John Tenniel (1819-1914)

by Keith Wright

John Tenniel is feted nowadays for his illustrations in the two ‘Alice’ books by Lewis Carroll, and his current day reputation is defined by these two books, but that is perhaps not how he would have wanted to be remembered nor is it how his contemporaries at ‘Punch’ would have seen him. His fellow artists at Punch saw Tenniel as the master satirical cartoonist of his day. The Matt (Daily Telegraph) of the latter half of the 19th century who reigned supreme in his chosen field for well over half a century until he retired in 1901.

John Tenniel was born in Marylebone London on 27th July 1819 (1) into a family that was to eventually number eight sons and four daughters. His parents were John Baptist Tenniel and his wife Eliza nee Foster. He was baptised in March the following year. The affluent area he was born into was close to Regent’s Park although in Tenniel’s childhood the park was not open to the public, this only happened in 1835 and then only for two days a week. The park was originally called Mary-le-Bone park. He was born at the end of the regency days when the monarchy was held in very low esteem.
His father, John Baptist Tenniel, was described as an artist, a teacher and a dance instructor at various times in his life although on baptism certificate for his son John he is described as a ‘Gent’ - a description which was to be used on many of the parish records for the Tenniel siblings. John Baptist, had been born in Westminster, London in 1792, he married Eliza M. Foster, who had been born in 1798 in Haddington in Scotland. This marriage took place in early 1816 in Portsea, which is an area of Portsmouth close to the dockyard. This proximity might indicate a possibility that the Foster family were linked to the navy but that has not been proved. Haddington, where Eliza was born, is a few miles south east of Edinburgh, a pleasant stone built town which served as the local market town and also had a mill on the Scottish river Tyne which flowed through the area a few miles south of the Firth of Forth.

The family of twelve Tenniel children were:-

Name Date of Birth
Bernard 12th March 1817
Eliza Margaret 6th July 1818
John 27th July 1819
William Rickards 1st September 1821
Lydia Victorie 10th December 1823
James D’Egville 18th May 1826
Adolphus 28th February 1828
Mary 29th November 1830
Caroline 26th March 1834
George 1835/36
Frederick Henry 11th July 1837
Charles November 1840


Where exact dates are given these are the DOB as shown on the baptism records. Those for George and Charles are calculated from the 1841 census record.
The 1841 census record in the case of several of the siblings does not match their ages correctly to those calculated from  their baptism records.


The Tenniel family were said to be of Huguenot descent, French protestants who had fled France in the 17th and 18th century because of religious persecution. Tenniel’s grandfather, Noel Tenniel was married in Westminster in 1776.
Tenniel’s father, John Baptist Tenniel, is listed on his son’s baptism certificate as a ‘gent’ which probably indicated that his father had private means although this is not certain as many people would claim the title gent without having the means! Engen (2) in his book states that the Tenniel family were in Liverpool and came down to London in the year Tenniel was born. Engen gives no indication as to where this information came from but on the 1841 census his father gave his place of birth as the place where he was then registering, i.e. London, which is also given as the birthplace of his son John and the other siblings. The family lived in Allsop’s buildings in Marylebone among many artistic types - the painter John Martin, whose son Leopold, was to marry one of the Tenniel daughters, lived nearby.
There is no record of schooling for the boys but that does not mean they were not tutored at home by parents or went to private schools as is indicated in Engen’s book. Frankie Morris in her book  (3) mentions Tenniel’s father teaching at a school and raises the probability that he took his boys along with him as day boys. She also speculates upon his family liaisons and friendships especially with the Martin family. It is said that during this early period of his life he suffered the injury that was to leave him blind in one eye when during a practice session with his father the protective tip came off his father’s sword and he was scratched across his right eye.

