Sir John Tenniel, RI (1820-1914) While best remembered as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, John Tenniel contributed greatly to the look of Punch during the later nineteenth century. Beautifully drawn and highly allusive, his political cartoons remain startling in presenting fantastic imagery with classical polish.
John Tenniel was born at 22 Gloucester Place, New Road, Bayswater, London, on 28 February 1820, the third son of a fencing and dancing master of Huguenot origins. Brought up in Kensington, he was educated locally and then by his father, before studying at the Royal Academy Schools. Despite being partially blinded by his father in a fencing accident, in 1840, he continued in his ambition to be a history painter and joined the Clipstone Street Artists’ Society (later known as the Langham Sketching Club) to increase his chances of exposure. Together with Charles Keene, a sketching companion at the Clipstone Academy, he created ‘The Book of Beauty’ (circa 1846), an unpublished parody of popular anthologies of engravings and verse.
These were more suggestive of his future career than was his serious work, for he rose to notice through his animal drawings, and attracted the attention of Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch, with his illustrations to the Rev Thomas James’s edition of Aesop’s Fables (1848). He joined the magazine as second cartoonist to John Leech in November 1850 and, becoming principal cartoonist in 1864, produced over 2,000 cartoons in 50 years. As the one Conservative member of staff, he defined the cartoon for the Empire through his development of stock types and patriotic symbols, while his early ambitions as an actor and a history painter enriched his imagery, so that political situations were presented within theatrical or artistic contexts.
Tenniel married Julia Giani in 1854, and they settled at 10 Portsdown Road, Maida Hill. However, she died of tuberculosis only two years later and he never remarried. Instead, his mother-in-law lived with him as his housekeeper until her death in 1879.
Parallel to his position as a leading cartoonist, Tenniel developed his career as a book illustrator and made best use of his rich vein of fantasy in his work for Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glassand What Alice Found There (1872). He was elected to both the associate and full membership of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1874, and was knighted in 1893. Tenniel’s single most famous cartoon, concerning the dismissal of Bismarck and entitled Dropping the Pilot, appeared in Punch on 29 March 1890. Two years later, he gave up his practice of drawing directly on the engraving block and took to photographic reproduction. He retired from Punch at the age of 80, and died on 25 February 1914. Punch produced a special commemorative issue on 4 March of that year.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and New York Public Library.
Further reading: L Perry Curtis Jnr, ‘Tenniel, Sir John (1820-1914)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 54, pages 131-134; Rodney Engen, Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight, London: Scolar Press, 1991; Roger Simpson, Sir John Tenniel: Aspects of His Work, Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1994