The Cheshire Cat

Last time I left you with the Ugly Duchess, and her ugly unsettling pig-baby. Ugh. But the Duchess also has a cat, and he’s probably one of the most famous, beloved characters in the whole book: the grinning Cheshire Cat. Cheshire is, as you might know, an actual place in England, formerly known as the […]

Last time I left you with the Ugly Duchess, and her ugly unsettling pig-baby. Ugh. But the Duchess also has a cat, and he’s probably one of the most famous, beloved characters in the whole book: the grinning Cheshire Cat.

Cheshire is, as you might know, an actual place in England, formerly known as the County Palatine of Chester, and it’s located in the northwest.

When Carroll decides to turn the Cheshire Cat into an actual character, the expression “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” was already widely used and can be found in the second edition of Francis Grose‘s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788).

Cheshire cat. He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.

In literature, it had been used briefly by John Wolcot‘s Pair of Lyric Epistles (1792), written under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar, and by William Makepeace Thackeray‘s novel The Newcomes (1855).

As it sometimes happens, the origin of the saying is to be traced back to a Pub’s sign. According to Samuel Maunder, in his Treasury of Knowledge and Library Reference (1853), this is how it happens:

This phrase owes its origin to the unhappy attempts of a sign painter of that country to represent a lion rampant, which was the crest of an influential family, on the sign-boards of many of the inns. The resemblance of these lions to cats caused them to be generally called by the more ignoble name. A similar case is to be found in the village of Charlton, between Pewsey and Devizes, Wiltshire. A public-house by the roadside is commonly known by the name of The Cat at Charlton. The sign of the house was originally a lion or tiger, or some such animal, the crest of the family of Sir Edward Poore.

Another theory is that Cheshire had cheese moulded in the shape of a grinning cat, and according to Dr. Phyllis Greenacre in her psychoanalytic writings on Carroll:

…this has a peculiar Carrollian appeal, as it provokes the fantasy that the cheesy cat may eat the rat that would eat the cheese.

There’s for sure a strong connection between the Cat and the Moon, as our Cheshire Cat is a vanishing cat, which might furtherly strengthen its connection with the cheese.

A discovery made by Joel Birenbaum and published in 1992 dag up the stone carving of a grinning cat’s head, glaring in the air a few feet above the floor, in St. Peter’s Church of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll’s father was a rector.

The first illustration we have portraying the cat is of course the same one where we see the Duchess: the cat is lying at her feet, grinning, and it’s the Duchess herself that provides Alice with the explanation that the cat is grinning because it’s a Cheshire Cat.

“I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin”.

John Tenniel (1889)

The most significant illustration is however the second one, in which we properly meet the cat on top of a branch, we are able to engage in conversation and we can see its vanishing act.

The Cat only grinned, when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still, it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

The illustration is a fairly complex one, framing the page. There have been other versions, colouring it and completing it. In those, the cat is generally painted brown.

John Tenniel (1889)

Arthur Rackham, with whom we have been engaged for quite a lengthy series of posts during this year, also gives us a striped Cheshire Cat, and decides to place it literally in the sky, among clouds.

Arthur Rackham (1907)

It would be impossible to collect all the different illustrations of the cat, as it happened with the Caterpillar, especially since the cat of the new movies was fairly popular and, as it, unfortunately, happens a lot with movies, different unoriginal versions sprouted from there. Retracing back our usual sources and our usual pool of my favourite illustrations, however, we might be able to put up a decent collection.

Blanche McManus (1899)

Blanche McManus, the first illustrator for Alice in Wonderland after Tenniel, illustrates the meeting between Alice and the Cat using the same structure she picked for the illustration of a similar meeting between Alice and the Caterpillar, and this can’t be by chance.

Blanche McManus (1899)

In her usual chromatic style, she paints Alice’s dress ret and focuses on the green for the tree, the hills and the general surroundings, only indulging in a touch of red for the distant house’s roof (one might imagine it’s the Duchess’ house). The cat is striped and it’s depicted in a less gradual vanishing act.

