‘A Sense Of Nobility Is Rarely Absent’
Sir John Tenniel Drew The World Of His Day, And Alice’s Too
By David McGee

tennielApart from Lewis Carroll himself, the other critical participant in the Alice books was artist Sir John Tenniel. As writer Gill Stoker has observed: "New illustrations to Alice have never stopped appearing, but it is significant that these have failed to supersede Tenniel's own designs, which have never been out of print. While his other illustrations to literature, excellent as most of them are, have not survived in the popular imagination, it is in Lewis Carroll's two Alice books that Tenniel's name will live on, not only through their magical combination of fantasy and design, but also through the constant source of inspiration the story and its iconography have afforded, and are still affording, later generations of artists. It is still possible to assert as fact that, in the words of the 1907 Punch cartoon, "Tenniel's 'Alice' Reigns Supreme." (Source: (source: "Tenniel's Illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Gill Stocker at http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/school/alice1021.html).

It is for the Alice drawings that Sir John has been best remembered—until Disney's 1951 animated version, every filmmaker attempted to dress the characters in costumes as visualized in the Tenniel drawings—but in his native England he is honored as one of the foremost political cartoonists of his day.  Born in London in 1820, Tenniel joined the celebrated political publication Punch in 1850; at his retirement in 1901, he had contributed some 2300 cartoons, innumerable minor drawings, double-page cartoons for Punch's Almanac and other special numbers, and 250 designs for Punch's Pocket-books, according to a profile published at www.nndb.com. Knighthood was conferred upon him in 1893, upon the recommendation of William Ewart Gladstone. Oddly, the nndb.com profile makes no mention at all of his Alice drawings, but instead praises Tenniel's weekly cartoons as having presented "the political history not of England only, but to some extent the world, of half a century.”

Writes nndb.com: The main quality of Sir John Tenniel's work is accuracy of drawing, precision of touch, grace and dignity of conception, and — so far as such things can be compatible — geniality of satire. Tenniel raised the political cartoon into a classic composition, from which a sense of nobility is rarely absent. The beauty and statuesqueness of his ideal figures recall the influence, perhaps, of Cornelius and Overbeck—that German manner which was characteristic of many of our finer draughtsmen upon wood at the middle of the 19th century. But Tenniel's work is always original, unforced and fresh; and it never suggests, what is the fact, that the artist's work is drawn exclusively from memory, and never from the model. It may be mentioned that Tenniel's wonderful observation has been conducted, and his knowledge accumulated, literally through a single eye, the other having been lost during a fencing bout in his youth. It was in recognition not only of his ability as an artist in black and white, but of his service in infusing good humor and good taste into one phase of political life, that a knighthood was conferred upon him on William Ewart Gladstone's recommendation in 1893. Without pronounced political opinions of his own, Sir John Tenniel adopted in his work those of his paper, of which the Whig proclivities were to some degree softened by his pencil.

Sir John Tenniel died in London in 1914.

When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, pen name Lewis Carroll, was writing his first Alice stories, he queried Sir John Tenniel about illustrating the tales. Being otherwise engaged, Tenniel declined. Dodgson then made an offer to Sir Joseph Noel Paton, who declined due to illness. Dodgson then returned to Tenniel with a more generous offer, and Tenniel agreed to do the job in his spare hours.

An 1884 editon of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, with frontispiece art by Sir John Tenniel

By all accounts Tenniel was hardly a passive collaborator. He objected to a particular chapter of Dodgson's original book and the author dropped it (see "The Lost Chapter of Alice" in this issue). When he complained of the quality of the first print run of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, all 2,000 copies were tossed. Upon the book's publication in 1866, it became an instant best seller, and made Tenniel both famous and influential. His original Alice illustrations were engraved onto wood blocks and printed in the woodcut process. The original blocks are now in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

According to Tenniel biographer Rodney Engen (Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight, Lund Humphries, London, 1991), "the method for creating the illustrations of the Alice books was the same as the method he used for Punch, namely preliminary pencil drawings, further drawings in 'ink and Chinese white' to simulate the wood engraver's line, then transference to the wood-block by the use of tracing paper. Then the drawings were engraved to the highest standards, in this instance by the Dalziel Brothers. Carroll appears to have ordered many (expensive!) changes to them. The final stage in the reproduction process was to make electrotype plates from the wood engravings, using them as masters. The electrotype plates were used for the actual printing." (source: http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/alice1f.html).

