Down the rabbit hole with John Tenniel

alice-in-wonderland-and-through-the-looking-glassIt’s just over one month into the New Year and the world of politics is thrashing from one extraordinary tweet to another and here in the UK a notable Member of Parliament has even suggested some of our politicians are living in Wonderland.

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Chapter VII, A Mad Tea Party, ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. 1898 Illustration by John Tenniel (from my grandmother’s 1905 edition)

In last week’s parliamentary debate on Brexit, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, expressed his views on the hopes of his Pro-Brexit colleagues saying,

“Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we had never been able to achieve as part of the European Union,” he said. “Nice men like President Trump and President Erdoğan are just impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. No doubt there is somewhere a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”

Flicking through my Grandmother’s copy of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, to find the famous John Tenniel illustration of the Hatter’s Tea Party, I spotted a few more delightfully grotesque images I’d forgotten.

Interestingly, there is a tradition hailing from Suffolk, that a medieval stained glass, representation of Elizabeth Talbot, wife of John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is the inspiration for the Duchess in John Tenniel’s illustrations found in ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’.


This splendid painted glass is part of the spectacular, medieval stained glass windows of Holy Trinity, Long Melford in Suffolk. However, when digging around for further information I read that some commentators have suggested Elizabeth Talbot looks more like the Queen of Hearts. I’m not sure whether it is the headdress styles or the facial expressions depicted that have prompted such comparisons.

Of course, either way it’s a nice idea, but I think, in truth, I am more in agreement with Marilyn Roberts who, writing in ‘The Mowbray Legacy’, suggests that the well-known painting, ‘Grotesque Old Woman/The Ugly Duchess’ by Quentin Massys in the National Gallery, was more likely Tenniel’s inspiration.

ugly duchess
‘The Ugly Duchess’ or ‘Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quentin Massys. Oil on oak panel 62.4 by 45.5 cm. circa 1513 National Gallery, London.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

17 thoughts on “Down the rabbit hole with John Tenniel”

    1. Oh Denis, I am a moron – I’ve just Googled that track and within less than a bar I knew it. And, I’ve known it for years as one of those songs I love, but never listened to who it was by. As a huge Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fan you would have thought I’d had worked it out by now. Doh! Thanks so much – will be adding to my phone pronto!!! 😁

      1. I have it as part of a four CD set of music from the Vietnam era. Those illustrations in your 1905 book are superb. My 1962 copy of Alice has coloured plates by a “David Walsh”. Nice, but not a patch on yours in my opinion.

      2. Yes, the Vietnam era had some fine and weighty songs that some of my slightly older friends introduced me to and those songs have stuck in my ‘tune’ head ever since.
        Re Alice, as a child I remember wanting colour pictures and was not impressed by these black and white sketches. Now, as an adult, I think the Tenniel illustrations are superb and working on several levels. Obviously, I was NOT a sophisticated child!

      3. My brother was in the age bracket to be called up for Vietnam. It was a lottery system here. That is one lottery win he was happy to miss out on. But his best mate went. I guess we were ultra tuned into the music of the era.

      4. Oh my yes, it was a defining era in Australia’s history. Some 60,000 defence personnel of all three services fought in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. More than a third of these were “Nashos” (National Serviceman) who were conscripted. Direct casualties were 521 dead and over 3,000 wounded, but social and mental “injuries” endured. My best friend, for example, was married to a Vietnam vet. She suffered several miscarriages, a stillbirth, and the death of her 6 week old baby, all unofficially attributed to her husband’s exposure to Agent Orange. You might be interested to listen to “I Was only Nineteen”, by Redgum.

      5. You know that really is all news to me and I remember seeing so many photos certainly around 1970 onwards in the newspapers at the time, but never heard or noticed about Australia’s involvement. My family did have a cottage near a USAF base and knew people who knew people who had flown in Vietnam (now in their 80s). I suppose the UK press was more obsessed with what the USA was doing. That is one thing you can say for the Internet – these days all kind of national activity is photographed and tweeted from every corner of the world. The Agent Orange business was truly terrible. I expect even the old dinosaurs here running the traditional media would be hard pushed not to notice Australia’s participation if were happening today.

      6. Oh! Well, “glad” that I was able to fill in some gaps. It had a huge impact on us all, and led to moratorium marches and other protests. It was hard on the men who returned as there was a backlash against them, and most had troubling regaining their former lives. It is only now their suffering is being recognised. After the fall of Saigon we started to get the South Vietnamese refugees arriving by boat, and that was the beginning of the end for our “White Australia Policy” (another shameful moment in history). Also, the American forces coming into Australia for their R&R are often credited with introducing drugs into our society – although I am sure we would have got there all by ourselves in good time. So, our participation in the Vietnam war, brought about as a consequence of our alliance with the USA and our conservative government’s fear of the communist peril to our north, had a domino effect on our society which is still evident today.

  1. He gets himself about, John Tenniel. There’s a church in Beverley East Yorkshire, St. May’s, where there’s a carving of a rabbit said to be his inspiration for,Carroll’s Mad March Hare and Tenniel”s illustration.

    1. Not surprising really as he was one of those Victorian men that lived a long time well into his nineties. Expect he was probably a seasoned traveller too and some national kudos for our own we corner of these Isles is always welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: