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harles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll (1832-98), gained fame as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), but he was also the first illustrator of the tale. For the original version of Alice entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (1864), Carroll designed illustrations that follow the nineteenth-century British caricature tradition associated most notably with George Cruikshank, John Leech, Richard Doyle, and Hablot Knight Browne. This style, popular in the 1830s and 1840s, uses exaggeration and theatrical techniques to dramatic and comic effect. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was a Christmas gift that Dodgson, a Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church in Oxford, wrote and illustrated for his favorite child friend, Alice Liddell. Alice was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the dean of Carroll’s college, Christ Church. The tale originated as a story Dodgson told to Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell and his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth on a boat ride on the Isis (the Oxford term for the Thames) from Folly Bridge to the village of Godstow. The memorable boat ride took place on July 4, 1862 — a date W. H. Auden considers as important to English literature as to American history (Carroll, qtd. in Annotated Alice [AA] 1). Alice begged Carroll to write down the story for her. The result was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, an 18,000-word handwritten text with 37 illustrations by the author.

Carroll created what has now become a classic during the 1860s, a golden age of British illustration commonly referred to as the “Sixties.” Whereas the caricature-style illustrators were largely unschooled, beginning in the late 1850s, professional artists — e.g. John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Du Maurier — entered the lucrative field of book illustration. This new style of illustration, known for its representational realism and high academic standards, has been the subject of extensive study since the late nineteenth century. Gleeson White in English Illustration, ‘The Sixties’: 1855-70 (1897) and Forrest Reid in Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties (1928) praised this artistic style of illustration over caricature, and their works, reissued in 1970 and 1975 (respectively), remain influential. More recently, in Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875 (2012), Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke expand our understanding of this rich period, describing the aesthetic of the Sixties as “‘poetic naturalism’: a means of representing deep feeling which was still rooted in observation of the ‘real’ world” (1).

Favoring this illustrative school of representational realism, Carroll’s friends encouraged him to find a skilled artist to illustrate his charming tale. The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a 35,000-word printed text that builds upon the original storyline and adds some of the tale’s most famous characters and scenes, such as the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Given the importance of animals to the plot, Carroll chose as his illustrator John Tenniel, a Sixties artist who had earlier gained fame for his drawings of Aesop’s Fables. Tenniel created 42 illustrations for Wonderland. Did Tenniel see Carroll’s illustrations? Critics including Frankie Morris and Michael Hancher suggest “it is very likely that Tenniel did indeed see the Carroll illustrations, and, furthermore, they they helped to shape his drawings for the book” (Hancher 27). Carroll did not publish his own illustrations until 1886 when Macmillan, publisher of the Alice books, brought forth a facsimile edition of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which was not well received.

Today, critics have revaluated Carroll’s caricature-style illustration. Carroll expertly intertwines his handwritten text with his pictures to advance the growth motif. His conception of the mouse’s “tale” shaped like an actual mouse’s “tail” is an excellent example of emblematic verse. Moreover, those familiar with Carroll’s illustrations can discern how Tenniel essentially refashioned with realism and improved upon many of Carroll’s sketchy or anatomically incorrect illustrations, adding domestic interiors and landscapes that appealed to middle-class consumers of the 1860s. Tenniel, who grasped Carroll’s imagination and excelled in drawing animals, also realized Carroll’s social caricatures, most famously the White Rabbit dressed as a Victorian gentleman and the Mock Turtle (part calf and part turtle). Nonetheless, within Tenniel’s artistically rendered illustrations lies Carroll’s original vision.

Carroll’s Caricatures

Using the caricature technique of comic comparison, Carroll positions Alice next to objects and creatures that are smaller and larger to make her appear, in turn, taller and littler. For example, in Chapter I, in a marginal inset illustration, Carroll draws Alice lying on the ground, leaning on her elbow to gaze directly at the White Rabbit, who is standing next to her and appearing to be half her size (Under Ground [UG] 13). Carroll effectively uses comic comparison to show Alice shrinking as well as growing. In Chapter III, Carroll places Alice standing next to a large Puppy, towering over her (UG 46). Carroll also intensifies Alice’s small stature here by positioning her in profile. Alice appears slight and petite alongside the Puppy, drawn in three-quarter view and filling two-thirds of the illustration.

