ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Chris Riddell's Wonderland

Alison Padley-Woods asks former Children's Laureate, Chris Riddell, OBE, about his new visual interpretations of Lewis Carroll's classics, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and 
Through the Looking Glass.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has every reason to celebrate with a cup of tea, a jam tart and a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. First published in 1865, the book has never been out of print, its cultural importance continues to grow, and it is firmly established as a classic throughout the world.
Last year, Lewis Carroll’s publisher, Macmillan, brought out a gorgeous new visual interpretation of the iconic tale for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Tenniel, its original illustrator. 

Chris Riddell's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Macmillan, 2020

This summer came the stunning new version of Through the Looking Glass, commemorating 150 years since its first publication. Both stories have been illustrated and re-imagined by award-winning Chris Riddell, OBE, former Children’s Laureate and political cartoonist for The Observer

Chris Riddell's Through the Looking Glass,
Macmillan, 2021

The books are part of a fanfare of celebration. Until December, you can journey through the fantastical world of Wonderland and see some of Chris’s illustrations alongside Tenniel’s at the V & A’s Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition. The Royal Mint have just issued a series of coins featuring Tenniel’s designs, and last month on 4 July, a giant puppet of Alice paraded through Oxford as part of The Story Museum’s annual Alice Day Festival. 

The Festival marks the first telling of the story on 4 July 1862 when Charles Dodgson, a don at Christ Church College, took ten-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a boating trip along the River Thames from Folly Bridge in Oxford. To entertain them, Dodgson told a story about a little girl, bored on the riverbank, who tumbles down a rabbit hole into the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland. Alice loved the story so much, she urged Dodgson to write it down and in 1864 he gifted her the original hand-written manuscript, now in the British Library

Chris Riddell’s Alice (below), inspired by the real-life Alice Liddell, perfectly brings to life the little girl with the dark-haired bob who sailed along the Thames with Carroll.

Chris Riddell's Down the Rabbit Hole,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
Macmillan, 2020

So why has the story, published under Dodgson’s pen name Lewis Carroll, survived multiple generations while others enjoy short lived glory? Does the special combination between words and pictures play a part?

Chris explains:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'

 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll 

Tenniel’s illustrations have become some of the most famous in literary history. He was, it turns out, a childhood hero of Chris’s.

What are Chris’s early memories of Tenniel’s work, why did it resonate with him as a child and how did it feel being asked to follow in his footsteps? 

Like Chris, Tenniel was a celebrated political cartoonist of his day. No coincidence, perhaps. The caricaturist’s interest in the uniqueness of people and things, the disturbing sense of fantasy and reality lends itself to the mad cap world of Wonderland. In fact, Tenniel’s work in Punch, characteristically grotesque through his dark atmospheric drawings of exaggerated creatures, was said to be one of the reasons Carroll wanted him as his illustrator. 

Sir John Tenniel's Jabberwocky,
Through the Looking Glass,
Macmillan, 1871

So, did Chris feel an affinity with Tenniel when he was illustrating the Alice books?

"One of the great pleasures when I was at school, was to open a history textbook and see this very recognizable drawing of Britannia and the Lion and realise it had been drawn by Tenniel," says Chris. "I loved the notion that his distinct style worked in both contexts – that the same guy who illustrated Alice in Wonderland was also doing a political cartoon in Punch. That’s the connection. I like the idea that the illustrations I do in a book like Alice in Wonderland can be transposed almost directly into the pages of The Observer without me changing my style. I think that’s the affinity I felt with Tenniel."

Carroll’s world full of puns and puzzles is a playground for the mind. Dodgson was a mathematician – a man of logic. Yet, he recognized its pitfalls and was said since childhood to have had a fascination with language, its ambiguities and double meanings.

'You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse who seemed to be talking in his sleep, 'that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!'

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

On the surface, Alice in Wonderland is about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole, but what it is really about? Surrealism – the releasing of the unconscious mind? The difficulties of adolescence and growing up? 

John Tenniel's Alice,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
Macmillan, 1865

The story's meaning is difficult to pin down, allowing it to morph time and time again. From Disney’s technicolor animation in 1951 to Tim Burton’s weirdly delicious 2010 film and The Royal Ballet’s production by Christopher Wheeldon in 2011, it has been re-imagined in many ways. There have been other illustrators too – Arthur Rackham and Tove Jansson.
With so many influences, how difficult was it for Chris to approach the story and give it his own individual slant?

"Once I’d made the decision to illustrate this classic text, it wasn’t a problem. I didn’t want to not illustrate it in my style which is why I decided to stick with the Victorian setting, but at the same time I wanted something modern about it in terms of the design and feel which was to do with the extent. I had over 300 pages to lay out text and imagine Wonderland in all its glory. So there was this lovely format where I could illustrate all the main parts of the story but also all the things Tenniel didn’t get a chance to illustrate. Very early on, I knew I wanted to do the traditional colour plates with all the wonderful iconic scenes."

