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John Tenniel

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John Tenniel

Sir John Tenniel
Self-portrait of John Tenniel, ca. 1889
Born (1820-02-28)28 February 1820
Bayswater, Middlesex, England
Died 25 February 1914(1914-02-25) (aged 93)
London, England
Nationality English
Known for Children's Literature

Sir John Tenniel (28 February 1820 – 25 February 1914) was an English illustrator, graphic humourist and political cartoonist whose work was prominent during the second half of the 19th century. Tenniel is considered important to the study of that period’s social, literary, and art histories. Tenniel was knighted by Victoria for his artistic achievements in 1893.

Tenniel is most noted for two major accomplishments: he was the principal political cartoonist for Britain’s Punch magazine for over 50 years, and he was the artist who illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.


Early life

John Tenniel, A Conspiracy, oil on panel, August 1850 (Private Collection, UK)

Tenniel was born in Bayswater, west London and educated himself for his career, although he became a probationer, and then a student, of the Royal Academy. In 1836 he sent his first picture to the exhibition of the Society of British Artists, and in 1845 he contributed a 16-foot (4.9 m) cartoon, An Allegory of Justice, to a competition for designs for the mural decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. For this he received a £200 premium and a commission to paint a fresco in the Upper Waiting Hall (or Hall of Poets) in the House of Lords.[1] In August 1850, Tenniel painted and exhibited at the Liverpool Academy a small panel entitled "A Conspiracy" that depicts Guy Fawkes and his accomplices. The gunpowder plot subject was intended to appeal to Palace of Westminster designers who were looking for scenes from British history for mural decorations.

In 1840 Tenniel, while practicing fencing with his father, received a serious wound in his eye from his father's foil, which had accidentally lost its protective tip. Over the years Tenniel gradually lost sight in his right eye;[2] he never told his father of the severity of the wound, as he did not wish to upset his father to any greater degree than he had been.

In spite of his tendency towards high art, Tenniel was already known and appreciated as a humorist, and his early companionship with Charles Keene fostered and developed his talent for scholarly caricature.


'The British Lion's Vengeance...'

As the influential result of his position as the chief cartoon artist for Punch (published 1841–1992, 1996–2002), John Tenniel, through satirical, often radical and at times vitriolic images of the world, for five decades was and remained Great Britain’s steadfast social witness to the sweeping national changes in that nation’s moment of political and social reform. At Christmas 1850 he was invited by Mark Lemon to fill the position of joint cartoonist (with John Leech) on Punch. He had been selected on the strength of his recent illustrations to Aesop's Fables. He contributed his first drawing in the initial letter appearing on p. 224, vol. xix. His first cartoon was Lord Jack the Giant Killer, which showed Lord John Russell assailing Cardinal Wiseman.

Tenniel was one of several notable Victorians (including Charles Dickens) who performed in Not So Bad As We Seem, a play written by Edward Bulwer in 1851. The performance, a charity event to benefit the Literary Guild, was attended by Queen Victoria.[3][4]

When examined separately from the book illustrations he did over time, Tenniel’s work at Punch alone, expressing decades of editorial viewpoints, often controversial and socially sensitive, was created to ultimately echo the voices of the British public, and is in itself massive. Tenniel executed 2,165 separate cartoons for Punch, a liberal and politically active publication that took full advantage of the Victorian time’s mood for want of liberal social changes; thus Tenniel, in his cartoons, represented for years the conscience of the British people.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Despite the thousands of political cartoons and hundreds of illustrative works attributed to him, a measurable amount of Tenniel’s fame comes specifically from his work as the illustrator of Alice. To establish his place within the Alice canon, Tenniel drew ninety-two drawings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (London: Macmillan, 1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan, 1871).

As the original illustrator for his book, Lewis Carroll’s own artistic inabilities, among other problems, held back Wonderland to a degree. Not until engraver Orlando Jewitt, who had done work for Carroll before in 1859 and had reviewed Carroll’s illustrations for Wonderland, had suggested employment of a professional draughtsman did Carroll look to find an outside artist. With such a reputation seemingly firm and in place for both Punch and Tenniel, it would stand to reason that the artist’s public status attracted high levels of attention and notoriety from his peers and the public; Carroll, a regular reader of Punch, knew, of course, of Tenniel. In 1865 Tenniel, after considerable talks with Carroll, illustrated the first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Chapter 12: Alice's evidence. MS Eng 718.6 (12) Tenniel, John, Sir, 1820-1914. Studies for illustrations to Alice's adventures in wonderland : drawings, tracings, ca. 1864 from Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The first print run of 2,000 was shelved because Tenniel objected to the print quality.[5] A new edition (the first edition was resold in America), released in December of the same year but carrying an 1866 date, was quickly printed and became an instant best-seller, securing Tenniel's lasting fame in the process. His illustrations for both books have taken their place among the most famous literary illustrations ever made. After the Carroll projects were finished, Tenniel did virtually no such work after 1872. Carroll did at some later time approach Tenniel again to undertake another project for him. To this Tenniel replied:

