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Book review: The Tenniel illustrations to the ‘Alice’ books

A second edition of “The Tenniel illustrations to the ‘Alice’ books” from Michael Hancher was published last month. Read what has changed compared to the first edition and whether this second edition is (also) worth buying.

Cover of Michael Hancher's "The Tenniel illustrations to the 'Alice' books"

The first edition

For those that are not familiar with the first edition, let me first describe what the book is about.

In “The Tenniel illustrations to the ‘Alice’ books”, Hancher discusses in great detail how John Tenniel’s illustrations for both ‘Alice’ books were possibly inspired, consciously or not, by existing works of other illustrators. He also discusses what the recurring elements in Tenniel’s style of drawing are, which leads to similarities between the ‘Alice’ illustrations and his earlier work for amongst others the magazine ‘Punch’. He also tells us how much influence Carroll had on the illustrations and how much freedom Tenniel received from the author.

The first chapter, about resemblances between Tenniel’s earlier work and his Alice illustrations, is quite extensive. Later chapters are rather short and each discuss one illustration from the ‘Alice’ books specifically.

The last two chapters concern the process of woodcutting and its quality, printing techniques, and picture placement within the ‘Alice’ texts.

Changes to the second edition

Michael Hancher’s book was first published in 1985. That first edition is now out of print, so you had to find a used copy if you wanted one. But recently the Ohio State University Press released a second edition, which is definitely not the same. The first edition has been ‘updated and revised’ – but what does that mean?

According to the preface, this second edition is better based on archival resources in stead of mostly materials that were available in print at the time. Also, many scholarly literature has been published after the book came out, and now it makes use of that as well. And as the original Dalziel woodblocks were only just discovered around the time of publication, Hancher did not have the chance to include this in his book then, but has now.

This means that the contents of all chapters was updated to contain the latest available information and some have also been expanded. For example, the chapter about the illustration of the White Knight contains several extra pages. But the book also has six completely new chapters! Expectedly, it also contains more illustrations: 230 black and white illustrations in total (not all old illustrations have been retained) and as a new addition, 8 images printed in color on thicker pages.

Page from Michael Hancher's "The Tenniel illustrations to the 'Alice' books"

The new chapters deal with the following subjects:

  • Chapter 13 (‘Engraving’): the process of engraving, and changes that were made to the ‘Alice’ woodblocks.
  • Chapter 14 (‘Electrotyping’): a contemporary discussion of the advantages and limitations (and thus the quality) of using electrotype blocks compared to printing directly from woodblocks, a description of the process of electrotyping based on Victorian sources, discussion about which company produced the electrotypes for the ‘Alice’ books, and an overview of the surviving electrotypes and their auction prices.
  • Chapter 15 (‘Printing’): which companies were chosen for the printing, the printing quality problems that plagued the very first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and a discussion of its specific causes, and printing flaws in later editions.
  • Chapter 16 (‘Coloring’): the use of color in drawings for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the use of words that refer to colors in ‘Alice’ texts, the creation of (woodblocks for) the Nursery Alice illustrations, the color of Alice’s dress, and colored illustrations done by other illustrations than Tenniel.
  • Chapter 17 (‘Reengraving’): the replication of woodblocks from the original Tenniel illustrations for the limited Lewis Carroll Centenary edition published in 1932, for which editions these recreations of the illustrations were used as well, and the reproduction of illustrations for Through the Looking Glass on zinc plates.
  • Chapter 18 (‘Retrospect: looking with Alice’): how Alice reacts when she is startled, that illustrations are sometimes shown from Alice’s perspective and sometimes with her in it, how she is eager to look at the Looking Glass world, and how both she and we as the reader learn by looking.

Counting the pages to see how much content has been added is not helpful, as the pages also got a new lay-out. The notes (annotations and references) are now conveniently placed in the margins of the pages, which saves you from having to scroll to the end of the book each time.

Is the book worth buying?

By adding the new chapters about the production process of the ‘Alice’ books, Hancher’s book now more clearly consists two parts, and there is more empasis on subjects in the second part:

  1. Chapter 1 to 10: A discussion about Tenniel’s drawing style and what the ‘Alice’ illustrations are potentially based on / what may have inspired them.
  2. Chapter 11 to 17: About processing the illustrations during the publication process and the quality of the end result (used techniques, picture placement, how the illustrations changed during the process, coloring, and reproduction).

(However, it must be said that Chapter 16 is not solely about coloring techniques, but also about color choices, so it only partly fits into this distinction.)

Chapter 18 does not fit into any category at all. I think it should not even have been a chapter; it is more like an afterword that does not really make sense. Hancher does not succeed in making a clear point in these six (!) pages. It feels like he wanted to end the book with a philosophical thought, but the actual result is a disconnected jumping from subject to subject. I think this chapter should better have been left out.

When theories about what may have influenced Tenniel are discussed in the first part, the book thoroughly lists different points of view (if they exist) and arguments pro and contra, before drawing a conclusion. A large number of illustrations is encorporated into the text to illustrate the points made; not only Tenniel’s ‘Alice’ illustrations but also the (alledged) source material. This adds a lot to the credibility of the author and is also extremely informative.

Page from Michael Hancher's "The Tenniel illustrations to the 'Alice' books"

Especially in the second part, several chapters steer a bit away from the ‘Alice’ books and mainly explain processes like woodcutting or engraving in general. I think it is interesting to know a bit about the Victorian publishing process, so to me that was okay. But it is good to realize that not all (new) content is specifically aimed at the ‘Alice’ books.

So, should you buy this book?

If you don’t own the first edition, I’d say: definitely! It is a great addition to the library of everyone who wants to know more about the background of the ‘Alice’ books.

But even when you already own it, there is great value in also buying this second edition, especially if you are interested in the printing and publication process of the ‘Alice’ illustrations. And if you don’t, you probably still want to read the updated content of the original chapters.

You can buy the book through my webshop or directly from Amazon.

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