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Sir John Tenniel

Tenniel was born in Bayswater, West London, to John Baptist Tenniel, a fencing and dancing master and Eliza Maria Tenniel,to  five siblings; two brothers and three sisters. Tenniel was a quiet and introverted person, both as a boy and as an adult. He was content to remain firmly out of the limelight and seemed unaffected by competition or change. 

In 1840,While practicing fencing with his father, Tennial got a serious eye wound from his father’s foil, which had accidentally lost its protective tip . This made him to gradually loose sight in his right eye over the years.

Formal and informal education

Having enough copies of classical sculptures to fill the necessary admission portfolio,Tenniel was admitted at the royal academy of arts. However,he did not agree with the schools formal teaching methods and so he set about educating himself to his career.

Learning on his own turned out to be frustrating to him due to lack instructions in drawing. Tenniel would draw the classical statues at the London’s Townley Gallery, copy illustrations from books of costumes and armor in the British Museum, and draw animals from the zoo in Regent’s Park, as well as actors from London theaters, which he drew from the pits. These studies taught Tenniel to love detail, yet he became impatient in his work and was happiest when he could draw from memory. Though he was blessed with a photographic memory, it undermined his early formal training and restricted his artistic ambitions.

Another “formal” means of training was Tenniel’s participation in an artists’ group, free from the rules of the Academy that were stifling him. In the mid 1840s he joined the Artist’s Society or Clipstone Street Life Academy, and here, he emerged as a satirical draughtsman.


Tenniel’s first book illustration was for Samuel Carter Hall’s The Book of British Ballads, in 1842. While engaged with his first book illustrations,he was also interested in entering the 1845 House of Lords Competition amongst artists,to win the opportunity to design the mural decoration of the new palace of Westminer.

Despite missing the deadline, he submitted a 16-foot  cartoon, An Allegory of Justice, to the competition 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.

In December,1850 Tenniel was invited by Mark Lemon to fill the position of joint cartoonist with John Leech on Punch. In 1861, he was offered John Leech’s position at Punch, as political cartoonist, but Tenniel still maintained a sense of decorum and restraint in the heated social and political issues of the day.His influential position as the chief cartoon artist for Punch made John Tenniel a witness to the weeping changes in political and social reforms through satirical,radical and at times vitriolic images of the world.

“An Unequal Match”, his drawing published in Punch on 8 October 1881, depicted a police officer fighting a criminal with only a baton for protection, trying to put a point across to the public that policing methods needed to be changed.

Despite the thousands of political cartoons and hundreds of illustrative works attributed to him, much of Tenniel’s fame stems from his illustrations for Alice. Tenniel drew 92 drawings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (London: Macmillan, 1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan, 1871).

Lewis Carroll originally illustrated Wonderland himself, but his artistic abilities were limited. Being a regular reader of Punch,he was familiar with Tenniel and his works and therefore asked him to do the illustrations for him.

Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books were engraved onto blocks of deal wood by the Brothers Dalziel. These engravings were then used as masters for making the electrotype copies for the actual printing of the books.The original wood blocks are held in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They are not usually on public display, but were exhibited in 2003.

Alice in Wonderland illustration by John Tenniel

In 1983,Tenniel was knighted by Queen Victoria for public service. His was the first such honor bestowed on an illustrator or cartoonist.With his knight hood, John elevated the social status of the black and white illustrator and sparked a new sense of recognition for his profession.

During his retirement  in 1901,he was honored with a farewell banquet which was presided by AJ Balfour,the leader of the House of Commons.


Tenniel died on 25 February 1914, three days before his 94th birthday. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.


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