Sir John Tenniel (self portrait), 1889.
Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) was already a well known artist when Lewis Carroll approached him in 1864 to illustrate his upcoming book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although he would later become celebrated for his iconic Alice illustrations, at the time, Tenniel was highly regarded for his work in Punch, a British weekly magazine devoted to political commentary, satire, and humor.
Tenniel worked as an painter and illustrator before becoming a political cartoonist for Punch in 1850. He contributed over 2,000 cartoons for the magazine over the next 50 years. His work covered domestic and international affairs with biting wit. Tenniel was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1893 for his artistic achievements. He officially retired in 1901.
It was Tenniel’s technical skill, the high quality of his work, and his reputation at Punch that caught Carroll’s eye as he was searching for an illustrator for Alice. The two worked closely together in the year it took to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with Tenniel receiving meticulous notes from Carroll throughout the process. Carroll’s respect for Tenniel was unmistakable. He famously rejected the initial printing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, partially due to Tenniel’s concerns over the quality of the printed illustrations (which bled on the page).
Several years later, Carroll convinced Tenniel to illustrate his sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, published in 1871. Carroll omitted a chapter from the book , “A Wasp in A Wig”, many believe due to Tenniel’s objections. Tenniel wrote in a letter to Carroll in 1870:
Don’t think me brutal, but I am bound to say that the ‘wasp’ chapter does not interest me in the least, and I can’t see my way to a picture. If you want to shorten the book, I can’t help thinking – with all submission – that this is your opportunity.
Since Tenniel was working for Punch at the same time he illustrated the Alice books, it is no surprise to see Wonderland characters pop up in his illustrations. For example, early drawings of Alice, Humpty-Dumpty, and the Lion and the Unicorn by Tenniel appear in the magazine before the Alice books were published.
As the popularity of Alice grew over the years, Punch utilized Alice references and parodies as a way to poke fun at politics. For example, Tweedledee and Tweedledum personified a Franco-Russian alliance in 1899, and the text to ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ was rewritten to parody of international affairs in 1887. Amusingly, the editors at Punch often included the line With Apologies to “Alice” in the captions for these cartoons.
Visit the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library to explore some of these early Alice-related illustrations in Punch. While there, stop by the Alice 150 Years and Counting: The Legacy of Lewis Carroll exhibit to discover more about John Tenniel, Lewis Carroll, and the Alice books.
You can also explore more illustrations from Punch, available in the Special Collections and University Archives, in our online Flickr album.