The Tenniel family were located in Allsop’s buildings  for most of Tenniel's childhood. They moved sometime between 1834, when Caroline was born, and 1837, when Frederick was born, to 22 Gloucester Place, but were still of course in the same parish of Marylebone. The area was very close to rural parts as the Greenwood (4) map of the 1820’s shows, and there is no doubt that farm animals, although not perhaps an everyday sight, were certainly not many miles away as they are from the Marylebone area nowadays
The parish the Tenniel family was in was modern and its occupants were in general upwardly mobile, Allsop’s Buildings, later called Allsop’s Terrace, was in front of the first Lords cricket ground, the home of Marylebone Cricket club, although by the time Tenniel was born the ground had been relocated twice before settling in its present location about half a mile away from Allsop’s Buildings. Behind his home was open fields and farm buildings as this was the extremity of the London area in those days. Gloucester Place, where the family moved to later on was the next building down going west out into the countryside. Primrose Hill was a pleasant walk from Marylebone through the fields in those days past the Lord cricket ground.
In January 1841 Tenniel’s brother Bernard was married in Marylebone, his profession being stated as artist. This was the census year and John Baptist appears on the census on June 6th at Gloucester Place as an ‘artist’ as does his son John, aged 21, and his son William, aged 19. The younger boys, George, Frederick and Charles are on the return but strangely not indicated as scholars which would be usual had they been attending school. Two of the younger ones are missing altogether from the census, Adolphus and James, so there is a possibility that they were at a boarding school. It was around this time also that Tenniel painted two watercolours of his parents, these are reproduced but not in colour in Morris’s book and show a handsome couple with his mother looking remarkably slim and young looking despite having produced twelve children with the last one, Charles, being born in the last quarter of 1840.

Although steeped in art John Tenniel was of course looking for his break to get into the art world in a serious way. He had tried to study at the Royal Academy School which required a certain standard of drawing for entry so he was obviously accomplished in the early 1840’s as was evidenced also by his watercolours of his parents. His entry was confirmed in April 1842.  He is quoted as saying that there was no teaching worthy of the name and after a few years he is said to have left in disgust.

Opportunity when it  finally arrived came through the unlikely source of the houses of parliament. Several competitions were organised to provide the frescos for the newly built houses of parliament. Being competitions they were open to anyone with talent and foresight the second competition being significant as it was mainly won by ‘outsiders’ and in fact the London Illustrated News said that Tenniel’s was a name to ‘no more remain unknown in the art world’ which is praise indeed! Tenniel, George Cruikshank and others became involved in acting during the mid 1840’s the fresco painting still not having been commissioned. And It was not until the summer of 1849 that the fresco illustrating John Dryden's Saint Cecilia, shown here, was finished in ‘The Hall of Poets’ at Westminster.

In the late 1840’s Tenniel did some illustration work for Charles Dickens’ last Christmas book - ‘The Haunted Man.’ Dickens used various illustrators apart from Hablot Knight Brown (Phizz) with whom he collaborated for many years. Brown, as with Tenniel, was of Huguenot ancestry. Only one of the five Christmas books has stood the test of time, this being the first one ‘A Christmas Carol’ which introduced the world to Tiny Tim and Scrooge. This is not to say that they were not popular in their own time, ‘The Haunted Man’ sold 18,000 copies on the day of publication but it has not endured. Tenniel was not one of Dickens’ regular illustrators but he supplied the frontispiece (above) and five other illustrations for this book.  Dickens books were not good vehicles for illustrators and none of the illustrations from any of his artists have become iconic in their own right.

In 1849 Richard Doyle made a design for ‘Punch’ magazine (right) which lasted until 1954. Doyle produced many drawings for the magazine in the 1840’s before quitting in 1850. Only John Leech produced more in this period. Mark Lemon, the editor, wanted an artist who could draw on wood and as Tenniel had some experience in that direction, and many contacts in the art world also, so in late 1850, he was hired to do some work on the publication. Tenniel was keen to accept the post as art was a precarious profession and Punch offered a steady income. Tenniel also had the sense of humour that was to appeal to the magazine’s readers.    Competition to become a Punch artist was severe so Tenniel was lucky to have the right talents at the right time. The famous Wednesday dinners where the staff met up and debated the subjects to be artistically lampooned were famous even in the early days of the existence of the magazine.

It is not recorded when Tenniel met Julia Giani, who was to become his wife, nor whether it was the security of the Punch appointment that led to his marriage in Chelsea on the 1st of September 1853. Julia’s father, as her surname name implies was of Italian descent but her mother’s side, the Berry family, were from London her mother Eve being born in Marylebone on 2nd January 1802. Eve Berry was married to Julius Giani in Marylebone on the 26th of December 1821 at what appears to have been a double wedding with her brother William as Julius Giani signed William's certificate and William Berry signed Julius Giani’s certificate and both are dated the same day. The newly weds lived in Portsdown Road in Maida Hill, which road has since been renamed Randolph Terrace and Maida Hill is now Maida Vale!

