Great Works: Alice Overgrowing The Room, (1865), John Tenniel

There are proverbs among images, and among the most proverbial are the illustrations John Tenniel drew for the Alice stories. His pictures of the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and Humpty Dumpty have passed into folk recognition. One of the mostmemorable is from Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland; an early scene, “Alice Overgrowing the Room”.

Alice has taken the potion. “She went on growing and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute therewas not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door…” What enchants Tenniel’s picture is the way he gives this physical predicament a specifically pictorial realisation.

The trick is two-cum-three-dimensional entrapment. Alice’s head ducks beneath the ceiling and beneath the top edge of the picture. The crook of her elbow sticks into the corner of the room and into the picture’s corner. The box of the chamber equates with the picture’s oblong. The figure is confined by both.

Some of Tenniel’s work has been sourced to paintings. The Duchess is modelled on Quinten Massys’s A Grotesque Old Woman. Jabberwocky may derive from a demon by Salvator Rosa. The railway carriage scene matches Augustus Egg’s Travelling Companions.TheWhite Knight echoes Millais’s Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

No art source has been found for “Alice Overgrowing the Room”. But its leading device, two-cum-three-dimensional entrapment, has artistic precedent.It’s used in Holbein’s frightening painting of Dead Christ. Jesus’s skeletal corpse is laid out, full length, viewed side on in a shallow, open-sided coffin, whose edges coincide with the picture’s cramping letterbox format.

That is only a formal analogy. Though Alice has no doubt been compared to Christ, here she is a living, struggling body. Perhaps a Gothic fear of being buried alive lurks, but a better likeness isn’t tomb, but womb. At least, that is implied in an image that certainly did guideTenniel’s imagination. Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript of the story, called Alice’s Adventures UnderGround,was written and drawn by the author himself, and carry his own illustration to this episode. Carroll’s image is partly followed by Tenniel and partly not. There is gain and loss. Carroll lacks Tenniel’s competences. His drawing is cruder. Tenniel’s drama is strong, establishing Alice’s body as a solid entity, imprisoned and straining within room and frame. Carroll has a much less definite sense of the distinction between the figure and its picture – which makes his version the more daring.

Alice is folded in a foetal position. Her body does not push beyond the frame. She’s tucking herself up snugly within its limits. She doesn’t seem to resist her confinement. No arm pokes through a window, for Carroll gives no hint of a room at all. Alice is pressed flat up against the front of the image. She’s an ink and paper creature. What contains her is only an outlined frame, and she fills it almost entirely. Within that, her insecurely drawn anatomy drifts and swims. Unsubstantial, the figure doesn’t stand out against its picture. It’s fused in a symbiosis. The effect is dreamlike, amniotic.

This image is too vague ever to acquire the proverbial status of Tenniel’s. And Carroll probably didn’t know of William Blake. But, on wings of amateurism, he flies here to the edges of the visionary.

About the artist

Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) was the leading English cartoonist and illustrator of his age, at a time when these professions had become sufficiently established and dignified that a practitioner could be offered, and accept, a knighthood. (With Gillray it would have been unthinkable.) Tenniel drew for ‘Punch’ for 50 years. His most famous political cartoon was ‘Dropping the Pilot’, about the end of Bismarck. His inclinations were first towards fine art, and he never abandoned them. He designed the mosaic of Leonardo in the Victoria & Albert Museum. But his pictures to ‘Alice’ remain his testament, and have outlived and outspread his name itself.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power