About John Tenniel and the illustrations

John Tenniel as illustrator

Photograph of Sir John TennielSir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914), an English illustrator and political cartoonist for the magazine ‘Punch’, made the illustrations for both Alice in Wonderland books.

For many aspects of the illustrations, he got precise instructions from author Charles Dodgson. Therefore, we can be fairly sure that the pictures give an accurate representation of how Dodgson imagined the characters and the events.

It is said that Dodgson had driven Tenniel almost crazy by providing him with so much details and instructions, and therefore he almost turned down the request when he was asked to illustrate the sequel. However, whether this really is true, is debatable. Surviving letters seem to suggest Dodgson was quite willing to accept the artist’s ideas, and in the illustrations the typical style of Tenniel is recognizable. He may even have added his own subtle references in the illustrations.

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

It did, however, indeed take long for Tenniel to accept the job of illustrating ‘Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there’, probably because he had a very busy schedule. Dodgson therefore was forced to consider other illustrators. Fortunately, none of these plans came through and finally, after two and a half years of persuading, Tenniel did agree to illustrate the second book as well, being it only ‘in the time he could find’.

Creating the illustrations

According to Rodney Engen, Tenniel’s biographer, his 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.

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)

The following chronology of the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland is coming from Jones’ and Gladstone’s Alice Companion, 1998, pages 253-5:

25 January 1864:
Carroll asked Tenniel to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

5 April 1864:
Tenniel consented. The fee agreed was £138.

2 May 1864:
Carroll sent Tenniel the first piece of slip set up for Alice’s Adventures

12 October 1864:
Tenniel’s first drawing on wood of the White Rabbit scurrying away from Alice was inspected by Carroll and 34 illustrations were agreed

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

May 1865:
Carroll sent the galley proofs for all the text to Tenniel so he could complete the illustrations. Forty-two illustrations were completed

June 1865:
The Clarendon Press, Oxford, printed 2000 copies of Alice’s Adventures at a cost of £131

20 July 1865
Tenniel objected to the quality of this first printing and Carroll rejected it

November 1865:
Richard Clay, the new printers, achieved an edition which satisfied Tenniel and Carroll. Carroll proposed to employ them again if he wrote a second Alice

Carroll wrote to Alice that, including the People’s Edition and the first translations into foreign tongues, 120,000 copies of Wonderland had sold

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.’

19 May 1868:
Noel Paton urged Carroll to persist with Tenniel. So did Ruskin. Carroll, in desperation, offered to pay Punch for his time ‘for the next five months’ to free him to illustrate the second Alice

18 June 1868:
Tenniel made what Carroll described as a ‘kind of offer to do the pictures (at such spare time as he can find)’. Tenniel hoped the illustrations would be ready by Christmas 1869

12 January 1869:
Carroll sent the first chapter of Looking-Glass to Alexander Macmillan

20 January 1870:
Carroll saw the first ten Tenniel sketches for the pictures of Looking-Glass

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’

4 January 1871:
Carroll finished the manuscript of Looking-Glass

16 January 1871:
Carroll sent the completed galleys, including the Wasp incident, to Tenniel for pasting up and illustrating

March 1871:
Carroll moved the picture of the Jabberwock to the text pages and substituted the White Knight as the frontispiece

25 April 1871:
To this date, Carroll only received 27 pictures. Tenniel now hoped to complete them by July

21 November 1871:
Carroll sent authorization to Clay by telegraph to electrotype ‘all the rest of the Looking-Glass. I afterwards sent two corrections by post. So ends my part of the work.’

30 November 1871:
Macmillan advised Carroll that they already had orders for 7500 copies: 9000 were to be printed and a further 6000 were ordered

6 December 1871:
Carroll received the first copy of Looking-Glass

15 December 1871:
Carroll sent the Dalziel brothers a cheque for £203.16 for the engraving

27 January 1872:
15,000 copies of the story had been sold

Tenniel agreed to supervise the colouring of 20 illustrations for The Nursery Alice. The book was colour-printed by Edward Evans and the cover was drawn by Carroll’s friend and life-drawing teacher, E. Gertrude Thomson.

Elsewhere on this site you can read more about the origins behind John Tenniel’s illustrations.

Mistakes in the illustrations

Tenniel made some mistakes in his illustrations.

  • 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.
  • 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)

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.

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)

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)

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.