Disrupting the biological process of growth in his illustrations, Carroll memorably twists, truncates, expands, elongates, and contracts Alice’s form. At points, his handwritten text works interdependently with the illustrations to enhance Alice’s transformations. Nibbling on a cake marked “EAT ME” in the first chapter (UG 10), Alice exclaims “‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ . . . ‘now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good bye feet!’” (UG 11). In the accompanying picture, Carroll places Alice’s now elongated form in a narrow vertical column to the left of his handwritten text. Alice’s head extends above the block of text, and her feet point below it. The text, comprised of twenty-five lines (a number of lines that remains quite constant throughout the handwritten book), seemingly functions as a ruler to measure Alice’s now lengthened form. This drawing of Alice also uses the classic caricature technique of bodily distortion. Carroll extends Alice’s neck so much that her shoulder-length hair now only reaches mid-neck; the distortion of her neck and torso gives concrete form to the fantastical nature of her underground adventure. No wonder Alice frets: “‘oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears?’” (11).

As the story progresses, Alice becomes enormous after drinking from a bottle marked “drink me” (UG 35). Memorably, she nearly outgrows the White Rabbit’s house. To depict her immense size in Chapter II, Carroll creates a simple rectangular box or picture frame to designate the White Rabbit’s dwelling. (2.jpg) Alice fills the entire frame, which is too small for her. To fit in the space, Alice curls into a fetal position. Alice’s head seems to be growing faster than her body, and Alice crooks her neck to the side to fit in the room (UG 37). Granted, Carroll chooses what critic Michael Hancher refers to as a “‘naïve’ substitution of the picture frame for the physical structure of the room” (31), but even Hancher praises Carroll’s drawing “for more powerfully evoking fetal claustrophobia” (31) than Tenniel’s refashioning of this illustration for Alice in Wonderland.

Illustration to the fourth chapter of Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by Thomas Dalziel.

Tenniel skillfully renders the domestic interior of a Victorian home complete with casement windows and curtains, but Alice in Tenniel’s plate has ample room to grow. This illustration forms part of a growth sequence in Chapter II of Under Ground that unfolds in the manner of a progress composed of sequential pictures (UG 35, 36, 37, and 40). In the final plate of this series, Alice’s outstretched hand — which stands for an enormous Alice too large to be pictured — looks about the same size as the White Rabbit’s head and torso (UG 40). In this marginal inset illustration, the actual words of Carroll’s handwritten text blend seamlessly with the brick façade of the White Rabbit’s house, showing how Carroll builds a picture with images and words.

Arguably, the most darkly comic illustration — one that expertly intertwines a picture with the handwritten text — occurs in Chapter III when Alice shrinks “violently” after eating a mushroom stalk. Carroll narrates: “the next moment she felt a violent blow on her chin: it had struck her foot!” (UG 61). Alice’s large head rests precariously on her hands and her feet; she literally has no body in this illustration, and her hair now extends onto the ground. Twelve lines of text alongside Alice form a wall or column to box her in while sixteen lines of text positioned above Alice approximate a ceiling that seemingly pushes her head even closer to her toes. The passive expression on Alice’s face is also disturbing because it suggests acceptance of this breakdown of her identity. Tenniel elected not to illustrate this scene or the scene of Alice’s “immense length of neck” that “seemed to rise like a stalk” well above the treetops (UG 62). Frankie Morris comments that Tenniel “rejected [these] two unpleasant possibilities” for illustration (191), although subsequent artists including Arthur Rackham did illustrate both scenes. Following this dramatic bodily distortion, Alice learns to regulate her own growth by nibbling carefully on the top and stalk of a mushroom, which, in turn, make her grow taller and shorter, until she reaches the right height.

These examples indicate how Carroll uses the text to function as physical objects — a wall, a ceiling, or a ruler — to create the allusion of shrinking or growing. But he also memorably shapes the text into an emblematic form in the mouse’s tale in Chapter II. The mouse’s tale is one of Carroll’s many inventive examples of word play — a tale is shaped like a tail. This picture-poem, also called emblematic verse, was common in the seventeenth century in the verses of Robert Herrick and George Herbert, and we find later examples in the twentieth- century poetry of Dylan Thomas and E. E. Cummings. The shape of the poem in Carroll’s verse underscores both the identity of the speaker, the mouse, and the conversation Alice is having with the mouse. When the long-tailed mouse accuses Alice of not “‘attending’” to his tale, Alice replies, “‘I beg your pardon,’ . . . ‘you had got to the fifth bend, I think?” (UG 29). The poem, which in the Under Ground version fulfills the mouse’s promise to explain why he is afraid of cats and dogs, uses progressively smaller lettering as the tale bends, appropriately, five times. In Wonderland, the verse, though typeset, remains in the shape of a tail and uses progressively smaller font as the tale progresses, but Carroll regrettably changed the contents of the mouse’s poem, which makes no reference to cats.

