Picture origins

Lewis Carroll is not the only one who based his work on elements out of his environment. Sir John Tenniel also based some pictures he drew for the Alice books on existing works, or added other hidden things into them. Take a good look!

Note that mistakes in Tenniel’s illustrations are described elsewhere on this site.

`Now I declare that’s too bad!’ Humpty Dumpty cried, breaking into a sudden passion. `You’ve been listening at doors — and behind trees — and down chimneys — or you couldn’t have known it!’
`I haven’t, indeed!’ Alice said very gently. `It’s in a book.’
`Ah, well! They may write such things in a book,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a calmer tone. `That’s what you call a History of England, that is.


Ballet dancing positions

Tenniel’s father was among others a dancing master, and there are several indirect references to the ballet in his ‘Punch’ cartoons. In his illustrations for ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, we can find all five starting and ending positions of the classical ballet:

Dancing positions“As Martin Garner notes, the lobster turns out his feet in roughly a straight line and with heels touching, which corresponds to the first position in ballet. Alice herself seems to have twisted her body slightly while handling the thimble to the Dodo, so that her feet are roughly in the fourth (crossed) position. The Knave of Hearts stands with his feet turned outward, nearly in a straight line and separated by several inches, as in second position. Finally, as Frankie Morris points out, in Tenniel’s picture of the two footmen the Fish stands in the third position (one foot before the other, with the heel resting against the instep) while the Frog performs a demi-plié in fifth position (one foot before the other, the heel resting against the big toe).

Tenniel’s renderings of the Knave suggests that it cannot be coincidence that all five positions are depicted, and then each once only. In order to depict his carrying of the crown most effectively, the Knave’s face and upper torso were presented in profile, but his legs are wrenched around so that we see them in three-quarter view. Obviously if the whole body were viewed from the side, the balletic position of the feet would not be visible.

Again, Alice’s stance in the Dodo picture would be unconfortable to attain unless we assume her just to have completed a pirouette.

Coincidence also seems ruled out by the near absense of ballet positions (or indeed of any dance steps) among Tenniel’s ‘Looking-Glass’ illustrations. To have repeated the joke would have weakened it. The only Looking-Glass characters to adopt a ballet position (the first position) are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (The Walrus’s similar stance can be explained by his flippers naturally sticking outwards)

Tenniels does not depict the port de bras (the position of the arms and hands) corresponding to each position of the feet, but (as Morris notes) he does show the Frog-Footman rounding his elbows in the manner enjoined by Tenniel’s father when teaching deportment. […]

Moreover, other characters in ‘Alice’s Adventures’ occasionally appear to be on the verge of dancing: Father William’s son twists his legs awkwardly, and even the Queen of Hearts seems to bend her knee and thrusts her foot sideways as if about to step out in a minuet.

Why did Tenniel introduce the ballet motif into his ‘Alice’ illustrations? There is probably no great mystery here. As elsewhere, he simply added humorous details to his drawings – details which, in this case, had an autobiographical reference.”

(Source: Lockwood, D., ‘Pictorial Puzzles from Alice’, The Carrolian, no. 14, autumn 2004)

The Mad Hatter

Carroll might have suggested that Tenniel should draw the Mad Hatter to resemble Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer near Oxford.

Carter was known in the area as the Mad Hatter, partly because he always wore a top hat and partly because of his eccentric ideas. He invented for example an ‘alarm clock bed’, which woke the sleeper by tossing him out. Perhaps this is why Carroll’s hatter is so concerned with the time and arousing the sleepy Dormouse? (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.93)

However, according to Oxford local historian Mark Davies there is hardly any reason why the Hatter should be based on Carter. He thinks is more likely that the Hatter is Thomas Randall, a local tailor who referred to himself as ‘a hatter’. Alice Liddell knew him and sometimes took his retriever Rover out for a walk.

It is also often suggested that Tenniel made the Mad Hatter resemble the politician Disraeli. There is not much proof for this claim, however it appears to be quite plausible a theory if you compare this picture of Disraeli that appeared in Vanity Fair, with the illustration of the Hatter:

Fragment of a drawing of Disraeli in Vanity Fair mad-hatter

Left: Disraeli in Vanity Fair, by Carlo Pellegrini. Right: Tenniel’s Mad Hatter

However, Mark Davies arguments that it also may have been Thomas Randall, an Oxford tailor and hosier.

The Duchess

Tenniel's duchessThe portrait of ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’ (1513), painted by the Flemish Renaissance painter Quintin Massys, or a very similar one like Francesco Melzi’s (1510-20; second image on the left), could have served as a model for Tenniel’s Duchess.

The ‘Ugly Duchess’ on the painting is supposed to be Margaretha Maultasch, a fourteenth-century duchess of Tyrol and princess of Carinthia. “Maultasch” (meaning ‘pocket-mouth’) was a name given to her because of the shape of her mouth. She had the reputation of being the ugliest woman in history.