“It is a curious fact that with ‘Looking-Glass’ the faculty of making drawings for book illustrations departed from me, and [...] I have done nothing in that direction since.”[6]

Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice books were engraved onto blocks of deal wood by the Brothers Dalziel. These engravings were then used as masters for making the electrotype copies for the actual printing of the books.[7] The original wood blocks are now in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They are not usually on public display, but were exhibited in 2003.

In his career Tenniel contributed around 2,300 cartoons, innumerable minor drawings, double-page cartoons for Punch's Almanac and other special numbers, and 250 designs for Punch's Pocket-books. By 1866 he was "able to command ten to fifteen guineas for the reworking of a single Punch cartoon as a pencil sketch", alongside his "comfortable" Punch salary "of about £800 a year".[8][9] An ultimate tribute came to an elderly Tenniel as he was honored as a living national treasure and for his public service was knighted in 1893 by Queen Victoria. The first such honour ever bequeathed on an illustrator or cartoonist, his fellows saw his knighting coming as gratitude for “raising what had been a fairly lowly profession to an unprecedented level of respectability.” With knighthood, Tenniel elevated the social status of the black and white illustrator, and sparked a new sense of recognition of and occupational honour to his lifelong profession.

Political cartoons

Because his task was to construct the wilful choices of his Punch editors, who probably took their cue from The Times and would have felt the suggestions of political tensions from Parliament as well, Tenniel’s work, as was its design, could be scathing in effect. The restlessness of the Victorian period’s issues of working class radicalism, labor, war, economy, and other national themes were the targets of Punch, which in turn commanded the nature of Tenniel’s subjects. Tenniel's cartoons published in the 1860s made popular the portrait of the Irishman as a subhuman being, wanton in his appetites and most resembling an orang-utan in both facial features and posture.[10] Many of Tenniel's political cartoons expressed strong hostility to Irish Nationalism, with Fenians and Land leagues depicted as monstrous, ape-like brutes, while "Hibernia"—the personification of Ireland—was depicted as a beautiful, helpless young girl threatened by these "monsters" and turning for protection to "her elder sister", the powerful armoured Britannia.

His drawing of 'An unequal match', published in Punch on 8 October 1881, depicted a police officer fighting a criminal with only a 'baton' for protection, trying to put a point across to the public that policing methods needed to be changed.

Later life and after his death

When he retired in January 1901, Tenniel was honoured with a farewell banquet (12 June), at which AJ Balfour, then Leader of the House of Commons, presided. Punch historian M. H. Spielmann, who knew Tenniel, understood that the political clout contained in his Punch cartoons was capable of “swaying parties and people, too... (the cartoons) exercised great influence” on the ideas of popular reform skirting throughout the British public. Early tributes as to what Tenniel in his role as a national observer meant to the British nation around the time of his death came in as high praise; in 1914 New York Tribune journalist George W. Smalley referred to John Tenniel as “one of the greatest intellectual forces of his time, (who) understood social laws and political energies.”

On 27 February 1914, two days after his death, the Daily Graphic recalled Tenniel: "He had an influence on the political feeling of this time which is hardly measurable...While Tenniel was drawing them (his subjects), we always looked to the Punch cartoon to crystallize the national and international situation, and the popular feeling about it—and never looked in vain." This condition of social influence resulted from the weekly publishing over a fifty year span of his political cartoons, whereby Tenniel's fame allowed for a want and need for his particular illustrative work, away from the newspaper. Tenniel became not only one of Victorian Britain’s most published illustrators, but as a Punch cartoonist he became one of the “supreme social observers” of British society, and an integral component of a powerful journalistic force.

Public exhibitions of Sir John Tenniel's work were held in 1895 and in 1900. Sir John Tenniel is also the author of one of the mosaics, Leonardo da Vinci, in the South Court in the Victoria and Albert Museum; while his highly stippled watercolour drawings appeared from time to time in the exhibitions of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, of which he had been elected a member in 1874.

