John Tenniel and his Illustration of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Lewis Carroll originally illustrated Wonderland himself, but his artistic abilities were sparse. An old engraver who had worked for Carroll in 1859 had reviewed Carroll’s drawings and had suggested him to employ a professional illustrator. Carroll was a consistent reader of ‘Punch’ magazine and was therefore familiar with Tenniel’s work. In 1865 after a long talk with Carroll, John Tenniel illustrated the first edition of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’


John Tenniel was an illustrator from Britain and a political cartoonist famous in the later part of the 19th century. His artistic achievements were given recognition in 1893. John Tenniel is remembered as an important cartoonist for the Punch magazine where he worked for over 50 years, and for his illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). Despite all the fame through Punch magazine, most of Tenniel’s fame are rooted from his illustrations for Alice. Tenniel drew ninety-two drawings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most often, Carroll gave Tenniel precise instruction on what must be drawn, which was not only about visual preference but also a special way to feature certain references into the story.

In addition, illustrators have a specified style, and are also knowingly and unknowingly influenced by their environment and past. Therefore Tenniel’s drawing style, jokes and other ‘trademarks’ are not essentially precise for the Alice books, but can also be found in his other works.


The Nazarene movement brought about a style that influenced many artists such as Tenniel. This style can be categorized as “shaded outlines” where the lines on the drawings are given extra thickness or are drawn as double lines proposing shading or volume. This style is also extremely precise, with the artist making a hard, defined outline along its figures.

After the 1850s, Tenniel’s style modernized to feature more detail in backgrounds and in figures. In addition to a change in background, Tenniel developed a new interest in human forms and expressions and that was something that carried over into Tenniel’s illustrations of Wonderland. Additional change in style was his shaded lines. These transformed from mechanical horizontal lines to actively hand-drawn hatching that greatly intensified darker areas.


Tenniel’s “grotesqueness is what attracted Lewis Carroll to let him illustrate for the Alice books. According to the dictionary, the grotesque is an abnormality that imparts the disturbing sense that the real world may have ceased to be reliable. Tenniel’s style was grotesque in his dark atmospheric compositions of exaggerated fantasy creatures that were carefully outlined. Often though, the idea was to use animal heads on recognizable human bodies or vice versa. In John’s illustrations, the grotesque is found also in the merging of things and deformities of the human body. Most notably done in grotesque fashion is that of Tenniel’s famous Jabberwocky drawing in Alice.

Scholars such as Morris say that Tenniel’s stylistic change can be attributed to the late 1850s trend towards realism. For the grotesque to operate, “it is our world which has to be transformed and not some fantasy realm.” These subtle points of realism help convince readers that all these apparent grotesque inhabitants of Wonderland are just themselves, are simply real, they are not performing. The Alice illustrations combine fantasy and reality.

Image and text

The placement of Tenniel’s illustrations on the pages is one of the elements to be noted. There was a smart and subtle mix of illustrations with the text. Carroll and Tenniel wished to express this in various ways, one of the many being bracketing. Two relevant sentences would bracket an illustration, which might define the moment better.


Tenniel agreed on designs with Carroll, drawing them on whitened blocks of dense boxwood. The engravers then worked on the block, carving out the blank parts so the image stood in relief. Then the drawings were engraved to their highest standards, by the Dalziel Brothers. In October 1864, the Dalziels recommended printing Alice’s illustrations direct from the woodblocks. This method gave the finest results. Thousands impressions could be made from woodblocks, but they could not survive an industrial-scale printing.

Carroll appears to have ordered many (expensive!) changes to them. Ignoring the Dalziel’s advice, he decided to follow mass production techniques, using metal replicas of the woodblocks called electrotypes. It is lucky he did so; no one predicted how popular Alice would be, and the woodblocks would not have survived the many editions printed. The process of creating the wood-blocks was quite difficult, hence, sometimes, concessions had to be made to the overall design of the illustration. Such as, a character would be moved to a different position


The untouched illustration by John Tenniel is like a visual paradox, where the caterpillar’s face appears to be formed from the head and legs of a real caterpillar. Although the original illustrations are black-and-white, in Alice’s Adventures Under ground and in The Nursery Alice, the Caterpillar is described as being blue.

The Caterpillar is the first character who makes a real effort to guide Alice on her journey. Since she’s tired of growing larger and smaller due to events beyond her control, the Caterpillar teaches her to eat parts of the mushroom to control her size and thereby to familiarize to her environment when needed. The Caterpillar is rather strict and not very friendly, and corrects Alice’s recitation of a poem, but he also teaches her to cope with difficult situations she encounters in Wonderland. In the end, he crawls away.

Some critics, and especially people in popular culture, see the Caterpillar as an agent of drug culture, since he’s smoking hookah and shows Alice how to eat a magic mushroom. This caused controversies about banning the book completely. But I believe the Caterpillar is actually a laid-back guru who helps Alice figure out how to control the imaginative world that she’s exploring. The Caterpillar also tells Alice that changing in size and shape isn’t always a bad thing- after all, one day the caterpillar will metamorphose into a butterfly, and instead of being frightened it will be the highlight of his life.

According to a few, the Caterpillar’s mushroom also has multiple symbolic meanings. Some readers and critics look at the Caterpillar as a sexual threat, its phallic shape a symbol of sexual virility. The Caterpillar’s mushroom connects to this denotative meaning. Alice must master the properties of the mushroom to gain control over her fluctuating size, which represents the bodily frustrations that accompany puberty. Others view the mushroom as a vibrant hallucinogen that encapsulates Alice’s surreal and distorted insight of Wonderland.


Much against popular belief, Alice Liddell was not the Alice of Tenniel’s pictures. Carroll supposedly sent Tenniel a photograph of a child-friend and suggested her as a model for Alice. However, whether he actually did that is debatable, especially because by the time Carroll was supposed to have acquired the photograph of her, Tenniel and Dalziel had already completed several engravings.

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 creases in the skirt she wears in “The Nursery Alice” where high in fashion in 1886, when the book was supposed to come out. However, Carroll 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. 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, which throws light at the grotesque style of Tenniel.


All works published during the lifetime of Lewis Carroll are out of copyright (also known as “in the public domain”) throughout the world. The black and white illustrations that were commissioned by Lewis Carroll for his works are also out of copyright. This applies to John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ,Through the Looking-Glass, and The Nursery “Alice”. The story has been translated into 174 different languages. In 2015, 7,609 published editions have been identified all over the world, and the number keeps increasing. The public domain has unchained remarkable creativity, while still letting content creators make plenty of money.

In 1981, the original wood-blocks by Dalziel were found in a bank vault where they had been deposited by the publisher. They are in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Their quality is striking. Key details, like Alice’s eyelashes are far more delicate than published versions. They are not usually on public display, but were exhibited in 2003.

The Ransom Centre holds several collections related to Lewis Carroll and Alice’s books. The Warren Weaver collection holds first drafts of Carroll’s poetry, fiction as well as translations of the books into several languages. One of the rare books in this collection is a copy of the original 1865 edition called “India Alice”.

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