Alice comes to Coltishall

Our upcoming exhibition Woodcuts from Wonderland is a collection of John Tenniel’s whimsical and nostaglic original wood engravings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Look-Glass. As part of this we will be hosting our first ever Kids Weekend. With a range of activities for children and parents it’s the perfect, fun early experience of the arts for any budding little artist! The prints are beautifully detailed and to have them come to Coltishall is truly exciting. We can’t wait to share them with you.

The story behind the prints is just as fascinating as the prints themselves. Therefore, we thought we would take this opportunity to share that with you, ahead of the exhibition opening next week.

It started with a drawing…

Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914), prominent political cartoonist for the magazine ‘Punch’, created the definitive visual accompaniment to Lewis Carroll’s writing with his illustrations for both

Alice in Wonderland books. Sir Noel Paton, the Victorian painter and illustrator was the first to recognise the uniqueness of Tenniel’s interpretation of Carroll’s stories.

For many of the illustrations, Tenniel was given precise instructions from Carroll, but many of these interventions apparently infuriated Tenniel who almost turned down the request to illustrate Through the Looking-Glass because of this constant interference. The two men even argued about the look of Alice herself: Carroll envisaged Alice as a brunette with short hair but Tenniel preferred to draw her with long blonde hair. In fact, the only illustration that Carroll accepted without comment was that of Humpty Dumpty.

The Alice illustrations are considered to be his finest and most enduring achievement. They must also rank among the world’s best-known children’s illustrations.

Continued with a woodcut…

The Brothers Dalziel, master engravers, were commissioned to engrave the boxwood blocks on which Tenniel had made his drawings. Typically, more than one man would be involved in carving the Alice blocks e.g. the ‘clearing’ of large areas of the blocks might be left to an apprentice before the more experienced improvers and assistants would work on the block. The Dalziel brothers would have supervised the whole process and suggested alterations when needed. The Dalziels would also have been in constant correspondence with Tenniel and the client – Lewis Carroll – regarding the execution and finish of the blocks and despite the latter’s often

pedantic requests, their collaborative relationship was generally a harmonious one.

  • It was the engraver’s responsibility to translate the original drawing by an illustrator or artist into a relief printing surface ready for press. We know that Tenniel transferred his drawings to the block himself using tracing paper.
  • Engraving is gruelling work and its practitioners suffered health problems: poor eyesight, pain in fingers and hands, back stomach and chest. Professional engravers would sit at high tables with their work raised to ensure an upright posture.
  • The block would be held in the left hand on a leather cushion or sand-bag placed on a tool box containing gravers (burins), tint tools, scorpers, spitstickers. Individual tools would become favoured for their balance and ‘feel’ and were used repeatedly and sharpened down to stumps.
  • The pencil drawing on the block would be very fragile and it was common for engravers to protect the design with a sheet of paper and tear a hole so to expose only the section they were working on. Tenniel’s designs on the block were made with a very hard, sharp pencil and so would have been easier to preserve than most.

Lost and Found

Evidently it was decided that the original blocks would no longer be needed for electrotyping, so they should be wrapped and carefully stored. They were fortunately kept by a printer in rural Suffolk during the war when Macmillan’s London headquarters were repeatedly bombed. It is a measure of the fame and significance of these illustrations that no one dared dispose of the blocks.

They were then recovered in 1985. The original woodblocks were discovered in a bank vault where they had been stored in deed boxes belonging to Macmillan, the original publishers.

Jonathan Stephenson at the Rocket Press was given the prestigious job of printing from the blocks for the first time for worldwide distribution. These were published in 1988 in an edition of 250 and are highly prized by collectors. The blocks are now held by the British Library and no further sets will be printed.

Out of the ninety-two original blocks only one has disappeared – ‘Alice and the Dodo’. How it came to be missing or when it vanished remains a mystery.

Next stop, Coltishall

Come and view these wonderful piece at our Gallery from the 21st June – 7th July. Find out more details and if you have any questions please do get in contact.

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