Mr Piper, by John Tenniel (1853)
'How Mr. Peter Piper Enjoyed a Day's 'Pig-sticking' ' (1853).

John Tenniel is most famous today as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's classic novels 'Alice in Wonderland' (1865) and 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' (1871). His artwork for these stories became so iconic that they are one of the few 19th-century novels which are still reprinted with the same original illustrations. Even though several other artists have tried to give their own imaginative interpretations of these stories Tenniel's illustrations have remained the standard. They perfectly fit the dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish atmosphere. But Tenniel was also a respected cartoonist for Punch magazine for over half a century and made a few text comics ('Peter Piper',1853, 'Mr. Spoonbill',1855). His work combines a powerful fantasy with very sharp and detailed realism. Few other 19th century cartoonists managed to gain so much respectability at the time. He was among the first to have his work exhibited and the first cartoonist to receive a knighthood.

Early life
Tenniel was born in Bayswater, London in 1820. His father was a fencing and dancing master. He never received any formal art training, although he briefly attended the Royal Academy of Arts in 1842. Disagreeing strongly with their teaching methods, Tenniel soon left and decided to learn the craft on his own. Among his graphic influences were J.J. Grandville and John Leech. In 1842 he already exhibited one of his drawings at the Society of British Artists' exhibition. Three years later he painted a fresco in the Hall of Poets of the House of Lords in London. Tenniel became a marvellous illustrator, who excelled both in realistic drawing as well as grotesque caricature. His draftmanship is all the more remarkable in the knowledge that he suffered from a gradually worsening eye condition! In 1840 his right eye was severely wounded during a fencing duel with his father. In the decades that followed he would gradually lose sight in it.

Punch cartoons
Tenniel's illustrations of Aesop's 'Fables' brought him to the attention of the British satirical magazine Punch. In 1850 he began working with John Leech and Charles Keene but soon eclipsed them as the most famous cartoonist of the magazine. He drew more than 2.300 political cartoons and illustrations, including the annual Punch almanac. For about half a century Tenniel both captured and ridiculed many political and social changes in Victorian Britain and its worldwide Empire. His cartoon 'Dropping the Pilot' (Punch, 29 March 1890), depicting the resignment of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, has become iconic and is one of the most frequently reproduced cartoons in history books. It shows Bismarck, who made his country into a powerful unified nation, leaving the metaphorical ship he steered for almost 20 years. He is watched by the very young and unexperienced German emperor Wilhelm II, who shows no cause for concern. A copy of this cartoon was sent to Bismarck himself, who felt it was a "fine one."

Dropping the pilot by John Tenniel
'Dropping the pilot', 1890.

Peter Piper
Tenniel drew some prototypical comics, such as 'The Hunting Adventures and Exploits of Peter Piper', which appeared in Punch between January and June 1853. While named after the famous English nursery rhyme, this Peter Piper doesn't "pick pecks of pickled pepper." He is an animal hunter in Bengal, India. In his first adventure, 'How Mr. Peter Piper Enjoyed a Day's Pig-sticking' (1853), Piper hunts pigs. After a fall from his horse he encounters a crocodile, whom he kills with his pig-stick. When he notices a tiger, he quickly runs off, but still manages to catch three piglets at the end of the day. The final panel shows him and his friends roast the meat, while he boasts about his adventures. While an exciting comic strip, the narration is sometimes a bit confusing. For instance: in the first panel we see Peter ride a dromedary (though the text says it's a camel), yet in the next he is suddenly on back of a horse. By lack of explanation the reader has no idea why he suddenly changed his transport animal? Later in the story Peter encounters a crocodile, whom he has killed in the next panel only to stand eye in eye with a tiger. Yet in the following panel we see him mount his horse again, while the tiger is nowhere to be seen, only a crocodile with a menacing stare. To modern-day readers such scenes feel like continuity errors, but in reality the entire medium was still young and many 19th-century cartoonists had equal problems with making their narratives understandable, at times.