Maria L. Kirk (1904)

The same structure, with Alice facing the cat instead of facing us, is picked by Maria L. Kirk, with her usual yellow-dressed Alice. The girl is shown performing a courtesy and there’s great attention to the botanical details of the surrounding, both for the trees and the plants in the lower-right corner.

Maria L. Kirk (1904)

Bessie Pease Gutmann (1909)

If you search for the production of this illustrator, who specialized in plumpy children, you’ll find a lot of extremely accurate cats and kittens. As such, it’s odd that she choose not to illustrate the Cheshire Cat. I, unfortunately, don’t own myself a complete edition illustrated by her, therefore I have to rely upon what I find online, and this time internet failed me. There only seems to be a small inkwork that I give you below.

Bessie Pease Gutmann (1907)

Millicent Sowerby (1907 and 1913)

The most famous cat by Millicent Sowerby is not the Cheshire Cat, but an illustration for Cinderella, featuring a red-haired girl and a black cat. You can see it below.

She’s also known for illustrations not dissimilar to Pease Gutmann’s ones, with babies cuddling kittens, but no Cheshire Cat is to be found in neither of her takes. Again, I do not own a copy and if someone is able to dig something up I’ll be grateful.

Amy Millicent Sowerby, Cinderella

Charles Robinson (1907)

Probably my second-favourite male illustrator of Lewis Carroll, the first of course being Rackham, Charles Robinson comes from the Black Cat Book, a nice publication written by Walter Copeland. It contains little marvels like the ones below.

For the Cheshire Cat, Robinson gives us one of his beautiful framed illustrations, with the Cheshire Cat up in the sky, superimposed to the moon in an incredible sky. There’s unfortunately only a picture on Alarmy (did I tell you how much I hate people selling stuff in the public domain?) so I can’t show it to you.

Harry Rountree (1908)

Harry Rountree has an incredible style and a knack for illustrating unusual scenes. Here (again, no better picture available) the cat is depicted as a distinctively wild cat, more towards a lynx than towards the fluffy house cat sometimes shown by illustrators.

Harry Rountree (1908)

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1910)

Yes, you guessed. As every other illustrator out there who specialized in fluffy illustrations of fluffy children, she did her fair share of kittens being cuddled by babies. She does a Cheshire Cat, however, but only in the second scene we meet him in, the Croquet Game, and that calls for another post. Here, you’ll have to settle for another kitten.

Mabel Lucie Attwell

Alice B. Woodward (1913)

She’s also one to show us the Cheshire Cat in all his glory during the croquet game and I just put her here for a future memo to myself, but if you don’t remember her I urge you to take a look to another post about Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and I give you one of her illustrations for Alice, specifically the one with the Duchess tossing around her yet-to-become pig baby.

Alice Woodward (1913)

Margaret W. Tarrant (1916)

I love Margaret W. Tarrant, both for her full-page and for her framed ones. When it comes to the Cheshire Cat, she gives us both, one for the croquet game and one when we first meet the cat. I give you the second one.

Margaret Tarrant (1916)

Willy Pogany (1929)

Talking about unusual illustrations, it’s impossible not to feature Willy Pogany and his delightfully 20s illustrations. There’s a couple of them featuring the Cheshire Cat: one with the cat on top of the branch and the other one with the vanishing cat.

Willy Pogany (1929)


Willy Pogany (1929)

Rene Cloke (1943)

Rene Cloke, whom I featured only once before, has a very particular style and was published by Gawthorne in 1943, followed by a similarly illustrated edition of the Looking-Glass seven years afterwards.

Her illustration of the cat is in black and orange, used to highlight both Alice’s hair and the cat’s fur, alongside some autumnal surroundings.

René Cloke (1943)

Tove Jansson (1966)

The Mumin’s creator gives us the cat at the top of the mantlepiece in the Duchess’ house, we saw it in the previous post, and one at the croquet game, but there’s also an illustration for a girl walking beside a giant cat, and I’m not entirely sure what that’s all about.

Tove Jansson (1966)

Ralph Steadman (1967)

Do you remember him? Well, how can you forget? If his commuting White Rabbit was incredible, his Cheshire Cat doesn’t disappoint.

Ralph Steadman (1967)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.