A Bayswater street, Tenniel Close,[11] near his former studio, is named after him.[12]


He also contributed to Once a Week, the Art Union publications, etc.



  1. ^ The complex history surrounding the decoration is best summarized by T. S. R. Boase, The Decorations of the New Palace of Westminster 1841-1863, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17:1954, pp. 319–358.
  2. ^ "Tenniel, at the age of twenty, lost the sight of one eye in a fencing bout with his father. The button accidentally dropped from his father's foil, and the blade's tip flicked across his right eye with a sudden pain that must have felt like a wasp's sting."—Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice, Page 223
  3. ^ "Edward Bulwer and Charles Dickens". Victorian Web. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  4. ^ "Queen Victoria's Journals". Princess Beatrice's copies. RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W). 4 July 1857. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Gladstone and Elwyn-Jones, 1998, pages 253-255.
  6. ^ See Michael Hancher’s essay, “Carroll and Tenniel in Collaboration,” The Tenniel Illustrations to the Alice Books: 105
  7. ^ Sir John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland
  8. ^ Simpson, Roger (1994). Sir John Tenniel: Aspects of His Work. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 63.  
  9. ^ According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, £800 in 1866 would buy goods and services worth over £78,000 in 2011.
  10. ^ Davison, Neil (1998). James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 97. 
  11. ^ "LondonTown". Tenniel Close. LondonTown. Retrieved March 5, 2012. 
  12. ^ From 1854 Tenniel lived not in Bayswater but in Portsdown Road, Maida Vale, a little way to the north."Maida Vale - History". LondonWide. Retrieved March 5, 2012. 


  • Buchanan-Brown, John. Early Victorian Illustrated Books: Britain, France and Germany. London: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2005.
  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Edited by Roger Lancelyn Green. Illustrated by John Tenniel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971.
  • Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Introduction and notes by Martin Gardner. Illustrated by John Tenniel. New York: Bramhall House, 1960.
  • Cohen, Morton N. and Edward Wakeling (eds). Lewis Carroll and His Illustrators: Collaborations and Correspondence, 1865–1898. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.
  • Curtis, L. Perry. Review of book. Sir John Tenniel: Aspects of His Work. . Vol.40. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 168-71.Victorian Studies JSTOR recovered 21 November 2010.
  • Curtis, L. Perry. Review of book. Drawing Conclusions: A Cartoon History of Anglo-Irish Relations, 1798-1998 by Roy Douglas, et al. Victorian Studies. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. 520-22. JSTOR recovered 21 November 2010.
  • Dalziel, Edward D. and George Dalziel. The Brothers Dalziel: A Record of Fifty Years' Work. London: Methuen, 1901.
  • Engen, Rodney. Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight. Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1991.
  • Garvey, Eleanor M. and W. H. Bond. Introduction. Tenniel’s Alice. Cambridge: Harvard College Library-The Stinehour Press, 1978.
  • Gladstone, J. Francis, and Elwyn-Jones, Jo. The Alice Companion. Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. ISBN 9780333673492.
  • Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustrators. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1996.
  • Hancher, Michael. The Tenniel Illustrations to the Alice Books. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1985.
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  • Morris, Frankie. Artist of Wonderland: The Life, Political Cartoons, and Illustrations of Tenniel. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2005.
  • Morris, Frankie. John Tenniel, Cartoonist: A Critical and Sociocultural Study in the Art of the Victorian Political Cartoon. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia: U of Missouri, 1985.
  • Monkhouse, William Cosmo. The Life and Works of Sir John Tenniel. London: ArtJournal Easter Annual, 1901.
  • Ovenden, Graham and John Davis. The Illustrators of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1972.
  • Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties: An Illustrated Survey of the Work of 58 British Artists. New York: Dover Publications, 1975.
  • Sarzano, Frances. Sir John Tenniel. London: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1948.
  • Simpson, Roger. Sir John Tenniel: Aspects of His Work. Rutherford: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1994.
  • Stead, William Thomas (ed). The Review of Reviews. Vol. 23, p. 406. London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1901.
  • Spielmann, M. H. The History of Punch. London: Cassell, 1895.
  • Stoker, G. P. Sir John Tenniel A study of his development as an artist, with particular reference to the Book Illustrations and Political Cartoons, U of London PhD thesis, 1994.
  • Susina, Jan. The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Susina, Jan. Review of book. Artist of Wonderland: The Life, Political Cartoons and Illustrations of Tenniel. Children's Literature Association Quarterly. vol. 31, no. 2, pages 202–205. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

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