John Tenniel and the persistence of ‘Wonderland’

March 01, 2010 | 7:33 a.m.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 6 DAYS

Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage.

JohnTenniel's Alice

It was 189 years ago today that illustrator John Tenniel was born in London, and the legacy of his work is only expanding with the release this week of “Alice in Wonderland,” director Tim Burton’s sequel to the familiar tales of writer Lewis Carroll. Tenniel was the artist whose strange and evocative illustrations added so much to the reading experience for every generation that embraced Carroll’s two “Alice” books, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass

John Tenniel

“If you go back to Tenniel, so much of his work is what stays in your mind about Alice and about Wonderland,” Burton said. “Alice and the characters have been done so many times and in so many ways. but Tenniel’s art really lasts there in your memory.”

Tenniel was already a major name in political cartooning (and, unfortunately, blinded in one eye from a fencing wound) when he took on the illustrations for Carroll’s strange fantasy. The job was a frustrating one due to the intense detail work and specifications that came from Carroll (whose real name, by the way, was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), but Tenniel had a passion for drawing animals, and Wonderland gave him a singular opportunity for creatures of the fantastic. Tenniel was also a meticulous soul and a demanding artist — the first run of 2,000 copies of “Alice” in 1865, for instance, did not meet his standards and were pulled back. The project was well worth the trouble, however, when the book became an instant literary sensation.

Tenniel’s illustrations, like the one above, were engraved onto wood blocks to be used in the woodcut process of printing. Those blocks now reside at Bodleian Library at Oxford in Britain. Tenniel died in February 1914 at the age of 93, having seen a great many things in a long and rich life — including the first “Alice in Wonderland” film in 1903.

– Geoff Boucher

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