the images to look and used his own manuscript drawings to guide Tenniel.

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The King and Knave at the trial of Tarts p 186 –Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

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The Pack rose up into the air and came flying at her. p 188 –Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

Tenniel’s style of detailed drawing took the real and the unreal and merged them with such success that it makes the unreal fit seamlessly into the picture, making all appear normal until you look closer. This is seen to great effect in the first image of the trial, where all the characters appear to be normal and realistic yet the King, Queen and Knave are instantly recognisable as figures from playing cards. This makes their change into (or back to) cards believable.  Another example is the picture of Alice with the puppy; where the puppy and the vegetation are all to scale. It is only when you notice Alice in the foreground that the unreal comes into focus.

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She spread out her hand and made a snatch p 48 –Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

It is also interesting to note that many of Tenniel’s illustrations are mirrored versions of Carroll’s, such as that showing Alice’s giant hand reaching out of the White Rabbit’s House – in ‘Under Ground’ (p39) Alice’s hand reaches to the left and in ‘Wonderland’ it reaches to the right.

Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Margaret W Tarrant (r PR4611.A6T2), has a completely different style of the illustrations from the Tenniel/Carroll version. They are softer and the troubling juxtapositions in the text are avoided. The characterisation is very different although many of the scenes are the same. The Cheshire cat is a dark grey kitten rather than Tenniel’s toothy striped ginger wild cat. Father William is a fisherman with jersey and boots rather than Tenniel’s country gentlemen with coat and floral waistcoat. Tarrant uses the more everyday and obvious image, normalising the scene for the viewer rather than taking the strange happenings in the text and re-enforcing those ideas within her pictures. Even when she depicts action of the narrative she sidesteps the issues. In the picture of Alice and the puppy, Alice is separated from the picture by being placed in the frame, thus the troubling fact of a large puppy, who might think of the small Alice as a toy or mouse to kill is avoided. Alice is not part of the puppy’s picture and she is separate and safe in her world.

An enormous puppy was looking down at her p 55 -Alice's adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

An enormous puppy was looking down at her p 55 -Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

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An enormous puppy was looking down at her p 62 Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by Margaret W Tarrant r PR4611.A6T2

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“Sit down both of you and don’t speak a word” p 141 –Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by John Tenniel Chi PR4611.A6E70

In Tenniel’s illustration of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, there is a gryphon of heraldic style with eagle front and lion rear; the Tarrant gryphon is a more mixed beast with fur all over, bat-like wings and talon feet. The Tarrant Mock Turtle is more representative of what Mock turtle soup is made of – calf’s head and hooves boiled in a tin whereas Carroll/Tenniel portray a composite imaginary animal.  Carroll plays on the joke of Mock Turtle whereas Tarrant is more literal.

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“Sit down both of you and don’t speak a word” p 136 Alice’s adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll; with illustrations by Margaret W Tarrant r PR4611.A6T2

Tenniel’s illustrations match Carroll’s storytelling – something which at first glance seems normal reveals layers of strangeness; like the Duchess’ baby becoming a pig and the Cheshire cat vanishing. The more you look at Tenniel’s drawings the more you see that things are not as they seem.

This close mirroring of text and illustration, in different mediums yet similar styles makes pairing of writer and illustrator so right – each has added to the other and so made a complete story. When the Alice stories were made into films (cartoon or live action) the film makers used the Tenniel illustrated book for ideas on how to visualize scenes and the characters and so it seems like a familiar friend.

-Jane Campbell
Research Cataloguer and Database Administrator

3 responses to “Reading the Collections, Week 11: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  1. The only images that belong to Alice books are those by Tenniel – really rather freaky stuff. Still they are true to the time and later versions softened the view, made it cuddly when it really was dark and creepy.

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