Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Mad Tea Party

Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice books remain familiar even today. Over the years many other fine illustrators and artists have been inspired to take on this masterpiece of children's literature. Below are a few examples of different illustrative approaches to A Mad Tea Party.

Here we have a color plate of Sir John Tenniel's famous original illustration for the Lewis Carroll classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). This well-established image is clearly the one to beat. But even if an illustrator could surpass this, is it possible for any image to replace this one in the public's imagination?

Arthur Rackham, A Mad Tea Party, 1907
Arthur Rackham's book illustrations generally occupy a full page and are therefore usually more vertical compositions, or what we in the digital age call the portrait orientation. This is more beautiful than Tenniel's woodcut rendering and more ornate, but it may be a little too sedate for a truly Mad Tea Party. Alice's unease is palpable. Tenniel's Alice was downright cross.

J. MacFarlane, The Mad Tea-Party
22. Dodgson (Charles Lutwidge)], "Lewis Carroll." Macmillan's Coloured Wall Illustrations, Alice in Wonderland, wall-hanging, 6 large colour illustrations by J.MacFarlane, linen backed, original wooden wall hanger, slightly dusty, 730 x 500mm., [c.1920].
est. £200 – £300  
Sold for £2000

Sale 35824, 7th July 2011

The above illustration by J. MacFarlane is little more than an appealing reworking of the Tenniel original, circa 1920. MacFarlane changes the composition from horizontal to vertical, presumably to accommodate the orientation of the wall-hanging.

Ralph Steadman, A Mad Tea Party, 1967
Ralph Steadman's skill as a draftsman is uncanny. Here his rendition from 1967 is the rudest Mad Tea Party I have found, hardly your typical children's book fare. Note the very original and appropriate use of upside-down typesetting. Steadman often brings a stunning savagery to his illustrations--this one, believe it or not, is relatively tame--and yet his compositions frequently are just brilliant. I don't think there's anything he can't draw. Like Alice, though, I think I might like to slink under the table here.

Salvador Dali, A Mad Tea Party, lithograph, 1969
Dali places his characters in the background, where Alice is the figure jumping rope. Consequently, this seems to be more of an artistic composition based on the story rather than a true illustration of Alice's adventure. Like Steadman, Dali has a tree growing through the middle of the table, here rendered as a pocket watch with a key. We've all seen Dali's bent timepieces before, but was there ever a more appropriate use than here at the Mad Tea Party with the perennially late White Rabbit in attendance?

Sir John Tenniel, A Mad Tea Party, 1865

Image added June 23, 2012

J. MacFarlane at Bloomsbury Auctions:
Salvador Dali:

Note:  My previous post on Arthur Rackham, "How Sir Lancelot Was Shot," can be found here.



  1. Deja Vu I think I've seen this theme before. Such a wealth of material in literature :-)

  2. The second image is not an Alice illustration, is it? What is artsy

  3. Sous-Chef, I think that dang Rouxminator blog beat me to it! ;)

    Uli, I think I fixed the problem. The Rackham should be visible now.