- The Illustrators of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
"Please keep a look-out among illustrated books and let me know if you see any artist at all worthy of succeeding to Tenniel's place," Lewis Carroll instructed an editor at Macmillans in a letter written in 1876. The reader glancing through the pages of The Illustrators of Alice certainly feels as though he were heeding Carroll's injunction. The work reproduces the illustrations of some forty illustrators of Alice and Through the Looking Glass selected by Graham Ovenden and introduced briefly by John Davis.
One might agree with Corinne Roberts' assessment of Ovenden's collection in her 1974 New York Times review that Tenniel's illustrations not only get in the way of the illustrators who followed him but also cause most of them to lapse into insignificance, thus making the collection simply "a tribute to the Lewis Carroll-John Tenniel partnership that needs no Walt Disney updating"; but if the book eventually leads the reader to this conclusion, he can nevertheless learn a great deal in the process. Indeed, one's admiration for this striking book grows with each perusal. It is extremely valuable in a children's literature' classroom whether the focus is children's illustrators, literary history, art criticism, or Alice itself. It can enable the teacher to help students understand the intrinsic relationship between text and llustration, a crucial relationship but one often difficult for students to grasp and for teachers to teach. It can help students gain an historical perspective of children's illustration as they compare the Alice of Tenniel or Furniss (or Carroll himself) to the bow-lipped Kewpies of the 20's and 30's, and they might even become able to distinguish some of the characteristics of the Victorians, for instance, from the characteristics that mark other eras. At the same time they will be able to see not only the stamp of an era upon an individual artist but also how he works through the conventions and technological limitations of his period and how he either overcomes them or falls victim to them. Indeed, this is one of the problems as well as one of the advantages of the work—its multiplicity of uses. John Davis' introduction gives a brief (too brief) critical and historical review of the illustrators represented, with page references to each illustration he [End Page 10] mentions. However, the pictures are grouped by Carroll's chapters so that one can see how several different artists depicted the major scenes and characters. Although this arrangement makes for some interesting juxtapositions, it makes for a jumbled historical perspective and causes a lot of confused page-turning even to get together in one's mind a sampling of one illustrator. Nevertheless, students (and teachers) can learn a lot about style and media, genius and vapidity from looking at the 138 illustrations gathered here. And of course the list of 100 illustrated editions of Alice and Through the Looking Glass can lead further into this fascinating subject.
It is perhaps the very fascination of the subject and its ramifications that leads to a sense of frustration not only with this Ovenden work but with his others as well. In The Illustrators of Alice, as in his Nymphets and Fairies: Three Victorian Children's Illustrators (St. Martin's Press, 1976), he puts the pictures before you—albeit in an aesthetically pleasing format with skillfully reproduced plates—and leaves you on your own. Ovenden is the artist-collector who along with Robert Melville presented us with Victorian Children (St. Martin's Press) in 1972, which so powerfully communicated through its reproductions the Victorian ambivalence toward and preoccupation with the young female body—a grotesque mixture of the pornographic with the pure. His Victorian Album: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle (DTCape Press, 1975) shows us much about Victorian photography (including Carroll's) but one longs for more: the careful analysis, the critical perception, the historical perspective that pictures alone, even with brief prefaces or introductions...