Carroll’s limitations

Carroll was an amateur artist although he did earn a reputation as an accomplished photographer, particularly of children (which has raised eyebrows given his predilection to photograph young girls in various states of undress, always with supervision and parental permission). At times Carroll’s artistic limitations compromise the text. Carroll shows Alice’s many transformations, but regrettably he did not render Alice’s face, form, or age with the kind of consistency that illustration requires. In the opening illustration when Alice rests her elbow against her older sister’s knees and famously ponders — “where is the use of a book . . . without pictures or conversations?” (UG 1) — she looks about seven years old. But when Alice tastes the cake marked “EAT ME” in this same chapter and becomes telescopic, she also ages: she suddenly looks like a teenager (UG 11), almost twice the age she appears to be in the opening illustration. As the story continues, Alice continues to change ages as well as sizes and builds, so at points it looks as if a different character is twisting and turning, shrinking and growing. In contrast, Tenniel conveyed Alice consistently throughout her many adventures and maintains her physical features, age, and build as she shrinks and grows.

In the 1860s, the public favored richly descriptive and naturalistic illustration, and Carroll’s settings are relatively bare and one dimensional. In the scene when Alice’s head rises well above the treetops, and an eagle takes her for a serpent (UG 62-63), Carroll includes only a few leaves and no trees per se, compromising the believability of this transformation. Carroll does show an ability to render a tree complete with rough bark, intertwining branches, and rich foliage with accuracy in a later illustration when Alice enters a doorway within a tree that leads her to beautiful garden (UG 67), a detail that would have improved the serpentine illustration. Likewise, in the picture showing Alice talking to the hookah-smoking Caterpillar atop a mushroom, the large mushroom stalk rises above a very bare setting. The background is simply a rough patch of grass with a few sketchy flowers that could be taken as weeds (UG 49).

The illustration of the hookah-smoking Caterpillar raises another limitation of Carroll’s artistry for an audience that valued naturalism. Carroll could not render his animal creatures with anatomical precision. Carroll’s White Rabbit does not look like a rabbit one would find in nature, and his clothes are not the smart attire a Victorian gentleman would wear. The White Rabbit’s face and whiskers resemble a mouse’s, and his ears are akin to a donkey’s. Beatrix Potter, a skilled late nineteenth-century naturalist artist and illustrator, uses clothing judiciously, never covering an animal character’s defining characteristics; in contrast, Carroll dresses his character in a full suit that covers many of the White Rabbit’s essential rabbit features — his haunches, bottom paws, and fluffy tail. The result is a character who looks like a man wearing an enlarged donkey/mouse/rabbit head mask, not a comical hybrid creature who is part rabbit and part Victorian gentleman. Carroll’s Caterpillar does not look like a caterpillar either. The creature has a human hand and a human face. His torso coils in a snake-like manner, and the character crosses his “legs,” which are decidedly human. The imperious expression of the Caterpillar does capture the creature’s haughty manner, however. The same confusion creeps into fantastical and mythological animals. For example, Carroll’s Gryphon maintains the notion of hybridity but seems to blend the features of a bird and a rat or mouse instead of a lion and an eagle, as classic iconography demands.

