The Beauty of Books - Illustrated Wonderlands

I missed this programme when it was first broadcast in 1911 but it has just been repeated on BBC4.  You can see  the BBC iPlayer video by going to BBC4 The Beauty of Books - Illustrated Wonderland.

It start with the premise that, for some books, words and pictures are inseparable. To paraphrase illustrator Michael Foreman:- “ The words are like poetry and the illustrations can be compared to music.  Together they become a song.” The Victorian era marked a change in two ways. Firstly, they became sentimental about childhood viewing it as a period of innocence and naïve joy.  Secondly, the printing process was greatly improved making books accessible to just about everybody.  As a result books for children flourished, and the most popular by far was Alice In Wonderland.

Edward Wakeling features prominently in the programme along with Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffallo and other popular children’s books. They first appear in the British Library looking at the only surviving copy of Carroll’s original hand written ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ which Carroll also illustrated himself.  Notable was the cover page with its Gothic writing and flowers like forget-me-nots.   An interesting aside here was the fact that Carroll was influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and they compare his picture of Alice to Arthur Hughes’ 1868 painting ‘Lady With the Lilacs’ which was bought by Carroll. The similarities are obvious.

Carroll extended this short story adding the Hatter and March Hare, characters which we couldn’t imagine the book being without. The programme then talks about being able to access a deeper meaning in a book through a synthesis of words and pictures. Pictures add what words leave out.

Carroll’s book required the work of another genius for it to become the leading illustrated work of the 19th century and of course, that was John Tenniel. Carroll does not describe his characters in any detail  and thus Tenniel, who was given a free hand by Carroll, was able to let his own imagination loose. This resulted in various subtleties.  E.g. The page turn with the full Cheshire Cat on one page and then, turning the page, just the grin is left.

The animals taking part in the caucus race are all drawn realistically but Tenniel has added his own quirkiness – the donnish Dodo has hands appearing from beneath his wings and has a cane and cuffs to go with them  (The Dodo represented Carroll. Alice’s sisters Lorina and Edith became the Lory and the Eaglet).   Also there is a monkey's face very prominent amongst the animals.  The programme suggests that this was a reference to Charles Darwin and his ideas about evolution – a hot topic at the time.

At this point Carroll was unknown whilst Tenniel was the well known  premier illustrator for Punch. He was also a perfectionist with great attention to detail.   The 2000 copies produced for the 1865 publication were scrapped on Tenniel’s instructions as he was dissatisfied with them. The images were faint and there was a faint bleed of print through pages.  Here again we see Edward Wakeling in the British Library this time with the one fragile copy of this scrapped edition in the Library’s possession.

Lewis Carroll’s death in 1898 opened the way for other illustrators.  However Tenniel’s illustrations were never surpassed as evidenced by a Punch cartoon of December 4th 1907  which pokes fun at the attempt of other illustrators to better Tenniel, all of them, in the end,  paying homage to Tenniel’s Alice. The cartoon is entitled ‘Tenniel’s Alice Reigns Supreme’.

This however did not stop people from trying.  The programme then goes on to consider other illustrators of Alice focusing particularly on Mervyn Peake’s with their comic, grotesque forms.  They then go on to discuss the movement to illustrated books for adults by discussing his revolutionary illustrated trilogy for adults – Gormenghast.

The programme concludes that the best illustrated books create a bond which endures long after childhood and become companions to our entire lives.  Which is something I think we would all agree with. If you haven’t seen the programme it is well worth watching.

Dave Lornie