Tenniel and Alice in Wonderland

When Charles Dodgson – or Lewis Carroll as he is more famously known – first created a story about a little girl falling down a rabbit hole, he could not have imagined the international success it was to become.  The story is, of course, iconic, but inextricably linked to the tale are the illustrations of some of the most famous scenes – the Cheshire cat grinning in the tree, the Queen of Hearts or the croquet match to name but a few.  Even for those who have not had contact with the story since childhood, these are images which remain part of our cultural consciousness and are instantly recognisable.  Carroll may have been behind much of the inspiration for the characters we know today, but it was John Tenniel, born on this day 200 years ago, who captured the essence of Carroll’s imagination and transformed his ideas into some of the most famous characters in children’s literature. 

Famously, the story was created on 4 July 1862, on a summer afternoon’s boat trip down the Thames.  Alice, aged 10 at the time, asked Carroll to tell her and her two sisters, Edith and Lorina¸ a story, which he named Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which Alice loved so much she begged him to write it down on their return.  Between November 1862 and February 1863 he began to write and draw out his ideas for the story.   He did not consider himself a particularly good artist, however, and required the help of his brother, Wilfred, for the execution of some of the sketches.  These were to be carved onto woodblocks for the Clarendon Press, but Carroll’s first attempts were somewhat maligned, and he relented to approaching a professional illustrator to create the works.  Being particularly enamoured with the works of the satirical cartoonist, John Tenniel, who famously worked on the cartoons in Punch he requested an introduction through Tom Taylor:

“Do you know Mr Tenniel enough to be able to say whether he could undertake such a thing as drawing a dozen wood-cuts to illustrate a child’s book, and if so, could you put me into communication with him.  The reasons for which I ask… are that I have written a tale for a young friend, and illustrated it in pen and ink.  It has been read and liked by so many children, and I have been so often asked to publish it, that I have decided on doing so.  I have tried my hand at drawing on the wood and come to the conclusion that it would take more time than I can afford, and that the result would not be satisfactory after all”.

On 25 January 1864, Carroll notes in his diary that he had met John Tenniel at his home and stated “he was very friendly, and seemed to think favourably of undertaking the pictures, but must see the book before deciding”.  The next mention is on 5 April 1864 – “Heard from Tenniell (sic) that he consents to draw the pictures for “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” which cemented the link between the two men and over the course of the next 18 months Tenniel based most of his illustrations on Carroll’s initial ideas.  Carroll sent on illustrations in a rather piecemeal fashion, partly to keep the full storyline a secret until the last possible moment, but also because he simply had not decided what they would look like.  It took Tenniel several months to finish his pictures for Carroll and the pair had regular correspondence and a frequent exchange of thoughts and ideas about how the illustrations should look.  Tenniel, as Carroll’s employee, had to follow his whims and change things accordingly, though found him somewhat controlling.  He was, however, able to affect some change to Carroll’s plans, and appealed to his sense of logic in order to do so; for example, changing Alice’s croquet mallet from being an ostrich (as Carroll had envisaged it) to a flamingo instead which would be easier for a small girl to manage.  Despite slight artistic differences, both men were united by their fastidious nature and insistence on quality and when the Press produced the first copies, they were horrified by the poor quality of the print and concluded that the entire print run would need to be done again, and was assigned to Macmillan who released the first published edition of the newly titled Alice in Wonderland in 1865.

Within the collections at Christ Church Library are Carroll’s original sketches for Wonderland that were used as direct inspiration for Tenniel.  We are also very lucky to have Carroll’s precise instructions to the printers showing exactly how Tenniel’s illustrations were to be incorporated into the printed pages.  There are also some manuscript title-page drafts in Carroll’s hand which show the mis-spelling of Tenniel’s name as recorded in his diary above.