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Sir John Tenniel’s 1875 “Through the Looking Glass” Chessboard

Sir John Tenniel’s Alice illustrations are considered to be the most prolific depictions in the history of English children’s books. A previously undocumented hand-painted chessboard created by the artist emerged last year. The original chessboard dates circa 1875 and features sixteen ink and watercolour illustrations of characters from the book, depicted within borders representing shattered glass.

Although still beautiful, the chessboard showed the faded grandeur of its aged existence. Instead of restoring it, the decision was made to recreate this great piece of international importance in its full glory. The best English artisans were hand-picked by Alice Through the Looking Glass to create a limited edition run of one hundred and fifty replicas. Illustrations were recreated by Jealous, one of London’s top fine art silk screen printers, whose clients include The Tate and The Royal Academy of Arts. The chessboards were then hand-coloured by noted watercolour artist Kate Hepburn.

The frame itself is gilded in 16.5 carat gold leaf by Ken Brookes, an expert in Victorian framing methods and gilt finishing. The playing board was recreated by Jonathan Walker, who hand-cuts each piece of marquetry in English Sycamore and Walnut before they are sanded back and varnished several times.
Each chessboard takes an average of three weeks to complete. Most of the chessboard’s sixteen illustrations show significant differences from previously seen versions, such as the White King from ‘Give me a Ham Sandwich’ whose usually closed eyes here are shown open. There is also far greater detail in some images than is present in the book illustrations, in the rendering of the backgrounds, for example. It is clear from a reading of the text of Through the Looking-Glass that the changes to the composition of the representations on the chessboard were not made solely to offer them in a more graphic form, but also to accentuate ambiguities in some areas of the text, and provide greater clarity in others.
Although Sir John Tenniel was known to have undertaken commissioned artwork after the success of the Alice books, this board is of historic importance as the game of chess is not merely a theme of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass but constitutes its principal narrative device.

This chessboard will inevitably be of strong interest to fans of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and the history and development of children’s book illustration in general, as well as being an item of great intrinsic beauty. Undoubtedly this chessboard will come to be seen as the most important discovery in the field for many years to come. The chessboards are available from the Alice Through the Looking Glass Boutique in London’s West End. The boutique also offers rare and First Editions of the Alice stories and related iconography up until the 1960’s, Victorian top hats, Bobby Fischer Chess books, limited edition prints and with a resident British Giant White Rabbit.

Alice Through The Looking Glass.
14 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4HE.


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