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Sir John Tenniel

By Nick Weidner

John Tenniel was a London-born English illustrator and caricaturist who’s most notable work includes illustrating classic literary works such as Aesop’s Fables and Alice in Wonderland. He also supplied Punch magazine with 50 years of political cartoons from 1851-1901.

Tenniel was born on February 28, 1820 to a famous fencing master. Irritated with the hierarchic organization of the set of courses at the Royal Academy schools in London, he left to follow a less authoritarian and more personally directed education at the British Museum’s sculpture galleries and Print Room and the Clipstone Street Art Society’s life and anatomy classes. His exploration into the history of costume and body armor supplied material for his early oil paintings of gallant scenes, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1845 Tenniel entered a design competition for murals decorating the new Palace of Westminster and was awarded £200 and an opportunity to paint a fresco in the Upper Waiting Hall in the House of Lords, the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

On his illustrations to Aesop’s Fables, Tenniel was chosen to fill the position left by Richard Doyle from Punch magazine in 1850. Tenniel was offered the position of joint cartoonist with John Leech for Punch, the periodical Tenniel worked on for most of his life. In his illustrations for Punch Tenniel lent new distinction to the satirical cartoon creating the basic frameworks for what we still know today for political cartoons. “Dropping the Pilot” (1890), his most famous cartoon, takes on the subject of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, as a Maritime pilot, stepping off a ship, watched by the German Emperor Wilhelm II. At the time of print Bismarck had just resigned as Chancellor at Wilhelm’s insistence. Gradually Tenniel took over altogether the weekly drawing of the political “big cut,” a task John Leech was happy to resign in order to restrict himself to his pictures of life and character. Leech’s work consisted for the most part of farce while Tenniel’s was high comedy of the time. John Tenniel’s work for the periodical comprises the sum of about 2,300 cartoons, vast amounts of minor drawings, double-page cartoons for Punch’s Almanac and 250 designs for Punch’s Pocket-books. By 1885 he was earning a $7,000 annual salary for his weekly Punch cartoon.

Tenniel is best remembered today for his illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Tenniel’s drawings are the classic images many of us associate with both pieces of fiction. In 1865 he illustrated the first edition of 2,000 copies of Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel’s illustrations for the ‘Alice’ books were engraved onto blocks of wood, to be printed in the woodcut process. Due to the poor print quality Tenniel objected and shelved the first print run. A second edition was rapidly printed and became an instant best-seller. These illustrations won him an international reputation and a continuing audience locking Tenniel’s lasting fame in the process. His illustrations for both books have taken their place among the most famous literary illustrations ever made. His drawings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are extraordinarily delicate and and are very compatible to Lewis Carroll’s text. In Tenniel’s early colored works of Alice, her dress was blue, her pinafore white and she has blonde hair. This look has become the common and most widely known Alice in Wonderland dress in later works. Tenniel’s Alice drawings were used as a model for the costumes in Paramount Pictures’ 1933 Alice in Wonderland and all subsequent iterations including Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland and Tim Burton’s 2010 interpretation.

Tenniel was knighted in 1893, retired in 1901 and shortly died thereafter.

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