Romantic Medievalism In Fairytales

Alice and the Duchess (Tenniel)
SCBWI member and researcher Chloe Yelland takes a look at some of the influences that affected nineteenth century children's illustrators

Romantic Medievalism was a 19th century movement of artists, who blended history and mythology into illustrations for fairytales, a topic I’ve been fascinated by since studying it at university. Illustrators from Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914) to Kate Greenaway (1846 – 1901) captured the imagination by creating imaginary scenes using the motifs of different time periods, including their own Victorian age.

Take Tenniel’s illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures In Wonderland for example. The whole story is set in the 1860's, but changes when Alice enters Wonderland in pursuit of the White Rabbit and meets characters with medieval, but supernatural peculiarities. Tenniel added pieces of medieval history to specific scenes with objects from everyday life to create his own bizarre characterizations, like the kings, queens and knights: all three inspired by the red and black designs of playing cards.

Another character that interests me is the Duchess, I hadn't realised that a painting A Grotesque old woman (possibly the Duchess of Carinthia) by Flemish Renaissance artist Quentin Massys, inspired Tenniel's interpretation of her. In the illustration, she wears an iconic low cut dress from five hundred years ago, and maintains the frown from the original painting to add individuality to her character. Tenniel and other experts have described the Duchess’ characterization as ‘pocket-watch’, the original translation of the Duchess’ surname. However, the biggest feature that caught my eye was the Duchess’ enlarged head against Alice’s normal Victorian costume, making the setting appear more like a scene people would see in a theatre play.

Quentin Massys A Grotesque old woman
circa 1513 (National Gallery)

Children’s illustrator Kate Greenaway, who influenced Tenniel, used a similar approach with romantic medievalism, sourcing classical styles from the Regency period and other eras to adorn her characters: for example adding bonnets and pinafore dresses to classical Greek dress to explore her fascination with imaginative fairytales. 

Kate Greenaway, from A Day in a Child’s Life, circa 1881

According to writer Rodney Engen, who wrote her biography [1], fairies, gnomes and other supernatural creatures inspired her characters. I noticed in one illustration, Dolly’s Dream (1875) a little girl bearing a striking resemblance to Alice. Though there is less medievalism, the background of Romanticism show what is going on inside the little girl’s mind, creating her own imaginative world like Alice. This is an example of Greenaway's depiction of fairytales with classical Victorian styles and techniques.
Kate Greenaway, from the Illustrated London News Christmas Issue 1875

With Romantic Medievalism I see how illustrators brought their imaginations to life through the appropriation of historical symbols and mythology, as in Tenniel's Through The Looking Glass, where most of the scenes are set on a chessboard with each shape representing a piece of countryside; or Greenaway with her explorations of classical themes involving day dreams and childhood memories. Fellow illustrator Edmund Evans described her images as ‘very pretty quaint designs of little children, so cleverly lithographed’.

[1] * Engen, Rodney: Kate Greenaway a Biography (London Macdonald 1981)


Chloe Yelland is a recently graduated illustrator and researcher.

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