Sir John Tenniel: Born February 28, 1820


John Tenniel was born in Kensington, London, on 28 February 1820, the youngest son of John Baptist Tenniel, of Huguenot lineage. He was a skilful artist from an early age, and later studied at the Royal Academy Schools, but became dissatisfied with the teaching there, and decided to follow a more independent line. He left for the Clipstone Street Art Society where he met his lifelong friend, Charles Keene. They jointly produced an early work entitled “Book of Beauty,” a series of humorous sketches which were exhibited and subsequently sold. At the age of sixteen, he exhibited some of his early works in oils at the Suffolk Street Galleries in London. For a period of five years from the age of seventeen, he was a contributor to exhibitions at the Royal Academy. At the age of twenty he was accidentally blinded in one eye as a result of a fencing match with his father. He submitted a cartoon entitled “The Spirit of Justice” for a competition aimed at attracting artists to decorate the new Houses of Parliament, but his work was not accepted. However, in 1845 he was commissioned to paint a fresco for the House of Lords. He spent a short time in Munich to study the art of fresco in preparation for his mural painting in the House entitled, “Saint Cecilia.”


Realising that paintings in oils were unlikely to bring him either fame or fortune, he decided to turn his hand to book illustration. His earliest recorded illustrations appeared in Hall’s Book of British Ballads dated 1842. He was sole illustrator for La Motte-Fouqué’s Undine in 1845. His series of black and white drawings for an edition of Aesop’s Fables were published by John Murray in 1848. His skill at drawing animals and men in dramatic situations caught the eye of Mark Lemon, editor of Punch, a magazine then in the early stages of establishing itself as a popular Victorian weekly publication of satire and humour. Richard Doyle, one of the key artists associated with the magazine resigned in 1850 leaving a vacancy which, on the suggestion of Douglas Jerrold, was filled by Tenniel. Thus began a lifelong position at the Punch Office culminating in Tenniel becoming the foremost illustrator of its pages. He contributed to volume nineteen and his first political cartoon appeared in volume twenty. Tenniel married in 1852, but sadly his wife died two years later; there were no children. He professed to have no political opinions but followed the leanings of his employers. He also declared that he never used models, or nature for the figure, or drapery, or anything else, but had a wonderful memory of observation for anything he saw.

Tenniel cartoons for PUNCH:

Tenniel illustrations for Aesop’s Fables:

Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland:

Tenniel illustrations for Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

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