English illustrator, graphic humourist, and political cartoonist Sir John Tenniel was born 28 February 1820 in Bayswater, West London, Tenniel had five siblings; two brothers and three sisters. One sister, Mary, was later to marry Thomas Goodwin Green, owner of the pottery that produced Cornishware. Tenniel was a quiet and introverted person, both as a boy and as an adult. In 1840, while practising fencing with his father, Tenniel received a serious eye wound from his father’s foil, which had accidentally lost its protective tip. Over the years Tenniel gradually lost sight in his right eye.
Tenniel became a student of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1842 and was admitted after making several copies of classical sculptures to provide the necessary admission portfolio. While Tenniel’s more formal training at the Royal Academy and at other institutions was beneficial in nurturing his artistic ambitions, it failed in Tenniel’s mind because he disagreed with the school’s teaching methods, resulting in Tenniel educating himself for his career. Tenniel studied classical sculptures through painting; but was frustrated that he was never taught how to draw. Tenniel would draw the classical statues at the London’s Townley Gallery, copied illustrations from books of costumes and armor in the British museum, and drew the animals from the zoo in Regent’s Park as well as the actors from the London theatres, which were drawn from the pits.
It was during these studies that Tenniel learned to appreciate detail; however, he became impatient with his work and was the happiest when he could draw from memory. Tenniel was blessed with a photographic memory, undermining his early training and seriously restricting his artistic ambitions. Tenniel also participated in an artists group, free from the rules of the academy which had previously stifled Tenniel.
In the mid-1840s Tenniel joined the Artist’s Society or Clipstone Street Life Academy. Tenniel’s first book illustration was for Samuel Carter Hall’s The Book of British Ballads. During 1842 various Government backed contests were also taking place in London, To combat the growing Germanic Nazarenes style and promote a truly national English school of art. Tenniel planned to enter the 1845 House of Lords competition for the chance to design the mural decoration of the new Palace of Westminster and submitted the cartoon, An Allegory of Justice, for which 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.
Tenniel began incorporating more detail in backgrounds and figures and started producing more precisely-designed illustrations which depicted specific moments of time, locale, and individual character instead of just generalized scenes. Tenniel also developed a new interest in human types, expressions, and individualized representation. This style probably stemmed from his earlier interest in caricature. In Tenniel’s first years on Punch he developed this caricaturist’s interest in the uniqueness of persons and things, giving anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects and buildings. He also began using vigorously hand-drawn hatching greatly intensifying darker areas
In 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 WisemaIn 1861, Tenniel was offered a position at Punch, as political cartoonist; however, Tenniel still maintained some sense of decorum and restraint into the heated social and political issues of the day. John Tenniel’s satirical, often radical and at times vitriolic images of the world, remained a steadfast social commentary of the sweeping national, political and social reforms taking place. Tenniel’s work, was often scathing in it’s depiction of the issues of working class radicalism, labour, war, economy, and other national themes.
Many of Tenniel’s political cartoons expressed strong hostility to Irish Nationalism, with Fenians depicted as monstrous, 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 “An Unequal Match”, depicted a police officer fighting a criminal with only a ‘baton’ for protection, Tenniel’s work at Punch was often controversial and socially sensitive, amd expressed the voices of the British public. Tenniel contributed around 2,300 cartoons, innumerable minor drawings, many double-page cartoons for Punch’s Almanac and other special numbers, and 250 designs for Punch’s Pocket-books expressing the Victorian public’s mood for liberal social changes
Tenniel is also remembered for Illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Lewis Carroll originally illustrated Wonderland himself, but his artistic abilities were limited. Engraver Orlando Jewitt, who had worked for Carroll in 1859 and had reviewed Carroll’s drawings for Wonderland, suggested that he employ a professional illustrator. Carroll was a regular reader of Punch and was therefore familiar with Tenniel. So In 1865 Tenniel, illustrated the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His style was rather disturbing and grotesque featuring dark atmospheric compositions of exaggerated fantasy creatures, often featuring animal heads on humans and the merging of beings with objects and this “grotesqueness” was one of the main reasons why Lewis Carroll wanted him to illustrate the Alice books.
In 1893 Tenniel was knighted for his public service by Queen Victoria. When he retired in January 1901, Tenniel was honoured with a farewell banquet at which AJ Balfour, then Leader of the House of Commons, presided. Sir John Tenniel Sadly died 25 February 1914 at the age of 93. However many of his wonderfully imaginative drawings and political cartoons were published.