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 fitted the dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish atmosphere of Carroll's stories. But Tenniel was also a respected cartoonist for Punch magazine for over half a century and made a few text comics ('Peter Piper' in 1853 and 'Mr. Spoonbill' in 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 he soon left and decided to learn the craft on his own. That same year he contributed a picture to the Society of British Artists exhibition, and in 1845 he painted a fresco in the "Hall of Poets" in the House of Lords. One of his major artistic influences was J.J. Grandville.

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 1890 cartoon 'Dropping the Pilot', 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.

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). While he followed the story closely Carroll allowed him to put his own mark on it. The author even dropped an entire chapter at Tenniel's suggestion and withdrew the first edition of the novel after the artist complained about the printing quality. A powerful imaginative story like 'Alice' is a gift to illustrators. Particularly since it offers so much opportunities for dreamlike imagery. Tenniel clearly had a lot of fun putting Carroll's text into visuals. 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. They have become the standard by which all other adaptations of 'Alice' are judged to this very day.

Numerous illustrators have published their own graphic interpretations of 'Alice', including Emily Gertrude Thomson (1890), Arthur Rackham (1907), Charles Robinson (1907), Charles Folkard (1921), Willy Pogany (1929), Mervyn Peake (1946), Ralph Steadman (1967), Salvador Dalí (1969), Graham Overden (1969), Max Ernst (1970), 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. In the 18th issue of Mad Magazine (1954) Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and Will Elder parodied the story 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. Contrary to many other 19th-century novels the 'Alice' books are one of the few to still be reprinted with the original drawings. It's almost impossible to separate Carroll's colourful writing from Tenniel's equally imaginative artwork. One can't imagine one without the other. 

Tenniel can be seen as a prototypical surreal artist. His drawings for the 'Alice' novels have a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish atmosphere, which perfectly fits Alice's adventures. Since Tenniel was more of a political cartoonist than a book illustrator he drew everything in the same detailed way. Animals, plants and objects all look realistically. His human characters, on the other hand, have the same disproportional huge heads as his political caricatures. Generations of young readers have felt discomfort when looking at the Queen of Hearts and particularly the Duchess, though the anthropomorphic animals have an equally disturbing look at times. It comes to no surprise that 'Alice' was very popular among the 20th-century Surrealist movement. Max Ernst made a 1941 painting titled 'Alice', while René Magritte made one in 1945 titled 'Alice in Wonderland'. Both Ernst and Salvador Dali once illustrated the book. Fans of absurdism, fantasy, psychedelica and hallucinogenic drugs treasure both the novels as well as Tenniel's drawings. The books have been adapted in every possible media form and referenced, alluded to and inspired countless other works. 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). 

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

Prototypical comics: 'Peter Piper' and 'Mr. Spoonbill'
Tenniel drew some prototypical comics in the 1850s. The first was about a bulbous character named 'Peter Piper' (1853) and his misfortunes while hunting. Another early comic strip featured 'Mr. Spoonbill' (1855) and his similar mishaps. Both are text comics, where the story can be read below the sequential illustrations. Tenniel was a talented illustrator. He drew everything as detailed as possible, reaching a fine balance between caricature and realism. Under his pen even the most grotesque characters appeared believable, whether they have huge heads or anthropomorphic animal bodies. They have fascinated and sometimes frightened readers for centuries. His draftmanship is all the more remarkable in the knowledge that Tenniel 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.

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

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. His 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 Caroll 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.

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

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


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