Monday, January 21, 2008

Ugly Duchess character understanding


Quentin Massys                             John Tenniel

      Ugly Duchess has quite a history in illustration. Sir John Tenniel created her image based on the portrait 'A Grotesque Old Woman' (1513), by the Flemish artist Quentin Massys. Not exactly the same, but the influence was very obvious.

      Lets look at how the Ugly Duchess is described by Carroll; in the first scene there isn't even a hint of her appearance, she is full of pretence and we can only imagine what her true character is like by looking at her actions, analyzing her dialogues and speech. Such an ignorant and unfriendly person, she is a persistent fighter - she doesn't pay attention to the pepper in the air, or the dishes thrown at her. She makes her remarks with a "sudden violence". This is all that is said about her in the first scene. Plus, of course, an absolutely cynical attitude towards the baby.

Leonardo Da Vinci "Grotesque old woman"

      Another scene where the Duchess is acting - "Queen's Qroquet-Ground". Here, her behavior is quite different, her speech when addressing Alice has now become rather somewhat sweet. We see an experienced court-lady, who can speak very sweetly if she feels an importance of the person that she speaks to (we know that Alice was invited to the Queen's Qroquet-Ground, and that means something). We remember how she treated Alice when she (Alice) was just a stranger to her. As a matter of fact, she is trying to be so sweet that she is ready to hug Alice around her waist (which she doesn't do being aware of the flamingo in Alice's hands). Here is the first time we get a few words regarding her appearance. First of all, she's very "ugly". Secondly, she has an "uncomfortably sharp chin", and lastly, "she was exactly the right height to rest her chin upon Alice's shoulder"- so she wasn't taller than Alice. And that is all that is said about her appearance.

      I wish to point out, that Sir John Tenniel's Duchess is undoubtedly ugly, but her chin is quite far from being sharp. Many illustrators followed the tradition of Tenniel's illustrations. Ugliness of the Duchess (in this tradition), is straightforward - it is an ugliness of old age; an old, wrinkly, male-shaped face. I think that this way is too cliche. From my observations, the human face's attractiveness is quite a tricky subject. It is very often that beauty and ugliness differ due to the existence of a small feature(s). The perfect example to me would be the famous movie star Ms.*, who is beautiful because of the camera, makeup, and a properly set up light. But every now and then these conditions (or one of them), fail to perform their function. It is at these moments where you look at her and realize "Oh my God, she's plain ugly!"

      Generally, when drawing my version of the Duchess, I didn't invent anything. My Duchess is taken from real life; this type of face, nose, etc... That kind of person everybody has met. By the way, the personality of this type of people is usually the same. So I'm guessing whether Lewis Carroll would have approved my version of this character. At least, Carroll didn't mean the image of the Quentin Messis's portrait when he wrote his Duchess.


      The Ugly Duchess personality was carried out into the second book, but into a different character; the Red Queen. They have a lot in common, evidentially the same prototype was used for both the characters. This is meaningless to most readers up until they start reading the second book, however to an illustrator who wants to understand the character more deeply, this relation is quite evident. They are both addicted to using hyperboles: when Alice said "... I can't quite follow it as you say it", the Duchess replied "That's nothing to what I could say if I chose", compared to Looking Glass; when Alice said "...I thought I'd try and find my way to the top of that hill", the Red Queen answered "When you say hill, I could show you hills, in comparison with which you'd call that a valley." Both of them also like to teach Alice, and seek out the moral in every situation, conversation or anything at all.

Oleg Lipchenko


Luke Farookhi said...

I absolutely love your design of the Duchess. It's a pity there aren't more illustrators of Alice who, like you, offer their own take on the text, rather than work only in Tenniel's shadow.

However, I do think the ugliness Tenniel refers to in his illustrations is equally legitimate. The Massys painting, and the Leonardo sketch that inspired it, depict a woman with more money than sense. It's not that she is necessarily inherently ugly; it is her blind vanity which causes her to dress herself up in an unflattering manner, exposing her saggy breasts, accentuating her oddly-shaped head and so on. If she wore clothes more appropriate to her physical appearance, she wouldn't be so ugly.

Therefore the ugliness, primarily, stems from within - from her fooling herself into thinking she is something she's not. I think this is appropriate to the character in the book, who could never quite decide what her personality was. The dainty way Massys' Duchess' holds herself also reminds me of the Duchess' manner when Alice encounters her a second time.

So I do think that Tenniel's version is appropriate to the personality of the character. As for the chin; it's not very prominent on Tenniel's Duchess, but there is undeniably a little point emerging from amongst the jowls - enough, I should think, to make Alice uncomfortable.

Oleg Lipchenko said...

Hi Luke,
Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comment. First of all it reminded me to put Leonardo's sketch into my post. Then, I don't judge Sir Tenniel for his interpretation, right opposite - I love his drawings. And his Duchess is a hell of a character. My general idea was: illustrators - draw Carroll's characters, don't just follow Tenniel. But this is hard because his illustrations are great. They exist in cultural space along with Carroll's texts.
By the way I suspect you quite possibly didn't see my book, only seen my sketch in the blog. Am I wrong? If not, please have a look here:

Anonymous said...

who is this painting based on?
i mean, what is this ugly lady's name? -.-

Oleg Lipchenko said...

I have no idea who were the actual models for Leonardo and for Quentin Massys, just was not as much interested. Was she Maria-da-Somewhere or Anna-von-Somwhere-else. It does not make difference to me. My sketch is based on woman I know, but I won't tell you who. Your question pushed me to google something like: "leonardo da vinci ugly woman" and luckily I've found an interesting reference here:
and here: