John Tenniel

John Tenniel was an English artist famous for his illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Punch magazine.

John Tenniel

John Tenniel (Self Portrait)

John Tenniel was born in Bayswater, London on 28 February 1820, the third son of John and Eliza Tenniel. The Tenniel family had little money to educate their six children so, after attending primary school, John was taught by his father.

Tenniel’s father, a fencing and dancing instructor, taught him riding, dancing, fencing and other sporting activities, but John preferred the more artistic pursuits of reading, theatre and sketching. In a fencing accident in 1840, Tenniel received a cut to his face from his father’s foil. The injury caused the blinding of his right eye but, to spare his father any guilt, Tenniel never revealed the extent of the injury.

Despite only having the use of one eye from the age of twenty his artistic capabilities were not affected. Tenniel submitted his first oil painting to the Society of British Artists in 1836. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools and became a member of the Clipstone Street Art Society in the 1840s.

Tenniel’s early fine art work included a fresco, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, for the upper waiting hall (hall of poets) of the House of Lords in 1846. But it was for his illustrations for an edition of Aesop’s Fables in 1848 that he came to the attention of the founders of Punch.

When Richard Doyle resigned in 1850, Tenniel was offered his position at Punch. His early work there was limited to initial letters and titles, but in 1861 he was promoted to a junior partnership with the cartoonist John Leech and, after Leech’s death in 1864, became the senior cartoonist.

Over the course of his career at Punch, Tenniel produced 2165 ‘big cuts’ and numerous smaller illustrations. When he retired in 1900 he claimed that in fifty years only six copies of Punch were missing one of his designs. These works included his famous illustration depicting Bismarck’s dismissal in 1889, Dropping the Pilot.

While others were creating sharp cartoons by etching onto steel, Tenniel’s preference was to draw onto a woodblock using a 6H pencil. His subjects were always draw from his near-photographic memory and the quality of his animal drawings came from the hours he spent at the zoo.

Alice at the Tea Party

Alice at the Tea Party

But his most famous works today are his illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). The working relationship between Carroll and Tenniel was not a happy one as Tenniel was irritated by Carroll’s interventions.

The ninety-two illustrations produced, however, have become the images of Alice and the many strange characters that we all remember. Tenniel produced his illustrations after a thorough reading of the books and stayed as true to the text as possible.

Tenniel was knighted in 1893 and was admired by the political elite. After his retirement from Punch in 1900, many prominent people paid tribute to him at a testimonial dinner chaired by Arthur Balfour on 12 June 1901.

Tenniel continued to work in retirement until he lost the sight in his left eye. He died just before his ninety-fourth birthday on 25 February 1914. His final instructions, for a cremation and the burial of his ashes in Kensal Green cemetery in London were carried out on 4 March 1914.

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