Etch a text

From illuminated manuscripts to graphic novels, the work of the illustrator fashions the way readers visualise fictional characters. We take a look at a new book which traces the history of the relationship between words and pictures

Why does Sir John Tenniel so shape our idea of Alice? Her adventures in Wonderland are unimaginable without him, in much the same way that we can’t think of Winnie the Pooh without EH Shepard or Charles Dickens without Phiz. Each of these fictional characters has received the tenderising effect of Disney and Hollywood, but even their million-dollar influence can’t dislodge the image formed by their original illustrators.

Jenny Uglow has written a fascinating little book that tracks the relationship between fiction and pictures. It focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, so sadly no Pooh, but she does trace the line from illuminated manuscript to illustrated stories, and graphic novels to comics, and explains how pictures shape words, and words pictures.

There are insights into how the writers worked with the illustrators – Lewis Carroll sketched ideas for Alice in Wonderland in the columns of his manuscripts – as well as their sources and influences. For example, Tenniel often borrowed from himself, with Tweedledum and Tweedledee a version of the John Bull that he drew for Punch. There are also insights on how illustrators played with high art. ‘Tenniel’s Duchess is a descendant of Quentin Massy’s 16th century Grotesque Old Woman,’ writes Uglow.

The early part of her story includes Gustave Doré’s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the parallel ideas of William Hog-arth and Henry Fielding. These may be less familiar, perhaps because we’re unlikely to have read them as children. There’s less distance with Thomas Bewick’s illustrations for William Wordsworth, whose rural idealism still catches us today. Looking at his tiny engravings, you sense Wordsworth’s rocks, mountains and woods, and the Cherryburn of Bewick’s truant youth which he spent fishing and running over the fells. Our visual association with these illustrators is complete. Alice is forever a sullen Miss, while Mr Flintwich has a ‘rickety villainy’, as Uglow puts it, that exactly captures the character. •

Words & Pictures by Jenny Uglow, £12.99, is published by Faber and Faber in November

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