Sir John Tenniel

Visual Storyteller
Illustrator of 'Alice in Wonderland'
and cartoonist for
'Punch' Magazine

It was an inspired choice to select John Tenniel (later, Sir John Tenniel) as the first illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s creative masterpieces – ‘Alice in Wonderland’, first published in 1865, and ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, which was released in 1872. For many people, these children's book illustrations, still much admired for their liveliness, design, craftsmanship and whimsical touches, are all they know of Tenniel’s work – but he was well practiced and already famous by the time he drew them.

At the start of his career as an artist, his first love was painting, and London galleries were exhibiting his canvases when he was only 16, in 1836. He was so accomplished, it was hardly surprising that when he trained at the Royal Academy, he found the quality of tuition inadequate and chose not to complete his studies there.

Having established his reputation, commissions followed – including a fresco for the House of Lords.

When Tenniel submitted occasional cartoons to ‘Punch’, his ability to draw people soon lead to him being offered a permanent post as a ‘political cartoonist’ for the magazine. Thinking of himself as a ‘fine-artist’ and not witty, he was disinclined at first, but was finally persuaded to join the staff in 1850, when he was 30, and he stayed until retiring at the age of 80.

Artists work in many different ways. Most sketch and keep ‘visual diaries’. When they want to draw or paint the folds in clothes, they use a ‘model’ – either a living person wearing them, or fabric hung in their studio, in the shape they wish to draw - or these days, they take photographs or look at pictures on the internet. Tenniel was different. He had a photographic memory and never made sketches or used photographs, fabrics or models to remind him of his subject – though from time to time he would arrange a meeting with a politician so that he could closely study their features. The accuracy of the likenesses he drew in his cartoons was uncanny.

I don’t have ready access to all the early additions of Punch, so the examples I’ve scanned have been chosen from ‘Punch Almanacks’ from 1850 – 1886, which I own.

Every Wednesday, Tenniel would be told the subject for his weekly cartoon. Thursday was ‘thinking day’ - and he also drew some rough page plans and ideas. Friday was set aside for working feverishly to create the final drawing, trace it on to a wooden printing-block and add details. At 5.30 pm, Joseph Swain’s boy assistant would arrive to collect the block, though sometimes he had to wait an hour or more. Swain spent the next day engraving it. The wood-block would then be ready for embedding in the rest of the text and cartoons, and printing. Tenniel received his sample copy of the magazine late on Monday, but was always too anxious to open it himself, so his sister was the first to see the finished results.

The political satires drawn by Tenniel had immense effect, changing politicians’ policies and causing the downfall and election of parties, but his illustrations for the Almanacks also show his skills as a visual storyteller.

Like the strip cartoons and graphic novels of today, some pages depict a story as a sequence of events. The adventures of ‘Spriggins’ was a running joke over many years of ‘Punch’, and this page depicts his choice to go hunting, not on horseback, but on his tricycle. I’m sure children would have been shown cartoons such as this, and laughed at them:

Here’s one of his political cartoons, which takes up a whole page in the book:

It was necessary to join a number of wood-blocks together for these large drawings and engravings. Across the dark sleeve in the centre of the picture, you can see a line where the blocks were not perfectly aligned.

In the ‘Almanacks’, Tenniel also drew double page spreads which showed events from the old year, but leading into the new one, again with politicians and well known characters featured.

I’m sure these large cartoons would have taken more than two days to plan and draw!

Here is an enlarged detail:

Victorian readers would have been familiar with most of the people drawn by Tenniel. In this picture, Charles Darwin, standing behind ape, is probably the character we most easily recognize.

The double page spread for 1882 depicts ‘Punch’s’ (Tenniel’s) dream for the potential of electricity to be of use to society. Some ideas, which would have seemed preposterous and hilarious concepts at that time, have now become common place – ‘head-lights’ on a means of transport; using the heating power of electricity to hatch eggs, thaw frozen meat and cultivate exotic fruit; and electric lighting in horticulture to help grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. (I think he imagined electricity could be used to bring frozen carcasses back to life, too. Not yet!)

