About John Tenniel and the illustrations

Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914), a well-known English illustrator and political cartoonist for the magazine ‘Punch’, made the illustrations for both Alice in Wonderland books.

Tenniel’s and Carroll’s cooperation

Photograph of Sir John TennielAuthor Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), was very fussy about how his book and the illustrations would look, so he provided Tenniel with many details and instructions.

As he was not an easy man to work with, Tenniel at first refused when Carroll asked him to also illustrate his second book. When Carroll contacted illustrator Harry Furniss about illustrating “Sylvie and Bruno”, Tenniel warned him about the author in a letter: “Dodgson is impossible! You will never put up with that conceited Don for more than a week!” (source: Zoe Jaques and Eugene Gidders, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A Publishing History”, Ashgate Studies in Publishing History, Ashgate Publishing, 2016) Even though Carroll contacted many other illustrators, none of them met his standards or was willing to take on the work. Only after two and a half years of persuading, Tenniel finally agreed to also illustrate “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there” as well, being it only ‘in the time he could find’.

That doesn’t mean Tenniel’s illustrations were exactly what Carroll described they should be. Tenniel had quite a lot of freedom to give his own interpretation to the illustrations. On several occasions, Carroll was very much willing to accept the artist’s ideas, and in the illustrations the typical style of Tenniel is recognizable. When Tenniel complained about having to draw a Walrus and a Carpenter, Carroll was willing to change the characters of his poem for him.

The influence Tenniel had on Carroll is illustrated by the fact that Carroll recalled the first edition of his book, only because Tenniel expressed dissatisfaction about the quality of the printing of the pictures. Also, Carroll dropped an entire chapter from his book on Tenniel’s suggestion.

Tenniel may even have added his own subtle references in the illustrations: read about the origins behind Tenniel’s illustrations.

The making of the illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Initially, Carroll wanted to use his own manuscript illustrations for the official publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland“. However, he was discouraged to do that and eventually admitted that he needed a professional illustrator.

Around 25 January 1864, he contacted John Tenniel to illustrate his book. His initial intent was to order 12 woodblocks (later he would expand that number, as he realised that the value of a book would be associated with the number of illustrations). At first, Tenniel was reluctant to take on the commission as he was busy with other projects. On 5 April 1864, Tenniel finally consented. The fee agreed was £138.

On 2 May 1864, Carroll sent Tenniel the first piece of slip set up for Alice’s Adventures. Tenniel’s first drawing on wood of the White Rabbit scurrying away from Alice was inspected by Carroll on 12 October 1864, and 34 illustrations were agreed.

On 28 October 1864, the Dalziel brothers showed Carroll proofs of several of Tenniel’s pictures. The cost for the engraving of Tenniel’s plates by the Dalziels was £142 for 42 plates.

On 8th April 1865, Tenniel was working on the 30th picture. Carroll sent the galley proofs for all the text to Tenniel on May 1865, so he could complete the illustrations. In the end, forty-two illustrations were completed – twice as many as Carroll initially anticipated.

(Sources: Jones and Gladstone, “Alice Companion”, 1998, pages 253-5, and: Zoe Jaques and Eugene Gidders, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A Publishing History”, Ashgate Studies in Publishing History, Ashgate Publishing, 2016)

The making of the illustrations for Through the Looking Glass

Carroll worked much more in parallel with his illustrator for “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there” than he did for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, for which the illustrations were only drawn after the text was finished. This time, he already started looking for an illustrator in 1868, around the time he started on the actual writing of his sequel. While writing the text, Carroll determined exactly where the illustrations should go. He calculated the page numbers for the illustrations in advance, and determined the amount of space (the number of lines) that a picture would need.

Carroll wanted John Tenniel to also illustrate his sequel, but Tenniel initially refused, being busy and probably not willing to put up with the difficult author again. Carroll then contacted Richard Doyle, another illustrator for Punch, but he declined. Carroll kept trying to secure Tenniel, but on 8 April 1868 Carroll reported Tenniel’s warning that there was “no chance of his being able to do pictures for me until the year after next, if then. I must now try Noel Paton.”

However, on 19 May, Noel Paton wrote that he was too ill and urged Carroll to persist with Tenniel. Carroll, in desperation, offered to pay Punch for his time ‘for the next five months’ to free him to illustrate the second Alice. In the meantime, he briefly considered William Schwenck Gilbert.

