John Tenniel was born in London in 1820 one of six children, his father was a fencing teacher of Huguenot origins and the family was not very well off. One day as a teenager John Tenniel was out fencing with his father when he was accidentally cut in the eye and left partially blind. He never told his father about this injury not to make him feel guilty. Even as a child he loved reading and drawing, he enjoyed visiting museums and art galleries and thanks to his photographic memory he was able to then go home and sketch the painting he had seen. In his early years he painted with oil and his subjects were mainly religious in medieval settings that were not exactly commercially successful, therefore John Tenniel had to find something else to do that paid the bills.
Punch and Alice in Wonderland
All the illustrations found on this page come from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll with forty-two illustrations by John Tenniel published in 1906 now in the Public Domain
In 1850 he was offered a steady job at Punch magazine, which he accepted and for the next 50 years he produced thousands of drawings and cartoons most of them political. He said himself that there were only six numbers of Punch between 1850 and 1900 (the year he retired) without one of his drawings. Tenniel was a private and quiet man, he got married once in 1854 but his wife unfortunately died two years later, Tenniel became even more private and never remarried.
While he was working for Punch he illustrated several books including Aesop's Tales and Edgar Allan Poe's Works . He was asked by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll's real name) to illustrate his Alice books. John Tenniel when illustrating books tended to read them many times to try to keep his illustrations as close as possible to the descriptions found in the books. That was not close enough for Lewis Carroll and the two kept arguing and never got on until Tenniel walked out and ended the contract.
Nevertheless the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were published and they are still popular these days. They are still among the most famous illustrations in literature ever. Alice as drawn by John Tenniel is the Alice we all know and love, all the others nearly seem like cheap imitations.
John Tenniel was knighted in 1893 and spent the last years of his life living with his sister still drawing and painting until he lost the sight of his good eye. He died in 1914 a few days before his 94th birthday.