Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has inspired vast numbers of illustrations over the years. Illustrations by various artists, such as Peter Newell and Arthur Rackham, can be seen in the essay we read for this week by Roni Natov. Also featured among these images are illustrations by John Tenniel, who worked closely with Carroll and whose illustrations accompanied the novel upon its original publication .
John Tenniel was born in London in February 1820. He studied at the Royal Academy, but as an illustrator and cartoonist he was primarily self-taught. He exhibited (and sold) a painting at the Society of British Artists at the age of 16, and he later exhibited at the Royal Academy as well. He worked on illustrations for several books, including Thomas James’s Aesop’s Fables and Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man. Tenniel is also well-known for his cartoon work for Punch, a Victorian humor magazine begun in 1841. He contributed many illustrations to the magazine, becoming chief artist in 1846 and keeping the position until his retirement in 1901. In 1864, Tenniel agreed to work with Carroll on the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, creating 42 wood engravings to accompany the story. Tenniel was knighted in 1893, and he died nine years later in February 1914.
Tenniel’s illustrations provide a detailed mirror of the events in Carroll’s text. The first illustration of the story, depicting the White Rabbit, helps to ease the reader into Alice’s fantasy world as seamlessly as Carroll accomplishes this transition in the text. In the story, Alice notices a “white rabbit with pink eyes” who becomes remarkable not when he speaks but when he takes a watch from his waistcoat-pocket. Tenniel’s illustration likewise combines elements of the natural and familiar to create a new and unusual scene. The rabbit is depicted naturalistically and is placed in a realistic field of grass and dandelions. His clothes and pocket-watch are familiar objects as well. However, the combination of these elements, in addition to his upright posture and human hands (a feature shared by many of the animals in the illustrations), creates something unexpected and signals the entrance into a world of fantasy. As the story continues, Tenniel’s illustrations capture the nonsense and peculiarity of the world that Alice travels through, reflecting Carroll’s story and creating an enduring appeal for readers today.