Tenniel’s Refashioning and Improvements of Carroll’s Pictures

Left: "I'm late, "I'm late.". Right: Alice meets the Caterpillar. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Tenniel, a recognized Sixties artist, refashioned Carroll’s caricature-style illustrations with naturalism and ensured the success of Alice for an 1860s audience and successive generations. From 1861, Tenniel became the prime cartoonist for Punch, the leading Victorian humor magazine; he brought to Alice in Wonderland not only a skill in depicting animals, but also a thorough training in drawing humorous and at times bizarre and unsettling imagery, such as Alice encounters in her adventures. To return briefly to these same examples, Tenniel sustains Carroll’s vision of the anthropomorphic Caterpillar, using the many appendages of a naturalistic caterpillar to create the allusion of a nose and a mouth through which the Caterpillar speaks. (6.jpg) The bare setting in Carroll’s picture that Tenniel essentially redraws with naturalism becomes a believable three-dimensional fantasy world that contains accurately rendered flowers and egg-shaped toadstools as well as wavy blades of grass. Tenniel draws the White Rabbit in its natural habitat, a meadow. Tenniel authenticates the White Rabbit’s human and animal traits, both essential to the social caricature of a Victorian gentleman-rabbit living in an industrialized age run by clocks and schedules (especially with the coming of the railway) who constantly frets about being late. Tenniel adds just enough genteel clothing to indicate the White Rabbit is believably both a gentleman and a rabbit. (7.jpg) The White Rabbit wears a waistcoat but no trousers, thus showing off the creature’s rabbit haunches and fluffy tail, but he also carries a pocket-watch, a mark of respectability and gentility. The rabbit-gentleman in his checked coat looks forceful enough to command Alice to fetch his gloves and fan, so he won’t be late for the Duchess, who will be “‘savage’” (AA 22) if he keeps her waiting. No wonder Frankie Morris concludes of Tenniel’s artistry in Artist of Wonderland: “the sensation of the ground beneath our feet has imperceptibly shifted” (189).

Likewise, the Gryphon that Tenniel creates is a hybrid animal that matches classical iconography — the creature has the head and talons of an eagle and the body and tail of a lion. Such anatomical accuracy carries into Tenniel’s rendition of the Mock Turtle, realizing Carroll’s joke on the pretentious Victorians who passed off a fake “turtle soup” made of a cheaper meat, veal. Tenniel creates a believable hybrid with features of a calf and a turtle that improves upon Carroll’s caricature that joins features of an armadillo, a seal, and an eagle. Tenniel’s Mock Turtle has the heart-shaped and horny-plated top shell of a turtle, a smooth bottom shell, and flippers, but it also has a calf’s small horns, hooves, pronounced forehead, and switch-like tail. Tenniel’s realistic rendering of bovine and reptilian features realizes Carroll’s joke on the Victorians, who served a cheaply made soup as a delicacy.

Carroll’s Vision Underlies Tenniel’s Illustrations

Carroll deserves an entry in this section on British illustrators despite his artistic limitations. Carroll’s skill in blending text and picture to convey the growth motif, emblematic verse, and caricature techniques of exaggeration and comic comparison make a strong case for his revaluation. Moreover, as Rodney Engen notes in Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight: “Tenniel realized he had been hired not as an imaginative illustrator but as a drawing machine: someone to polish and perfect Dodgson’s own ideas and prepare them for the engraver. . . . It was clearly Dodgson’s book, and he rarely gave in to Tenniel’s more imaginative expertise” (74). Tenniel made Alice a classic by refashioning Carroll’s drawings. Lest we forget that Carroll was the first illustrator of his enduring tale, Carroll’s creative vision underlies many of Tenniel’s illustrations. Moreover, late twentieth-century graphic novel adaptations of Alice in Wonderland recall many of Carroll’s inventive designs as well as those of Tenniel. Most notably, the drawing of Alice’s large head sitting on top of her feet that Tenniel elected not to illustrate gains new expression in Érica Awano’s graphics for Leah Moore and John Reppion’s graphic novel version entitled The Complete Alice in Wonderland (2009). Awano transforms Carroll’s single illustration of Alice’s head atop her shoes into a three-panel sequence that recalls one of Alice’s most memorable bodily distortions and brings new readers to Carroll’s classic.


Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 1865, 1872. Ed. Martin Gardner. Illus. John Tenniel. New York: New American Library, 1960.

Engen, Rodney. Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1991.

Golden, Catherine. Serials to Graphic Novels: The Evolution of the Victorian Illustrated Book. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2017.

Goldman, Paul, and Simon Cooke, eds. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2012.

Hancher, Michael. The Tenniel Illustrations to the “Alice” Books. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1985.

Moore, Leah, and John Reppion, adapts. The Complete Alice in Wonderland. By Lewis Carroll. Artwork by Érica Awano. Runnemede, NJ: Dynamite Entertainment, 2009.

Morris, Frankie. Artist of Wonderland: The Life, Political Cartoons, and Illustrations of Tenniel. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia Press, 2005.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties: An Illustrated Survey of the Work of 58 British Artists (1928). New York: Dover Publications, 1975.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration, ‘The Sixties’: 1855-1870 (1897). Bath, UK: Kingsmead Reprints, 1970. Print.

Last modified 10 March 2017