The John Tenniel Bicentennial

Born 200 years ago today, the great British illustrator Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914).

Like nearly all historical figures, Tenniel’s career contains elements to both praise and condemn. In his particular case both sides spring from a common source, which his love and knack for visual grotesquerie. Starting in the early 1850s he was a political cartoonist for the satirical humor magazine Punch. He caricatured many or most of the major political and cultural figures of his day, as well as figures from the imagination such as Father Christmas and Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, many of his cartoons on the topic of Irish Nationalism could be described as racist (if the Irish were another “race” and if “races” existed). If anything, Tenniel depicted Irish antagonists as another species, something simian but below human. So there’s plenty there to provoke indignation.

On the other hand, Tenniel’s ability to present the nightmarish and the outlandish was what prompted Lewis Carroll to select him to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). Those images are as vivid and powerful and haunting as Carroll’s writing; any edition that uses any other illustrations is a rip-off! Other works he illustrated include editions of Aesop’s Fables (1846), The Arabian Nights (1863), the works of Poe, et al.

In 1893 he was knighted by Queen Victoria, the first illustrator to be so honored.

Lovers of vintage children’s fantasy literature are apt to note the similarity of his name to the later John R. Neill, illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, among many other things. He’ll inevitably receive attention here as well.