We don’t know how much the Massys’ painting resembles the real duchess, because it was painted 200 years after her death.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.82 and Stoffell, S. Lovett, Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. The life and times of Alice and her creator, 1997, p.76)

'A Grotesque Old Woman' by Quintin Massys painting by Francesco Melzi's

The ape in the pool of tears

“They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank–the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.”

When we take a good look at Tenniel’s drawings of the animals from the pool of tears, we can see that the party mainly consist of birds, and some other animals that are used to living near the water (crabs and a beaver). The most remarkable animal in the party is the ape, who is present in both illustrations. It is often said that this ape is a reference to Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ (1859).

Dodgson started to write ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ only three years after Darwin had published his book. Dodgson was aware of the implications of Darwin’s work, and owned several books by Darwin and his followers. Perhaps Dodgson introduced the ape as a sly comment on the controversy surrounding the evolution theory. After all, in this scene these creatures emerged from the water and came to land.

The ape is not mentioned in the text about the pool of tears. However, David Lockwood suggests that the ape is Pat, the White Rabbit’s servant. Judging by his language (“Sure then I’m here! Digging for apples, yer honour” / “Sure, it’s an arm, yer honour!’ (He pronounced it `arrum.’)”), Pat is Irish. Furthermore, ‘Irish apple’ is a slang term for ‘potato’ (although apparently the expression was only used by English people). Many cartoons of the Victorian period depict Irishmen as ape-like creatures. In ‘Punch’ cartoons of the mid to late nineteenth century, the Irish worker is nearly always represented with a bestial jaw and beetling brows, and is invariably named ‘Pat’ or ‘Paddy’.
(Source: Lockwood, D., ‘Pictorial Puzzles from Alice’, The Carrolian, no. 14, autumn 2004)

The dodo

Painting of a dodoTenniel's illustration of the DodoIn the University Museum in Oxford you can find this painting of the Dodo (1651) by Jan Savery and the remains of a dodo. Both these provided inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice Liddell liked to visit the Museum.




Father William

The illustrations of Father William may be based on Benjamin Jowett, an Oxford professor who taught Greek at Christ Church (source: David Day, “Alice’s Adventures Decoded”). Father William’s strange activities that are described in the poem, may also refer to his attempts at reformations (source: Jo Elwyn Jones and J. Francis Gladstone, “The Alice Companion”).

Father William (by John Tenniel) versus Benjamin Jowett (photo by Charles Dodgson)

Father William (by John Tenniel) versus Benjamin Jowett (photo by Charles Dodgson)

The Caterpillar

When you take a close look at the picture of the Caterpillar, you’ll see that his nose and chin are really two of its legs!

The Mock Turtle

The Mock Turtle is a reference to green turtle soup, usually made from veal. This is why Tenniel drew his Mock Turtle with the head, hind hoofs, and tail of a calf.(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.124)

The Knave of Hearts

Tenniel shaded the nose of the Knave of Hearts on trial. This was a convention among cartoonists to suggest that the portrayed person is a drunk. Victorians thought of criminals as heavy drinkers.

Tenniel also darkened the noses of the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts.

(source: Martin Gardner, “The annotated Alice – 150th anniversary deluxe edition”, p.145)

Alice going through the Looking Glass

There are two pictures of Alice crawling through the mirror on the chimney-piece. In the second picture everything is reversed. Tenniel even reversed his monogram!

The Old Sheep Shop

Alice and the sheep in the shopIn ‘Through the Looking Glass’ Alice meets an old, knitting sheep in a shop. In the photograph you can see the actual shop in Oxford on which that part was based.

In Carroll’s time, it was a candy shop and Alice often went there to buy her favorite sweets. The woman who owned the shop at the time was old, had a very bleaty voice and was always knitting. That’s why Carroll changed her into a knitting sheep. As the book was about a land behind the mirror, Tenniel’s picture is a mirror image of the real shop.

Nowadays it is a souvenir shop, where you can buy lots of Alice in Wonderland things. You can find it at 83 Saint Aldgate’s Street, Oxford.

Photograph of the Old Sheep Shop in Oxford

The White Knight

Ever noticed that the picture of the White Knight bears a remarkable resemblance to Tenniel himself? John Tenniel however didn’t have a handlebar mustache at the time he drew the illustration.

The White Knight being thrown off his horse Photograph of Sir John Tenniel
This 15th-century bronze medallion of an Italian Renaissance ruler may be another source for Tenniel’s White Knight (Rembrandt also borrowed the figure, in reverse, for an etching).(source: Stoffel, S. Lovett, Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. The life and times of Alice and her creator, 1997, p.109)

Alice and the White Knight Medallion of a medieval knight

Alice on the train

Alice in the train carriageThe man dressed in white paper, who Alice meets when she travels by train through the 3rd square, is a political joke; Tenniel’s illustration shows a cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli, who was Prime Minister when Carroll lived.

Carroll and Tenniel may have had in mind the ‘white papers’ (official documents) with which such statesmen are surrounded. Before he illustrated the Alice books, Tenniel had once portrayed Disraeli in a Government White Paper suit.

