John Tenniel is most famous today as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's classic novels 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'. But he was also a respected cartoonist for Punch Magazine for over half a century and made a few text comics ('Mr. Spoonbill', 'Peter Piper'). 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 absolute first cartoonist to receive a knighthood. Tenniel was born in Bayswater, London in 1820. 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.
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."
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 Tenniel complained about the printing quality. His imaginative and surreal drawings 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 complimented Carroll's equally colourful writing so much that they became the standard by which all other adaptations of 'Alice' are judged to this very day.
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. In the decades that followed he would gradually lose sight in it.
In 1893 he 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. His influence on later generations of artists can be experienced in the work of Thomas Nast, Peter Newell, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Ed Kuekes, John Henry Chinner, Edward Gorey, Mark Ryden, Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, Soumei Hoshino, Kaori Yuki and Chris Riddell.
A testament to both Caroll and Tenniel's enduring popularity is the fact that no less than four characters from 'Alice' have asteroids named after them. In 1990 one was named after the Cheshire Cat, followed by the Jabberwock in 1991, the Mad Hatter in 1992 and the March Hare in 1993.