Alice Liddell in a photo taken by Lewis Carroll, 1865

hiltonAlthough little Alice Liddell was the inspiration for the Alice books, she was not Tenniel's mode for his Alice. Carroll sent Tenniel a photo of another child friend of his, Mary Hilton Badcock, recommending her as a model. All available evidence indicates Tenniel rejected the young Ms. Badcock, including revelations in a note from Dodgson/Carroll himself, written several years after the books' publication, in which he noted: "Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to use a model, and declared he no more needed 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." Various Alice authorities, however, believe Tenniel's Alice bears a striking resemblance to Mary Hilton Badcock, shown here in the small inset.

Moreover, at least one prominent Tenniel scholar. J. Tufail, points out a greater contextual purpose for Tenniel's illustrations, using as an example the frontispiece drawing of the Trial of the Knave of Hearts, which shows the Knave to be wearing the motif of the Club on his tunic. It was not the Knave of Hearts at all being tried, Tufail notes, but a bit of Carroll trickery in which Tenniel participated—"You've been set up to believe," Tufail notes in an essay reprinted at Lenny's Alice In Wonderland Site (http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/explain/alice848.html). "It is only when the illustration is examined closely...that it can be seen that of all the characters illustrated in this story, the Knave is the only one whose identity is always ambiguous. In none of the illustrations of the Knave (there are three) is he ever unambiguously represented.”

Continues Tufail: In most illustrated books the illustrations complement the text, the reader glances at the illustration to "confirm" the textual content. But this is not always the case. In 19th c. literature, for example, the illustration became a powerful tool for writers such as Thackeray (Vanity Fair) and Dickens (Notably Domby and Son) to evade the "universal censor" on such issues as adultery—or even to undermine the written text. Semiology was not a 20th century invention!

In fact it is really only in the 20th century that illustration has become a passive partner to the text.

In Alice the frontispiece refers not out of the text to a universe of playing cards and nursery rhymes (Carroll, of course, invented neither) but back into the body of a verbal text which is deliberately ambiguous. The illustration carries an information structure which highlights the ambiguity of the written text and challenges the reader's reliance on his/her knowledge of the nursery rhyme. What we have are two complex but incomplete structures which are mapped onto each other in such a way that to each part of one structure there is a corresponding part in the other structure. It is what Douglas Hofstadter would call an "isomorphic relationship." However, because the reader has already made an assumption about the trial based on the nursery rhyme, he or she completely misses the point that the trial is "nonsense" not because of the evidence given, but because the person in the dock is not the Knave of Hearts!.

Be that as it may, Sir John’s art does indeed “reign supreme” in its wit, its whimsicality, even in its dark underpinnings, over all Alice art in its wake. Below is a sampling of his formidable legacy. Included are examples from the 54 Civil War cartoons he drew for Punch. The Punch cartoons and text are from John Tenniel and the American Civil War: Political Cartoons from Punch, 1860-1865 (A Free-Use Educational Resource, http://arthist.cla.umn.edu/aict/Tennielweb/splash.html)


The American Juggernaut.
Punch, Volume 47, September 3, 1864, pp. 96 - 97
In a dramatic image worthy of Goya or Daumier, the terrible carnage of Grant's campaign against Lee in Virginia during the summer of 1864 is represented by an enormous cannon mounted on a gun carriage with studded wheels, rolling unchecked over the bodies of hapless Union troops and leaving their mangled forms in its train. The "American Juggernaut" looms ominously out of roiling clouds of black smoke, driven onwards by the Three Furies of Greek tragedy, who hold aloft flaring torches. This powerful image expresses the uneasiness that many Europeans felt over the mounting death toll across the Atlantic, which led many to urge a British attempt to mediate a peace settlement on humanitarian grounds, even as the War entered its final stages.