On 18 June 1868, Tenniel made what Carroll described as a ‘kind offer to do the pictures (at such spare times as he can find)’. Carroll accepted, but apparently it was still not all set, as he also contacted John Proctor about illustrating his book – who rejected. Tenniel’s services were finally definitively secured on the 1st of November. Tenniel hoped the illustrations would be ready by Christmas 1869. But indeed, he was so busy with other work that Carroll only saw the first ten rough sketches on 20 January 1870.

On 12 March 1870, Carroll and Tenniel met for two hours in London to set out the plans for 30 more pictures, having already sent three to the Dalziel Brothers at Camden Press for ‘cutting’.

Initially, the number of illustrations was set around 42, just like the amount in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Over the course of time, this number was increased to 50.

Carroll sent the completed galleys, including the Wasp incident, to Tenniel on 16 January 1871 for pasting up and illustrating. Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock was originally intended as the book’s frontispiece, but on March 1871 Carroll decided to move the picture to the text pages and substituted the White Knight as the frontispiece.

As of 25 April 1871, Carroll had still only received 27 pictures. Tenniel now hoped to complete them by July. This also did not work out, as the illustrations were not ready in time to have the book printed before Michaelmas. Therefore, it was decided that the book would be published right before Christmas 1871.

When it came out, Tenniel again was dissatisfied with the printing quality of the illustrations. Although Carroll suggested to Macmillan that the second batch of printed copies should be destroyed, this did not happen and no books were recalled.

(Sources: Jones and Gladstone, “Alice Companion”, 1998, pages 253-5, and: Zoe Jaques and Eugene Gidders, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A Publishing History”, Ashgate Studies in Publishing History, Ashgate Publishing, 2016)

Illustrations for ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’

In the original manuscript of the book, Carroll drew his own illustrations. His drawings of Alice were not modelled after Alice Liddell either.

It is suggested that he was inspired by paintings by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti (modeled by Annie Miller) and his friend Arthur Hughes. Carroll owned Hughes’ oil painting ‘Girl with Lilacs’. (source: Clarkson N. Potter, “Lewis Carroll the Pre-Raphaelite”, in ‘Lewis Carroll Observed’, 1976)

Illustrations for ‘the Nursery Alice’

Drawing of Sir John TennielFor the ‘The Nursery Alice’, 20 of Tenniel’s illustrations were enlarged, colorized, and some of them were even slightly redrawn. Among others, Alice’s dresses were drawn with less crinoline. Dalziel’s signature has been removed from all Nursery illustrations.

The book was colour-printed by Edward Evans and the cover was drawn by Carroll’s friend and life-drawing teacher, E. Gertrude Thomson.

Carroll recorded in his diary on 29 March 1885, that twenty illustrations for The Nursery “Alice” ‘are now being coloured by Mr Tenniel’, and by 10 July he was able to report that ‘Mr Tenniel has finished the coloured pictures for The Nursery “Alice”‘; although, in fact, the author was not to start the text for another three and a half years.
(source: Brian Sibley, “Jabberwocky”, The Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society, Autumn 1975)

Some doubt has been expressed as to whether Tenniel was personally responsible for the coloring of the illustrations to The Nursery “Alice”, largely because of the advertisement which appeared in the 1886 facsimile edition of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (and later in the 1887 ‘People’s Edition’ of Alice) that announced The Nursery “Alice” as “in preparation”: “Being a selection of twenty of the pictures in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland enlarged and coloured under the Artist’s superintendence, with explanations.” It seems likely, however, that this simply refers to Tenniel’s supervision of Edward Evans’ colour printing.
(source: Brian Sibley, “Jabberwocky”, The Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society, Autumn 1975)

When The Nursery “Alice” was printed, Carroll rejected the first copies because of the coloring of the illustrations. He wrote the following to Macmillan, on June 23, 1889:

The pictures are far too bright and gaudy, and vulgarise the whole thing. None must be sold in England: to do so would be to sacrifice whatever reputation I now have for giving the public the best I can. Mr. Evans must begin again, & print 10,000 with Tenniel’s coloured pictures before him: and I must see all the proofs this time: and then we shall have a book really fit to offer to the public … The picture at p. 44 is enough by itself, to spoil the whole book!

The picture he referred to in the last line was the illustration of the Queen of Hearts pointing at Alice. Carroll thought her face was much too red. (source: Martin Gardner, “The Annotated Alice – 150th anniversary deluxe edition”)

Tenniel’s original drawings remained black and white for over 40 years until 1911, when eight prints in each book were hand colored.