The drawing of Alice appears to be a composition of ‘My First Sermon’ and ‘My Second Sermon’, two paintings by the Victorian artist John Everett Millais. Carroll mentioned the first painting in his dairy, in an entry describing a visit to Millais. However, the similarities may be coincidential, as apparantly there were several images in his time that show little girls in railway carriages, dressed exactly like Alice, including the muff.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.218 and Jones and Gladstone, The Alice Companion, 1998, p.65.)

painting 'My first sermon' painting 'My second sermon'

Kate M. Bunting, a visitor of my website, pointed out to me that there might be another painting that served as an inspiration for Tenniel’s illustration. The image on the left is a painting from Augustus Leopold Egg, called “The Travelling Companions” (1862). There are indeed striking resemblances if you look at the compartment windows and hats.

painting 'The travelling companions'

Haigha, the Anglo-Saxon messenger

Haigha is being described as “wriggling like an eal … with his hands spread out like fans on each side”. The White King tells Alice that these are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Indeed, this posture can be seen in Anglo-Saxon images. Besides the stance, the outfit of the messenger also looks Anglo-Saxon.

Compare Tenniel’s illustration for example with the figure of King Edgar in the foundation charter for the new Minster at Winchester: (source: Melanie Borchers, “A linguistic Analysis of Lewis Carroll’s Poem ‘Jabberwocky’, The Carrollian, no.24)

Haigha versus King Edgar

The Lion and the Unicorn

Various turns of phrase, animated with Tenniel’s illustration, suggest that the Unicorn too is Benjamin Disraeli (who Carroll, as a Tory, supported), and the Lion his Liberal rival, William Ewart Gladstone. There is no real proof for this, however they do resemble Tenniel’s cartoons of them which he drew for the magazine ‘Punch’.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.288)

Benjamin Disraeli    William GladstoneIllustration of the Lion and the Unicorn

Tweedledee and Tweedledum

The brothers Tweedledee and Tweedledum are clearly meant to be identical twins, who are mirror images of eachother (thereby supporting the Looking-Glass theme of the book).

If we take a look at the image where they are preparing for battle, the right hand of one of the brothers mirrors the left hand of the other. Also, the folds on the blanket each trails behind him are identical. If one of them moved somewhat to the left, they would stand before eachother as before a mirror.

The clasping of their hands in the first illustration reminds us of the characteristically pose from the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who toured in freakshows that were widely covered in the Victorian press.
(Source: Lockwood, D., ‘Pictorial Puzzles from Alice’, The Carrolian, no. 14, autumn 2004)


The King’s men

The Alice books contain many instances of both Dodgson and Tenniel making fun of the mid-Victorian obsession with all things medieval. Tenniel’s illustration of the King’s men who rush to Humpty Dumpty after he has fallen off the wall, is an example.

The figure who lies face upwards and arms outstretched in the centre foreground, is a reference to the long-standing iconographical tradition in paintings of battle scenes, where these figures serve as a focal point in an otherwise confusing mêlée of arms and legs.

While the figures in the background of Tenniel’s picture are conventional medieval knights, whose armour suggests that they date from the thirteenth of fourteenth centuries, the infantrymen in the foreground wear the distinctive helmets and baggy breeches of the Swiss Guard, and bear muskets. Since both the Swiss Guard and the invention of the musket date from the early sixteenth century, the picture is chronologically impossible.
(Source: Lockwood, D., ‘Pictorial Puzzles from Alice’, The Carrolian, no. 14, autumn 2004)

Alice’s dress

Lewis Carroll wanted to keep Alice fashionable. That is why her dress changes, when you compare the illustrations of her in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there”, and “The Nursery Alice”. For example, the pleats in the skirt she wears in “The Nursery Alice” where highly fashionable in 1886, when the book was supposed to come out. (Unfortunately, it was already out of fashion when the book was actually published in 1889). (source: Keira Vaclavik, presentation during the ‘Alice 150’ conference, New York, 9 October 2015)

However, Carroll always hated crinoline fashion. Therefore he objected to several pictures drawn by Tenniel, in which Alice was wearing a crinoline skirt after she became a queen. Tenniel redrew the illustrations. Here you can see a ‘before’ and ‘after’ illustration. (source: Justin Schiller and Selwyn Goodacre, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: An 1865 Printing Redescribed”, The Jabberwock, 1990) 


The engraver

In case you’re wondering whose name it is that you see on most of the illustrations (not Tenniel’s monogram): it is the last name of Edward Dalziel, the engraver.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.186)

In many editions of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, you can find the name “B. ROLLITZ” on the left margin of the card hidden by the six of spades, in the illustration of the shower of cards . B. Rollitz engraved new plates for the Limited Editions Club publication in 1932. Many publishers copied these in stead of the original wood engravings from Dalziel. (source: Martin Gardner, “The Annotated Alice – 150th anniversary deluxe edition”, p.146)