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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of the fairies, however, are undeniably feminine.
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)