E. Gertrude Thomson, Lewis Carroll’s Other Illustrator

(Last Updated On: March 15, 2018)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has had hundreds of illustrators since its initial publication, but for most readers the book will forever be linked to John Tenniel, its first illustrator. Despite the fame that Carroll’s book achieved in his lifetime with the help of Tenniel’s fantastic illustrations, Carroll and Tenniel never maintained anything but a working relationship. That cannot be said of E. Gertrude Thomson, the illustrator for a collection of poems Carroll had published in 1898, the same year he passed away, and most famously the designer and illustrator for the cover of The Nursery “Alice”, a revised edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland aimed at infants and toddlers which was first published in 1890, a fully twenty-five years after the original.

E. Gertrude Thomson – The Nursery Alice (cover)(1898)

Carroll had long been an admirer of Thomson’s illustrations of fairies for Christmas cards (it may seem an odd juxtaposition to have fairies on holiday cards, but let’s not forget the Victorian obsession with the fair folk, which Carroll certainly possessed), and later of one of his favorite books, William Allingham’s The Fairies—A Child’s Song, which can be viewed and read in its entirety at the Archive site.

E. Gertrude Thomson – The Fairies – A Child’s Song (1)(1883)

E. Gertrude Thomson – The Fairies – A Child’s Song (2)(1883)

E. Gertrude Thomson – The Fairies – A Child’s Song (3)(1883)

We have, in fact, an account by Thomson of her first meeting with Carroll, and it’s steeped in charm and authenticity:

A little before twelve I was at the rendezvous, and then the humour of the situation suddenly struck me, that I had not the ghost of an idea what he was like, nor would he have any better chance of discovering me! The room was fairly full of all sorts and conditions, as usual, and I glanced at each masculine figure in turn, only to reject it as a possibility of the one I sought. Just as the big clock had clanged out twelve, I heard the high vivacious voices and laughter of children sounding down the corridor.

At that moment a gentleman entered, two little girls clinging to his hands, and as I caught sight of the tall slim figure, with the clean-shaven, delicate, refined face, I said to myself, “That’s Lewis Carroll.” He stood for a moment, head erect, glancing swiftly over the room, then, bending down, whispered something to one of the children; she, after a moment’s pause, pointed straight at me.

Dropping their hands he came forward, and with that winning smile of his that utterly banished the oppressive sense of the Oxford don, said simply, “I am Mr. Dodgson; I was to meet you, I think?” To which I as frankly smiled, and said, “How did you know me so soon?”

“My little friend found you. I told her I had come to meet a young lady who knew fairies, and she fixed on you at once. But I knew you before she spoke.”

If that wouldn’t win one an immediate lifelong friendship, I don’t know what would. As it so happened, it did precisely that. In fact, Thomson and Carroll became such close friends that Miss Thomson, as Carroll generally referred to her, was one of the few people he invited to witness his photographing of children, even in the nude. Thomson was known to be present during several of these sessions with the Henderson sisters, for example, subjects of one of the few surviving nudes Carroll produced before he gave up photography for good in 1880, likely because of the rumors that had begun circulating about his passion for photographing little girls sans habillement.

From these sessions Thomson made several sketches which almost certainly became drawings for Three Sunsets and Other Poems (available in full at Project Gutenberg). These drawings bear a simplicity of execution and lack of background detail that allows the plump and innocent allure of the figures to shine.

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (cover)

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (1)

Carroll originally intended for all of the fairies to be female, owing to his revulsion to the male form. As he said to Thomson after seeing early versions of her drawings for the book:

If you would add to the hair, and slightly refine the wrist and ankles, it would make a beautiful girl. I had much rather have all the fairies girls, if you wouldn’t mind. For I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem to me to need clothes: whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up!

There is certainly more than a touch of that old Victorian sexism in this confession, something that might have irked Miss Thomson. Given it was Carroll’s project for which Thomson was creating her illustrations, one can see why she would concede to his requests.  Nevertheless, several of them still do retain traces of more boyish fairies, including the image Carroll was commenting on here, the so-called “bower illustration,” the final version of which can be seen below.

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (2)

Most of the fairies, however, are undeniably feminine.

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (3)

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (4)

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (5)

E. Gertrude Thomson – Three Sunsets and Other Poems (6)


Allingham, William, The Fairies – A Child’s Song

Carroll, Lewis, The Nursery “Alice”

Carroll, Lewis, Three Sunsets and Other Poems

Cohen, Morton N., Lewis Carroll: A Biography

Cohen, Morton N. and Edward Wakeling, eds., Lewis Carroll & His Illustrators: Collaborations and Correspondence, 1865-1898

Collingwood, Stuart Dodgson, ed., The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (Rev. C.L. Dodgson)

8 thoughts on “E. Gertrude Thomson, Lewis Carroll’s Other Illustrator

  1. As much as I respect the memory of Lewis Carroll, “to each his own”.
    Personally, I think that little girls and little boys are equally beautiful.

    • I certainly don’t have the revulsion to boys’ bodies that Carroll had, though I confess I do find girls on the whole to be the more aesthetically pleasing of the two. I should point out that as a child Carroll attended an all-boys’ school where it is quite possible he suffered abuse at the hands of other boys. That might account for his revulsion towards them.

        • Except adult male heterosexuals tend to prefer adult male friends. I think his obsession with girls and distaste for boys transcended anything like the average. Carroll famously said, “I adore children. Except boys.” Obviously he was being a bit clever there, but I honestly think he really didn’t care much for them on the whole. His distaste for the nude bodies of little boys is odd in context.

          We also have accounts of Carroll’s experiences from Rugby, and they were not good overall. In a diary he kept as a young man, he describes the feature in a school he visited by comparing it against his own. He said, “The dormitory is the most unique feature of the whole: in two large rooms, by a very trifling expense of wood-work, every boy has a snug little bedroom secured to himself, where he is free from interruption and annoyance. This to little boys must be a very great addition to their happiness, as being a kind of counterbalance to any bullying they may suffer during the day. From my own experience of school life at Rugby I can say that if I could have been thus secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.”

          Given what he describes here, I can imagine he was very much put off of boys by all the negative experiences he had with them while growing up. Whatever abuses he suffered at night (we have no details), clearly they were quite bad.

    • God knows where these preferences originate -Nature? Nurture? Perhaps I’m suspicious to note that Gertrude’s girls are sans nipples. Modesty? Censorship?

      • I noticed some of them have nipples and others don’t. I think it was probably an aesthetic choice rather than a moral one.

      • No big deal, but I might as well point out the typo in the article in which her name is spelled without the “R” in “Gertrude”.
        (I verified it in the Wikipedia article about her.)
        Lee has the spelling right in her comment.

        • Good catch! Just a dumb typo that got repeated during image labeling, and I apparently did the same in the body of the article, though I got it correct in some of the images. Anyway, thanks again.

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