'How Mr. Peter Piper Tried His Hand at Buffalo-Shooting' (1853)

In 'How Mr. Peter Piper Tried His Hand at Buffalo-Shooting' (1853) our "hero" returns, this time trying to shoot a water buffalo from a canoe. However, the animal knocks his boat out of the river, whereupon Peter and his Indian paddler fall in the water. He still manages to kill the beast, but a crocodile steals his trophy. Back on the shore he and his Indian labourer are surprised by a huge cattle stampede and dash off into a tree. Once again they manage to kill a buffalo and return home in triumph. Bears are Piper's next prey in 'How Mr. Peter Piper Was Induced To Join In a Bear-Hunt' (1853). He and his subordinates try to lure a bear out of his cave, but Peter is ambushed when the animal attacks him in the back. They fight and stumble into a cliff, where one of his personnel eventually shoots the carnivore. In the final episode, 'How Mr. Peter Piper Accepted an Invitation from the Rajah of R. to Hunt a Bengal Tiger' (1853), Peter joins a Rajah to hunt down tigers on back of an elephant. Once again he is nearly killed by falling off the pachyderm twice, but in the end the striped feline is killed.

Like most 19th-century picture stories 'Peter Piper' is a text comic with the narration appearing underneath the images. It could be considered an early example of a comics series, since the reader follows the same main character in four different adventures. Yet contrary to later comics published in magazines or papers, all episodes are self-contained. 'Peter Piper' is a slapstick gag comic, yet a thrilling adventure at the same time, thanks to Tenniel's vivid artwork . To modern-day readers the colonial tone and killing of (nowadays endangered) animals is a tad offensive and out-dated. Yet Peter is more an upperclass twit than a hero. Each hunt is disastrous and he only survives through dumb luck or because his servants or fellow hunters save him. In the tiger-hunting episode, for instance, others do all the hard work. Peter merely fires the final shot, yet is still congratulated for his "indomitable courage and reckless daring." Peter Piper also shares a physical resemblance with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the later 'Alice' novels.

Mr. Spoonbill, by John Tenniel (1855)
'Mr. Spoonbill's Experiences in the Art of Skating' (1855).

Mr. Spoonbill
Between February and March 1855 Tenniel made another text comic, 'Mr. Spoonbill's Experiences In The Art Of Skating', prepublished in Punch in three episodes. It stars another upperclass twit, this time trying to ice skate. Mr. Spoonbill falls so much that he breaks through the ice. Compared with 'Peter Piper', 'Mr. Spoonbill' shows Tenniel's growth as a comics artist. Between each panel there is more suggestion of continuous movement. 

Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.

Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass
John Tenniel is probably best remembered for his wonderful illustrations in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' (1865) and the sequel 'Through the Looking Glass' (1871). It's clear that Tenniel had a lot of fun putting Carroll's words into visuals. Since he was first and foremost a caricaturist, certain 'Alice' characters, like the Mad Hatter, Duchess and Queen of Hearts, have the same disproportional huge heads as the politicians in his cartoons. Yet the backgrounds and animals are all drawn realistically. Much like a real dream where nothing makes sense, yet looks believable enough to seem true. Generations of young readers have both been fascinated as well as frightened by Tenniel's vivid drawings. It's almost impossible to imagine Carroll's colourful novel without them. He cemented the public image of Alice, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedledee and Tweedledum and many other unforgettable characters. Carroll gave Tenniel tremendous creative freedom. He even dropped an entire chapter at Tenniel's suggestion, because it contained a scene with a wasp in a wig, which the artist just couldn't draw convincingly enough (a century later Alan Aldridge heard this anecdote and actually drew a convincing wig-wearing wasp in William Plomer's picture book 'The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast' (1973). The insect also appeared in the animated music video adaptation 'Love Is All' (1975) by Roger Glover.). When Carroll published 'Alice in Wonderland', Tenniel was unsatisfied with the printing quality. He complained about it, whereupon Carroll instantly withdrew the first edition at his request! But it was all worth the extra effort. Today Carroll's novels remain bestsellers and one of the few 19th-century illustrated novels still reprinted with the original drawings. 