The word Juggernaut [Hindi Jagannath = "Lord of the World"] originally was one of the titles of Krishna, particularly applied to an enormous image of the Hindu god drawn through the streets in a heavy cart during the festival of Puri in Orissa, where it reportedly crushed devotees beneath its massive wheels. During the Industrial Revolution, "juggernaut" became a popular term used to describe any large mechanical contrivance—such as early railroad locomotives or heavy factory machinery—that killed or maimed people. The term eventually came to be used for any seemingly uncontrollable force that caused a ruthless waste of human life.

This is the only double page cartoon by Tenniel dealing with the American Civil War. Unlike the rest of each issue, the principal cartoon was printed on one side of the page only, leaving the reverse side blank. This allowed for clear reproduction of fine lines and sharp details. Double page cartoons were unusual in Punch. They appeared but rarely, at the issue centerfold, and were of a size and quality suitable for framing (this impressive example measures 38x24cm.).


The American Difficulty.
Punch, Volume 40, May 11, 1861, p. 193
Tenniel's first cartoon to feature Abraham Lincoln appears opposite verses reacting to the fall of Fort Sumter. This representation, showing a clean-shaven President, is clearly derived from months-old photographs (possibly including Mathew Brady's widely-reproduced "Cooper Union" portrait of 1860) or engraved illustrations in American newspapers. Lincoln had begun growing a beard shortly after his electoral victory in November, 1860, and his inaugural portraits from the following March document it as already well-established.

The nervous-looking Lincoln is shown posed in a rocking chair before one of the White House's fire grates (incongruously using the national flag as a seat cushion). He is surrounded by a cloud of sooty smoke billowing from the poorly-vented fire, in which tiny black stick figures swarm like imps. In a rather forced example of word play, the caption has him lamenting that it would be "a nice White House . . . if it were not for the Blacks." Whatever the protestations of Unionist and States' Rights partisans alike, Tenniel and his British audience clearly perceived that the issue of African slavery was at the root of the erupting conflict.


The Federal Phoenix.
Punch, Volume 47, December 3, 1864, p. 229
The Phoenix was a long-lived mythical bird, the subject of ancient Middle Eastern and Egyptian legends. The Greek historian Herodotus described it as an eagle-like representation of the sun god. After each cycle of existence, many centuries in length, the Phoenix was periodically consumed by fire. It would then arise from its own ashes, life and power restored. To the early Christians, the Phoenix became a symbol of the Resurrection, representing not only the triumph of life over death, but also the victory of faith over adversity. Its advent was thought to be portentous, heralding remarkable events.

Traditional representations of the Phoenix show it with wings outspread and head lifted heavenwards, rising from the flames of its own destruction—a sign of both immortality and self-sacrifice. Tenniel's reaction to the American Presidential election of November, 1864, is an expression of astonishment at the overwhelming victory of Lincoln, who only a few weeks earlier had seemed doomed to defeat at the hands of his Democratic challenger, George McClellan. Phoenix-like, Lincoln has survived the fires of adversity; his power is now renewed, extended for another four years. His upturned profile appears scowling and arrogant. With a stars-and-stripes shield draped around his neck, he ascends ominously from the conflagration of his country, in which burning brands are labeled "Commerce," "United States Constitution," "Free Press," "Credit," "Habeus Corpus," and "States Rights." Tenniel suggests that Lincoln has sacrificed all of these in order to pursue his goal of total victory over the South.

And from the Alice books...

'She thought she had never seen such a strange-looking soldier in all her life.'

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her ...

'You'd better not talk!' said Five. 'I heard the Queen say only yeaterday you deserved to be beheaded!'

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this: but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'

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