'Alice's' archetypal rabbit
Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it...."
Our image of the time-challenged White Rabbit ("Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!") that Alice followed down a hole into Wonderland has been fixed indelibly by Sir John Tenniel in this illustration.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was a book that had to be illustrated. In the first paragraph, Alice, glancing at her sister's book, asks herself: "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"
So for "Alice," Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) provided conversations and Tenniel provided pictures. The result became a classic.
Tenniel wasn't the first "Alice" illustrator. Carroll did his own amateur illustrations. But Tenniel was the first professional, and although the 1865 book (and its 1871 sequel, "Through the Looking Glass") must have been reillustrated more times than any other work of fiction, the rightness of Tenniel's images has never been surpassed.
Though some illustrators depict the rabbit only later in the story, most, like Tenniel, introduce him at the outset. Anthony Browne did in 1988. His rather original rabbit, in a striped blazer, appears as a sudden anomaly among the daisies, trying hard not to run. Arthur Rackham, in 1907, had him sprinting furiously toward his hole. Ren Cloke, in 1944, made him a fop.
Mabel Lucie Attwell affectionately depicts her bunny (1911) as often as she can, even using him instead of the March hare at the Hatter's tea party. Harry Rountree, in 1908, turned him into a baggy-panted comic. Others invested him with fluffy bunniness, rabbity fluster, or toothy silliness.
Only Ralph Steadman, in 1967, comes close to a memorable reappraisal. His rabbit belts toward us, a pin-striped London commuter missing his train, wild and unhinged.
All these illustrators worked in Tenniel's shadow. But even his rabbit is said to have had a predecessor - a rabbit as a tail-coated government clerk in an 1840s book illustrated in France by "Grandville" (Jean-Isidore Gerard). Maybe even white rabbits aren't new under the sun, though Tenniel's seems archetypal.