sir john tenniel | 07

Drawing from Wonderland

Tenniel was a renowned Victorian illustrator known for his dry wit, attention to detail, and skill in animating figures. He briefly attended the British Royal Academy before he began displaying his artwork. He was only 16 when he exhibited his first oil painting at the Society of British Artists, which was equally impressive because Tenniel was a self-taught artist. When Tenniel was twenty, a fencing accident with his father left him partially blind, losing sight in his right eye. This did not slow down Tenniel who continued his path as an artist, becoming a beacon in the late nineteenth century world of illustrators. He briefly considered focusing on painting in his twenties, he eventually sought freelance illustration work. His talent caught the attention of the editors at Punch, where he accepted a staff position that had been vacated by Richard Doyle.

Tenniel worked at Punch from 1850 until his retirement in 1901, producing over 2,000 cartoons. He inspired famous illustrators Ernest Shepard and Arthur Rackham. He created book illustrations such as The Gordian Knot and The Ingoldsby Legends, on which he collaborated with his friends, John Leech and George Cruikshank.

illustration history: sir john tenniel

modern met: sir john tenniel

A Punch & A Match

He became Punch’s lead illustrator after replacing John Leech. In 1864, an unknown Oxford mathematics lecturer, Charles Dodgson (better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll), asked him to illustrate a children’s fantasy book he had written, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Despite initial hesitations, Tenniel eventually accepted the commission, leading to one of the most significant collaborations in children’s book history. He also illustrated the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

One of the distinctive qualities of Tenniel’s artistic methods was that he did not draw from life, setting himself apart from his contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites, who believed that studying and drawing from nature was the only way to produce truthful art. This worked in Tenniel’s favor for Carroll’s book. Tenniel insisted that the creatures in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should not look like real animals but instead be fanciful creations. This desire lead to the perfect writer/illustrator pairing of Tenniel and Carroll. Tenniel found a text conducive to the nature of his genius, even if the pairing in-the-end left both feeling unsatisfied.

Carroll was rather particular about how his book and illustrations would look, providing Tenniel with many details and instructions. This didn’t lead to Tenniel’s illustrations just being whatever Carroll described they should be. Tenniel ultimately had a lot of freedom to give his own ideas and thoughts for the illustrations. On several occasions, Carroll was willing to accept the artist’s ideas, and in the end the illustrations are very recognizable of Tenniel’s style. Tenniel also had freedom in selecting the scenes to be illustrated, and when Tenniel complained about having to draw certain characters, Carroll was willing to change the characters of the poem for him. But there was also direction from Carroll who did not approved of Tenniel’s sketched before they were being cut into woodblocks, causing more work. But overall the influence of Tenniel over Carrol is illustrated by the fact that Carroll recalled the first edition of his book, because Tenniel expressed dissatisfaction about the quality of the printing of the pictures, Carroll was already worried at the time the book was going to miss it’s moment so recalling the book demanded a lot from Carroll.

alice in wonderland: tenniel and his illustrations

Tenniel’s pictures of Alice are not pictures of Alice Liddell, who had dark hair cut short with straight bangs across her forehead. Carroll sent Tenniel a photograph of Mary Hilton Badcock, another child-friend, recommending that he use her for a model, but whether Tenniel accepted that advice is a matter of dispute. That he did not is strongly suggested by these lines from a letter Carroll wrote sometime after both Alice books had been published… ‘Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to use a model, and declared he no more need one than I should need a multiplication table to work a mathematical problem! I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of ‘Alice’ entirely out of proportion — head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.
― Martin Gardner

archive: treasure of great children’s book illustrators

the marginalian: story of alice

Settle Down

However, he declined to work on most of Lewis Carroll’s subsequent projects, possibly due to the author’s desire for control. Still, they collaborated on The Nursery Alice, an abridgment for younger children in 1890.

Tenniel lived a relatively solitary life after his wife, Julia Giani, passed away in 1867, two years into their marriage. He did not remarry, so his mother-in-law acted as his housekeeper for 23 years until she passed away and then Tenniel’s sister stepped in to care for him. Flattered by the fame that his illustrations for Carroll’s two books had gained him, he viewed the work on these classics as a disruption to his routine, and swiftly returned to his ‘normal’ life at home. In 1893, Tenniel eventually was granted a knighthood for his political cartoons at Punch, and his well-known illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and their impact on children’s literature. Tenniel retired from Punch when he was 80, the eyesight in his left eye also failing due to overwork. Tenniel continued to paint watercolors until he went completely blind. He was 93 by the time he passed away in 1914.

alice in wonderland: tenniel and his illustrations

Tenniel’s Work

alice in wonderland

Every time I’ve read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I have found myself entertained and emersed in its world. Yet, also puzzled because I felt the book was this fever dream of seemingly random events, weird and wonderful people and animals. The story stands out for its subversion of traditional Victorian stories and offers no clear moral lessons or idealized characters. This innovative approach paved a new direction in picture book storytelling. What I enjoyed most; the drawings are of course timeless. I love the way the compositions are laid out and there is a nice blend throughout of things that are shown vs left for the reader to imagine. Two favorite parts of the text, the discussion between Alice and the caterpillar for its ambiguous nature and I also enjoyed the nonsensical poems as a satire of the time. The articles below touch on this but it is interesting how a story that has not stated a ‘lesson’ can in that ‘lack’ of a statement contain quite a lot to dissect and think about. A story that says so much by saying nothing (or at least very little), and that makes no sense, which I feel is a very fitting way to end this.

wikipedia: literary nonsense

medium: analyzing the psychological aspects of alice in wonderland

alice’s vacillitation between childhood and adulthood

victorian web: nursery alice

the collector: what does the mad hatter symbolize

understanding alice’s adventures in wonderland

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