In many ways Tenniel's artwork for 'Alice' makes him a prototypical surrealist. It comes to no surprise that the novel (and his drawings) were a strong influence on the 20th-century Surrealist movement. Max Ernst made a 1941 painting titled 'Alice' and illustrated Carroll's novel in 1970. In 1945 René Magritte also made a painting inspired by Carroll's book. Salvador Dali too illustrated 'Alice in Wonderland' in 1969. Numerous other artists made their own graphic interpretations, including Emily Gertrude Thomson (1890), Arthur Rackham (1907), Charles Robinson (1907), Charles Folkard (1921), Willy Pogany (1929), Mervyn Peake (1946), Ralph Steadman (1967), Graham Overden (1969), Peter Blake (1970), Kuniyoshi Kaneko (1974), Tove Jansson (1977), Anthony Browne (1988), Helen Oxenbury (1999), Lisbeth Zwerger (1999), DeLoss McCraw (2001), Gabriella Baracsi (2008), Robert Ingpen (2009) and Yayoi Kusama (2012). Ed Kuekes adapted the novel into a comic strip in 1934, with Olive Ray Scott. Bob Kane, Don Cameron and Jerry Robinson's 'Tweedledee and Tweedledum' (1943) and Bill Finger and Lew Sayre Schwartz' Mad Hatter (1948) are three 'Batman' villains based on Carroll's similar characters. The iconic scene of Alice's tea party as drawn by Tenniel was used on the cover of issue #15 (September 1954) of Mad Magazine, with the subtitle 'A 'Mad' tea party'. In the 18th issue (December 1954) Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and Will Elder parodied both 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' in a comic strip using Tenniel's original illustrations. Bryan Talbot adapted 'Alice' into a 2012 graphic novel. Manga based on Carroll's work were created by Ai Ninomiya and Ikumi Katagiri ('Are You Alice?', 2004), Kaishaku ('Kagihime Monogatari Eikyū Alice Rondo', 2004), Quin Rose ('Alice in the Country of Hearts', 2007-2010) and Kaori Yukki ('Alice in Murderland', 2014). 

Max and Dave Fleischer created a Betty Boop cartoon, 'Betty in Blunderland' (1934), based on the story. Walt Disney did the same with Mickey Mouse two years later in the short 'Thru the Mirror' (1936), which became a precursor to his animated feature 'Alice in Wonderland' (1951). Gene Deitch made his own animated feature, 'Alice in Wonderland in Paris' (1966), but with a completely different plot. The same year Hanna-Barbera made a modernized animated TV special named 'Alice in Wonderland (or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?', 1966), which featured two small cameos of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Terry Gilliam's debut film, 'Jabberwocky' (1975), was inspired by the poem 'The Jabberwock' in 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'. Jan Švankmajer created a delightfully surreal stop-motion picture, 'Něco z Alenky' ('Alice', 1988), a perfect rendition of the dreamlike and nightmarish qualities of the original story. Still Tenniel's illustrations have never been replaced in the public consciousness by any other graphic artist's imaginative re-interpretation. 

'Alice in Wonderland' has been adapted, referenced and alluded to in many other media. Fans of absurdism, fantasy, psychedelica and hallucinogenic drugs treasure both the novels as well as Tenniel's drawings. Jefferson Airplane's drug-induced hit 'White Rabbit' (1967) was inspired by it, as were three Beatles songs written by John Lennon: 'I Am the Walrus' (1967), 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' (1967) and 'Cry, Baby, Cry' (1968). At his request Carroll's face was even added to the photo montage on the cover of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. 


'Through the Looking Glass'

Recognition
In 1893 Tenniel became the first illustrator/cartoonist to ever be knighted. Former British PM William Ewart Gladstone personally recommended him for this honor to Queen Victoria. The event added more respectability to both Tenniel as well as his profession. His work was exhibited to the general public in 1895 and 1900. By the time he retired in 1901, Tenniel was honoured with a farewell banquet, presided by Leader of the House Commons, Arthur Balfour, who would become Prime Minister a year later.

Death, legacy and influence
John Tenniel passed away in 1910. During his lifetime he was good friends with John Leech who once said: "Talk of drawing, my dear fellow, what is my drawing compared with Tenniel?" Tenniel's influence on later generations of artists can be experienced in the work of Thomas Nast, Peter Newell, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Ed Kuekes, John Henry Chinner, Edward Gorey, Mark Ryden, Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, Ralph Steadman, Soumei Hoshino, Kaori Yuki and Chris Riddell. A testament to both Carroll and Tenniel's enduring popularity is the fact that no less than 18 characters from 'Alice' have asteroids named after them. In 1990 two were named after the Cheshire Cat and the Gryphon, followed by the Jabberwock and Dinah the cat in 1991, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen in 1992 and the March Hare in 1993, the Mock Turtle, Tweedledee, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch in 1994, the White Knight in 1995, Father William and Tweedledum in 1997, Tigerlily, Haigha and Hatta in 1998 and the White Rabbit in 1999. Lewis Carroll received an asteroid in 1994. Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired both novels, also received her own asteroid in 1996.

Books about John Tenniel
For people interested in the life and career of John Tenniel, Frankie Morris' book 'Artist of Wonderland: The Life, Political Cartoons, and Illustrations of Tenniel' (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2005) is highly recommended. 

Alice in Wonderland
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.

Series and books by John Tenniel in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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