Chris Riddell's A Mad Tea-Party,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
written by Lewis Carroll,
Macmillan, 2020

"Going through the rest of the book there were lots of opportunities to have vignettes, but also double page spreads where you could go right to the margins for the epic Caucus Race, the Jabberwocky,

What I did was rough out the entire book in miniature as tiny thumbnails, leaving space for the text. When I gave it to Becky, the wonderful designer I work with, one of those magical things happened – Becky blew up the tiny illustrations and put the text where I had put the text – and it fitted."

Chris's Alice meets the Cheshire Cat,
Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland,
Macmillan, 2020

And to be given free rein to work on the books, what was that like? 

"Well, it was lovely," says Chris, "to have a text you are free to interpret, and yet working with writers is one of the great pleasures of being an illustrator." He explains: 

Above, Chris sketches his ‘Thursday Hippopotamus’ from Through the Looking Glass. "It’s a wonderful character that doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves," he says. Of course, throughout her adventures, Alice encounters many fantastical characters and creatures: the Cheshire Cat, the Duchess and her baby that changes into a pig, the Mock Turtle, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Red Queen and Tweedledum and Tweedledee to name just a few. 

So how did Chris go about creating the characters – where did he begin? 

"I always start with a sketchbook and fill it up with as many character studies and designs as I can think of to get myself into the world of the text. With Wonderland there was so much to imagine. How am I going to draw the Mad Hatter for instance ... which was one of the great challenges."

Chris's Hatter, from his sketchbook

"I decided to try to do an ‘anti-Hatter’, totally different to Tenniel’s. There’s nothing to say the Hatter has to be a Victorian gentleman and I thought maybe the Hatter can be a girl. After all, it’s Wonderland.

The key in illustrated children’s books," continues Chris, "is to create characters in the round and draw them repeatedly. By the different attitudes, angles, and facial expressions you can build up a believability in the characters and get to know them."

Chris Riddell's Cheshire Cat,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
Macmillan, 2020

Did Chris have a favourite character he particularly enjoyed drawing and why? 

"I enjoyed drawing the caterpillar, because for me the caterpillar sitting on its magic mushroom was iconic, but in Tenniel’s version you never actually see the caterpillar’s face, you see him in profile. I wanted to see what the caterpillar looked like, because it was the one illustration where Tenniel has been impressionistic. I decided he would have this sense of a Victorian gentleman, slightly orientalist with many arms and slippered legs, and there was this smoking jacket idea that turned into a sort of contemporary puffer jacket. But it was from these things, the spaces left for me to claim in my version that I enjoyed."

"Through the Looking Glass has some real
treasures," says Chris, "not least
The Walrus and the Carpenter."

For fans of maps in children’s books, Chris’s new interpretations include landscapes of Wonderland and Looking Glass Land, each marked with places that speak of magic and intrigue: The Door in the Tree, Lion and Unicorn Town, Looking Glass Railway, Bumblephant Meadow. 

Chris Riddell's Wonderland,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
Macmillan, 2020

Does mapping out the fantasy landscapes help the child reader and is it important?

Chris explains:

Thumbing through these new visual interpretations, the reader is greeted with a feast of kaleidoscope colour and detailed black and white line illustrations in Chris's inimitable style. 

So, does he have any tips for students at the beginning of their journey who are developing their own techniques? 

Keep a sketchbook, or notebook, because out of that comes everything. These books are our workshops. It’s where we think, where we imagine and where things begin to occur …

Finally, to reinterpret such classic stories and play a part in the history and enduring memories of Alice in Wonderland must feel very special?

"It really does," says Chris. "The only regret was Covid as with everything else. There were fantastic launches planned and it was all going to be wonderful. Then the world stopped. It’s been a shame that we haven’t been allowed to celebrate books just when we needed them more than ever and I’m hoping as we move forward that we can get back to some fantastic celebrations of children’s literature and children’s books."

"I’ve loved coming along to SCBWI Conferences," adds Chris, "meeting young illustrators and new writers, people from all walks, and I think when we can all get out – that there will be a hunger for readings, discussion and exhibitions – a real creative bounce out of all this."

I imagine Alice and her companions would drink to that. After all, it might seem "quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way."

Many thanks to Chris Riddell for giving SCBWI members a glimpse into his world, for sharing his illustrations with SCBWI and for such an inspiring interview. It was a privilege!

* Header image of Chris Riddell, Macmillan Publishing


Chris Riddell Twitter

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her on Twitter.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.