The Cheshire cat continues to appear

An extraordinary number of artists have illustrated Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" since its publication in 1865. The author himself first drew pictures for it, but Sir John Tenniel's black and white illustrations were the first published. They have stamped "Alice" with a succession of sometimes haunting images that few other artists have subsequently matched - or successfully ignored. Tenniel's images echo the weird inner logic of the writing, its satire on Victorian behavior and affection for things macabre and medieval. These illustrations even innocently foretell 20th-century surrealism.

Tenniel's images of the Cheshire cat, unnerving, grinning, persistently appearing and disappearing, suggest it was hardly a cuddly character.

This strange vanishing cat presents an illustrator with a special challenge. How does a visual artist depict invisibility? Easier to show it in the process of disappearing. At one point in the narrative, nothing is left but its grin. Some artists have shown the cat's fade-out in a kind of filmic sequence. One of the most recent and brilliantly inventive "Alices" is a pop-up book by the masterly Robert Sabuda. His Cheshire cat in the tree appears and vanishes as only a pop-up cat could.

Strangely, Tenniel's cat, with its mischievous leer, is drawn in a fairly relaxed way, and in the next illustration, as it begins to slowly disappear, all the artist has done is partially shadow its form with a mass of cross-hatched black lines. It is as though Tenniel had decided there was no need to resort to ingenious visual tricks. A convention would suffice. All that was necessary was to suggest to the reader an improbable event that the reader's imagination, persuaded by both word and image, would then even more effectively complete.

Lewis Carroll didn't invent the phrase "to grin like a Cheshire cat." Cheshire is an English county famous for its cheeses. At one time some of these were made in the shape of a smiling cat, or had the head of a cat stamped on them. This seems to be the idea's most likely origin. Did the cat grin because it was saying "Cheese"? Who knows?

But anyway, Carroll and Tenniel made the Cheshire cat undyingly their own.

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