These details from another tableaux show Tenniel’s skill in portraying animals:

Throughout the history of the magazine, the small dog, ‘Toby’, was always drawn as a companion to Punch. Here he is again:

To me, he seems very similar to Tenniel’s illustration in ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

Many ‘Almanack’ editions started with a page to include a calendar for the year and a design featuring all the Signs of the Zodiac:

You will see how all the pictures on this calendar page are connected, not only by the vine-work, but also by all of them having an outdoor theme. The segments of Scorpio and Sagittarius show Punch, in one division, looking at the scorpion in the adjacent one. The person being tossed by Taurus the bull overlaps the boundary and is being tossed into Gemini, and is positioned in a strong design position in of the panel. The pictures all relate to activities common at the times of year, for example, as Valentine’s Day falls during Pisces, so the picture shows Cupid, lovers, and the fish with letters in envelopes that feature a heart and a rose.

Remember, this was the ‘Punch Almanack’ for 1852. Look at the Piscean fish, then at the fish in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ of 1865, and compare them:

Often, following the calendar page in each ‘Almanack’, there is a series of monthly or bi-monthly pages which provide anecdotes, puns, verses and decoration. In this year, 1852, all monthly pages have this layout:

and Tenniel’s drawings refer to the nature of the month - in England, March is noted for high winds:

I bet Tenniel spent a lot more than a couple of days creating this one for 1853, too! The amount of detail is phenomenal, and the longer you look, the more you discover of scenes within scenes. The Zodiacal symbols are depicted, and again, the stories flow from one point to another as the year progresses. I can imagine parents encouraging children to find the scorpion, the turkey, etc..

The details shown in the previous two pictures are enlargements of what was hand engraved by Joseph Swain. The originals were 16cm high. It was his incredible skill that enabled Tenniel to let his inventive mind create such tapestries.

The main calendar page was equally complex in 1855:

In the edition of 1865, ‘Punch’ and Tenniel make fun of the new Victorian love of everything of medieval origin.

The monthly pages carry this theme with knightly Zodiacal symbols and simple seasonal scenes reminiscent of the illuminations and agricultural depictions in the ‘Luttrel Psalter’ of 1340.

Now look at this picture of the Luttrell Psalter.

I don't want to infringe copyright by copying pictures of the Psalter. Here's another showing reaping.

It would seem inevitable that Tenniel would use some of the styles of figures that he drew for ‘Punch’ in the illustrations for ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

In this medieval series of pictures for 1865, Tenniel drew Virgo, it would seem, as St Joan of Arc**, complete with sticks to burn her at the stake – her fate at the age of 19:

but also, perhaps, as a demure ‘beauty’, ‘stunner’ or ‘femme fatale’ in the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ painting style of Millais, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and friends, with typically elegant hands. But is she also the ‘prototype’ of Alice?

**This pose was commonly depicted in medieval manuscript, but I have a feeling that this illustration could be a parody of a famous painting or sculpture. I’d be grateful if someone could tell me which one!

In 1863, Rossetti had painted St Joan of Arc with facial similarities to those of Lizzie (Elizabeth), his wife, who had died in 1862.

It was his love for Lizzie that he commemorated and paralleled to Danté’s love for Beatrix in his picture ‘Beata Beatrix’.

Is there a similarity to Alice?

Rossetti’s other favourite model was Janey (Jane) Morris, the wife of William Morris.

In Arthurian legend, Guenevere was also lined up to be burnt at the stake, and Tenniel’s Virgo has a hint of William Morris’s 1858 painting of ‘Queen Guenevere’, for which he used Janey as the model.

Could ‘Alice’ really have been Janey Morris or Lizzie Rossetti?

Here's Janey as 'Queen Guenevere'.