Posted by: anniebutts | December 13, 2010

Tenniel vs. Carroll

As I was doing research for my final paper, I came across an interesting article about the illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Pictured in the article are both Tenniel’s illustration (which we saw in our version of the story) and Carroll’s depiction of Alice.

Below, you can see the differences between the two.

This semester I’m taking a drawing class, and it’s been really interesting to see how everyone in the class has a different interpretation on the same object or assignment. This made me start thinking about the disparities that could be present between the writer and the illustrator. They will likely have different perspectives on how a particular scene should be portrayed, and since both aspects (text and pictures) are very important to a story like this one, it creates a potential problem for the reader. Which is more reliable: text or picture? writer or illustrator?



  1. I prefer Tenniel’s picture. I think the problems between writer and illustrator is that both have their own interpretations of the story. I think with Carroll is that he approaches the illustrations as if he was taking a photograph. He narrows in on the subject too much and if you didn’t know it was based on Alice in Wonderland you might have thought it was just a sketch. However, with Tenniel’s version he places the story in context by showing Alice in a small room. By doing this the reader is able to relate this drawing to certain events in the story which is the point of illustration. It’s meaning if not meant to be subjective. It’s meant to act as a guide to the text which Carroll doesn’t seemed to have grasped.

  2. Annie, you raise a great point in asking about the relationship between text and illustrations. I worked with an author a few years ago who was writing a YA book, and she mentioned something that has stuck with me and I think relates to your post.

    She said that once she submits her final manuscript to the publisher, she loses all control as to what type of image is produced for the cover of the book. The book was about a dog, and after the group I was working with read the manuscript, we all had different but very specific ideas about what the dog looked like. She then mentioned that the publisher had decided to use an image of a Dalmatian for the cover. We were all shocked because this had no correlation with the text, and she herself admitted that it was not the type of dog she had in mind when she wrote the book. Since our initial response to a book if often based on the cover, it seems crazy to think that the publishers would create a cover that goes against the author’s own intentions of the book! However, they are in the market of selling books, so will present anything that they think people will buy whether or not it relates to the author’s original vision.

    You asked which is more reliable, image or text, author or illustrator? I would say that author/illustrators are probably most able to convey their overall idea for a book as they have more control over what they can present.

  3. It’s interesting how Tenniel’s illustration presents Alice with such a large head and such a little (in relation) body. In addition I see Tenniel’s depiction as slightly more gothic, more haunting, in the way her eyes sort of stare out from sockets and her mouth is kind of in this downturned half-moon. It’s true though that spacially, Tenniel’s is the one that seems to make more sense: we see Alice in the space that confines her and thus we have a means by which we can interpret her size.
    With Carroll’s illustration we understand simply that she is uncomfortable, without the context of the story she could still be any size, simply curled up in a corner somewhere. I do prefer however, the look on her face to that of Tenniel’s. It seems more representative of her personality in general: she is pensive, curious and surprisingly calm given the many strange situations she is put in. I’m more tempted to trust Carroll’s interpretation simply because I’m curious about the way he saw Alice, big or little.

  4. I think that most of Lewis Carroll’s problem stems from his lack experience. Though Carroll was a talented sketch artist, John Tenniel was one of the most famous cartoonists of the Victorian Era. At the time of his retirement, Tenniel was earning $140 dollars per cartoon, – nearly $3,000 today. At the time that he illustrated with Alice in Wonderland, Tenniel had been already been working as a cartoonist for fifteen years.

    I’m a theater design major, and when designing sets or costumes, the first thing you do is consult with the director about their vision. However, it’s also stressed that regardless of what the director wants, what you produce must be aesthetically intriguing.

    I think what we have here is a case of Carroll’s very clear vision coming up against Tenniel’s experience. Carroll’s illustrations are truer to the spirit of the story, but Tenniel’s are much more interesting to look at.

    And as for that crazy head ratio thing, everyone hates it, even Lewis Carroll. In a letter Carroll discuss’ Tenniel’s illustrations, “I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of “Alice” entirely out of proportion – head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.”

    For those who want to see the rest of Carroll’s illustrations, they, along with the text, can be found here.

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