Is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ an origin point for fantastic art?

Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s summer, and where I am that means it’s convention season. There are several cons on the horizon that will likely draw visitors in the tens of thousands. One of my favourite things about a con, especially a comic convention, is the artist’s alley.

It’s become something of a tradition for me, but I love to find a nice (and affordable!) print that I can hang up on my wall. Of course, I look for comics, but I also make it a point to find something that I can use to decorate my home. There are always great artists that have cool stuff on display, and some of it is truly inspired.

Thinking about all of this got me wondering though, what are the roots of the fantastic illustrations that I love? is there one person? Does fantasy art have an origin story? The answer is likely wide-ranging and not something that can be attributed to a single person. Regardless, it’s fun trying, and I had a good time digging around in image archives to look for older pictures that could be catalogued as “fantastic art”.

Interestingly enough, my search led to the classic story, Alice in Wonderland. The story’s author, Lewis Carroll (born, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was himself a bit of an illustrator, but it was the work of artist John Tenniel that most people probably recognize. I’m not a biographer and would suggest any interested parties take some time to look over some of his background that has been recounted elsewhere.

What I’d like to focus on is Tenniel’s work. Incredibly, despite having been created in the 19th century, much of Tenniel’s work still endures today. There are images reprinted on all kinds of merchandise that refer back to the original story he had illustrated for Carroll.

I don’t know about you, but I love this image. The detail, the shading, the composition of the scene, basically, everything. It’s not something that anyone would likely ever see hung in a prestigious museum, but it is a fantastic piece of art, both literally and figuratively.

Tenniel’s work has no doubt served as inspiration for many many artists that have followed him. Is he the origin of fantastic art? Maybe, but probably not. There’s no doubt a number of artists have contributed works that could be described as “fantastic”. However, are Tenniel’s contributions significant historical pieces of fantastic art, and by extension art history? Absolutely. It’s not often that both a story and its illustrations endure in equal measure. Tenniel’s work has, and that’s why he merits special consideration here.

Please enjoy other works by John Tenniel that are available via Wikimedia Commons as well as the Internet Archive. It’s worth your time and all of Tenniel’s works should be in the public domain. Happy browsing!