Themerson, Franciszka

Although she trained as a painter, her exquisite talent for drawing led her almost inevitably to illustration, caricature, and other forms of graphic narrative. She made her first illustrations for children’s magazines while she was still studying at The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and later on illustrated children’s books written by her husband, Stefan Themerson, which would become classics of Polish children’s literature. In 1938, when the Themersons moved to Paris, Franciszka continued illustrating for children’s publications, working for Flammarion. In 1940, she settled in London and worked as a cartographer for the Polish government while exiled; it was there where her drawings acquired a different dimension. War had broken out, her husband was living in France, and London was being bombarded. Under the generic title Unposted Letters, Franciszka drew the devastation that surrounded her. It was around this time when she first used Alice’s character, not as a Victorian child with ribbons in her hair, but as an overwhelmed young adult (a self-portrait) who observed the unnatural events that were happening around her. Some time later she would publish several drawings of the warfare series in a small private publication titled 40 Drawings for Friends. During the war she also illustrated Stefan Themerson’s novel Professor Mmaa’s Lecture, that he sent to London page by page.

After the war she continued illustrating children’s books, as well as others, including many of those published by Gaberbocchus Press, the publishing house she founded with her husband in 1948 and which they ran until 1979. However, her works could no longer be considered both illustrations and graphic interpretations or commentaries. She also published various books of drawings.

The name of the publishing house was a new reference to Alice and to Jabberwocky, which the Themersons adopted in its Latin version. The publishing house was a tribute to nonsense literature, with the aim to seduce the intellect and provoke in their readers an appetite for visual adventures.

The story of the illustrations about Alice

The illustrations of Through The Looking-Glass that appear in this book, finished in 1946, have remained unpublished since then [until Inky Parrot Press’ edition in 2001] to the disappointment of the author, who considered them to be one of her best works for children’s illustration.

Franciszka Themerson commissioned them for George G. Harrap. In 1946, Carroll’s work was about to enter the public domain and the proposals to republish Alice came one after the other. Although printing was concluded near the end of 1947, Harrap decided to postpone the publication due to the ‘difficult market situation’. Franciszka Themerson wished to anticipate correcting the prints to have them ready by the time the publication of the book was decided, but no one gave her any certainty that this would happen, and in the end the issue was left up in the air. When in 1969, twenty two years later, she wanted to recover her drawings with the intention of publishing them through another publishing house, she was told they were unable to locate them. After a year of complicated negotiations, her lawyers (Tarlo, Lyons & Aukin) managed to make them appear and be returned to her. 

The fascination with Alice

Since her childhood in Warsaw, Lewis Carrol’s books about Alice were to form an essential part of that delicious children’s mythology that combines fantasy and logic, and ties the familiar with the inexplicable. Later on, Franciszka Themerson’s predilection for nonsense as a source of imaginative speculation was manifested both in her painting and in her ventures into stage design, design, and book illustration. Among her mentors are Edward Lear, Jonathan Swift, Henri Michaux, and Alfred Jarry. Each one of them would bring her inspiration and solace, as well as the motivation to begin new projects.

Thanks to Edward Lear she entered the depths of Victorian nonsense shortly after arriving in London in 1940. In the house where she was living she found ‘an old English book full of nonsense limericks and beautiful and delirious drawings. It was a revelation. I felt like someone who had been paralysed and could put their feet on the ground again’. In Lear she found a kindred spirit, able to combine ‘the comical with the macabre’. The spectre of the irrational seemed to be surprisingly close to the real world.

Delighted with the commission to illustrate Through The Looking-Glass, she invented a system in which Alice was the same girl as in Tenniel’s drawings, in black-and-white and in three dimensions. The character of Alice represents the real and unchangeable world, immune to the paradoxes of the mirror world. The characters on the other side of that glass were, in contrast, one-dimensional and colourful. The Red Queen and her entourage were red, while the White Queen and hers were blue. The rest of characters were either blue or red or a mixture of both.

In the books about Alice, the story follows two paths. The first is the entirely linear one, which makes it suitable for children. The second is the one with the texts, with its logic problems, the heterodox chess game, the references, the quotations, and the word plays, which have been analysed and described by literary critics, scientists, and psychologists. Since Carroll’s descriptions of his characters are often incredibly detailed, the illustrator has the freedom to create a characterisation system, but they cannot alter the plot. Franciszka Themerson’s interpretation places Alice in the past, in the time period when the book was written, and moves the world of the looking glass to an abstract future. This linear world is constructed by formal elements from which his wonderful creatures emerge. Although the illustrations are obliged to describe in an oblique way the reality of a world in which right is left and vice versa, and where moving forward is moving backwards, they can perfectly unfold the scene and vest the characters with particular traits. As Franciszka Themerson has done. Alice is slightly younger than how Tenniel portrays her; she is more similar to the girl who confesses to being seven-and-a-half in Carroll’s text. Alice is the only character who is a child, without taking into account the fleeting appearance of a baby. She is a serious, curious, and polite little girl, if not somewhat stubborn at times, who advances through the chess game until she comes Queen. This is the carpet in which the story unfolds: if she does not actively intervene, nothing happens. It is her point of view which brings life to other characters. Franciszka Themerson responds to Lewis Carroll’s touches of fantasy, subtly charged with melancholy.

Jasia Reichardt