We celebrate the life and work of the English illustrator on his 200th birthday anniversary.
John Tenniel (28th February 1820 - 25th February 1914) was an English illustrator, humorist, and political caricaturist. He made history thanks to his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
We have collected some interesting facts about his illustrations, his relationship with Carroll and his body of work, for which he was awarded a knighthood.
A dedicated artist
John Tenniel exhibited his first painting in the Royal Society of British Artists at the early age of 16 years old. At 20 years of age, he lost vision on his left eye due to an accident. He retired when his other eye began to falter, but continued to paint watercolors even when he became completely blind.
Work and Career
He became a caricaturist for the satirical magazine Punch, where he worked for 51 years. He produced around two thousand caricatures for this publication. He also illustrated several popular books of his time. He retired at the age of 81, a few years after being knighted by Queen Victoria.
In contrast with the practice of the day, Tenniel did not draw from real life but relied on his visual memory for his illustrations. His style was described as grotesque, due to his fantastic interpretations and his disturbing mix of realism with very attractive subjects.
Little known facts
Tenniel’s father was a dance teacher. We can find many references to ballet in his caricatures and in Alice too, for instance, when we look at the position of the feet of the characters. Tenniel also drew inspiration from famous people of the day when drawing faces.
Tenniel would sketch in pencil, then use white or black ink. He would later transfer the drawing to a wooden block with carbon paper. From those wooden blocks, he then produced copper plates for printing. This elaborate process resulted in the high cost of his production.
A difficult client
Lewis Carroll took pride in his artistic qualities and was highly critical of Tenniel’s work. He gave him very precise instructions and their relationship wasn’t always smooth. For example, Carroll made Tenniel change many illustrations several times, and was not satisfied with Tenniel’s first sample of Alice’s face.
On other occasions, Carroll gave in to the illustrator’s wishes and even accepted to change the text in the book to fit Tenniel’s interpretation. Such was the trust he had in the illustrator that he wanted him again for Through the Looking-Glass after other illustrators were not compliant with his demands.
Standards of quality
When the first print run of two thousand copies of Alice arrived, Tenniel claimed that the quality of the prints was unacceptable. Despite the extra expense, Carroll granted the reissue through better printers. Disguised in the illustrations we can often spot the name of the printer together with Tenniel’s monogram, an indication of his respect towards his collaborators.