Creating the woodblocks

According to Rodney Engen, Tenniel’s biographer, Tenniel’s method for creating the illustrations of the Alice books was the same as the method he used for Punch, namely preliminary pencil drawings, further drawings in ‘ink and Chinese white’ to simulate the wood engraver’s line, then transference to the wood-block by the use of tracing paper. Then the drawings were engraved to the highest standards, in this instance by the Dalziel Brothers. Carroll appears to have ordered many (expensive!) changes to them.

The final stage in the reproduction process was to make electrotype plates from the wood-engravings, using them as masters. The electrotype plates were used for the actual printing.

Electrotype blocks

Because of the difficult process of creating wood-blocks involved, sometimes concessions had to be made as to the overall design of the illustration. For example, a character might be moved into a different position – which probably happened with the ape in the illustration of the Dodo with the thimble.

And, once wood had been removed, it could not be put back without a great deal of difficulty. A small number of Alice wood-blocks have had alterations or repairs made to them, that are in some cases detectable from the proofs which have been taken directly from the blocks. For example, the wood-block of the Hatter at the trial scene, the section showing the Hatter’s cup with a piece bitten out, had to be repaired and re-engraved.
(Source: Edward Wakeling’s paper on John Tenniel)

In 1981, the original wood-blocks were discovered in a bank vault where they had been deposited by the publisher. They are now at the British Library.
(source: Jo Elwyn Jones and J. Francis Gladstone, The Alice Companion, 1998, p.252)

Mistakes in the illustrations

Tenniel made some mistakes in his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

  • In chapter 1 we are told: “[…] she found herself in a long low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof.” In Tenniel’s illustration of Alice and the White Rabbit running through this hall, no lamps are visible however.
  • Compare Tenniel’s first drawing of the White Rabbit with his second one. In the latter, the Rabbit’s vest is checked just like his jacket.
  • When Alice meets the Cheshire Cat sitting in a tree, he vanishes and reappears again at once. When Alice walks on, he reappears again on a branch. This time, he disappears more slowly, on Alice’s request. However, the picture of this slow vanishing shows the Cheshire Cat sitting in exactly the same tree as he was in when Alice met him before walking on.
  • In two illustrations, the Hatter’s bow tie has a pointed end on his left. In a later illustration, the pointed end is on his right.
  • The Queen of Hearts’ dress is in fact not modelled after the outfit of a 19th century Queen of Hearts playing card, but the dress of a Queen of Spades card! (source: Hancher, Michael, The Tenniel Illustrations to the Alice books, Ohio State University Press, 1985) It is unclear whether Tenniel intentionally chose another suit as a model for the queen’s outfit.
  • If you compare the frontispiece illustration with the second illustration of the King of Hearts during court, there are several inconsistencies: the crown is different, spectacles have appeared, the orb and sceptre have disappeared, and the court officials have fallen asleep.

Also in “Through the Looking Glass”, some errors were made:

  • In “Though the Looking Glass”, the illustrations show the Kings wearing the same crowns as the Queens. Kings are supposed the have crowns with a cross on top. It is unsure whether this is a mistake in the illustrations, or perhaps a request from Carroll to remove any possible references to Christianity?
  • Also, read the passage of the chapter about Tweedledum and Tweedledee, when they are preparing for the fight. It says that Tweedledum has a saucepan on his head, and that, when they are finished with dressing, Tweedledum will get the sword and Tweedledee the umbrella. But when you look at the picture, it is Tweedledee who has the sword, and he already has it while Alice is still busy dressing them. I’m also wondering about the bolster she put onto Tweedledee’s neck; is the bolster perhaps the thing that Tweedledum is wearing below his saucepan…?
  • According to Lewis Carroll, Tenniel also drew the rattle the wrong way. In a letter to Henry Savile Clark, dating November 29, 1886, Carroll states that Tenniel had drawn a watchman’s rattle in stead of a child’s rattle. He was certain that the latter was meant in the old nursery rhyme. (source: Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice – 150th anniversary deluxe edition, p.227)

And then there are some inconsistencies between the enlarged and colored illustrations of The Nursery Alice, which are partly caused by the fact that the cover image was drawn by E. Gertrude Thomson in stead of John Tenniel:

  • In three of the images Alice retains the double-line of stitching at the bottom of her dress, but in others this has been omitted.
  • During the baby-pig episode, the ribbon adorning its cap changes from blue to red.
  • The White Rabbit’s jacket morphs from orange in the image from the opening of chapter 1 to red on the book’s front cover.
  • In the cover image, the White Rabbit’s waistcoat is replaced with a green scarf and the March Hare is also dressed differently.

(source: Zoe Jaques and Eugene Gidders, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A Publishing History”, Ashgate Studies in Publishing History, Ashgate Publishing, 2016)