The house they lived in belonged to Eve Giani, Tenniel’s mother in law. Julia had health problems before her marriage and perhaps the couple moved in with Eve so that she could be looked after by her mother. The area was being developed at that time and it stood on the edge of the London conurbation - the houses opposite had not yet been built and open fields were nearby. The house was quite small compared to its neighbours but the area was considered to be very fashionable and it had the address of Maida Hill which was the select end of Paddington.

During the early 1850’s Tenniel illustrated Martin Tupper’s 1854 edition of Proverbial Philosophy. The illustrations in this book were from quite a few artistes but Tenniel’s was the first illustration in the first series book (right). The books are not easy reading for the 21st century and despite Tupper’s enormous success in his own time the books are largely now forgotten. Tupper (1810 - 1889) was a kind hearted chap, a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford but he was there long before Charles Dodgson’s time at that college. The illustrations are incidental to the book and, although tied to the text, they add little to the understanding of the books. Many feature rural life with churches showing in the background.
Tupper lived at Albury, near to Guildford, but there is no evidence Lewis Carroll ever visited him there. He did however have a copy of ‘Proverbial Philosophy’ which was listed in his library after his death in 1898. Whether this was Lewis Carroll’s first introduction to Tenniel’s work as an illustrator it is not possible to say but with Lewis Carroll’s artistic bent the illustrations in Tupper’s book would not go unnoticed.

The end of the 1850’s was a sad time for the Tenniel family. Tenniel's nephew. Bernard junior, died aged around 17 in 1859 on board a ship where he was a midshipman and his death was followed by that of his niece Georgina Eliza in 1860 aged 19 and then in 1861 by their father Bernard, Tenniel’s elder brother, aged 44.. Bernard had resided at Dorchester Place which is where his father lived and his brother William also gave this as his address on the declaration for Bernard’s will.  Adolphus the other signatory lived in St. John’s Wood fairly close by. Tenniel himself lived about a mile away from his father.
Julia Tenniel, Tenniel’s wife, nee Giani, died in January 1856 and was buried on 29th January in All Souls’ Cemetery, her address was given as 3 Portsdown Road, Paddington. On the 1861 census Tenniel is shown as the head of the house at 5 Portsdown Road and listed as an historical painter. The area was under construction and it is not thought that he moved house but rather that the road was re-numbered to take account of new properties. Living in the house in 1861 was his mother-in-law Eve Giani along with two servants, a cook and a housemaid. Tenniel never married again and lived the rest of his life in the house in Portsdown Road.

In October 1864 the principal cartoonist at Punch, John Leech, (right) died at the age of 47 and Tenniel who had shared the role before this now took over as the main cartoonist. This meant that he had a weekly assignment to produce a cartoon based upon current, mainly political, matters. Punch was irreverent and one of Leech’s 1845 cartoons even featured Queen Victoria asking Albert if he had any railway shares! The railway bubble burst in the mid 1840’s of course.

It was just at this time that Tenniel was contacted by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) regarding the illustrations for his first ‘Alice’ book. Dodgson visited Tenniel at Portsdown Road (left)  in January 1864 and started an association which would last, on and off, for almost the rest of Dodgson’s life. It took Tenniel three months to agree to do the illustrations for ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’  but no doubt he read the book in that time to check if he could actually do the work.

Much has been written about the relationship between Dodgson and Tenniel but essentially it was two gentlemen, in the Victorian sense of the word, collaborating on a project in the most dignified way. Morris (5)  says that Tenniel must have felt some sympathy for a budding author because he charged him less than the going rates, perhaps this was the case but if it was it was not recorded as such and Dodgson never acknowledged it as such. Dodgson was not an easy author to do work for as he was very particular as to what he wanted but there is no evidence of any deep disagreements between the two and no doubt Tenniel appreciated the fact that Dodgson was taking all the risks in the publishing of his book.

Tenniel was very busy in 1864, he was the main cartoonist for Punch, also his mother died in late 1864 which caused a further delay to the production of the woodcuts he was preparing for Dodgson.  Tenniel though was a man of his word and despite the delays the illustrations were eventually finished and the books printed for the middle of 1865.

It was then that something very uncharacteristic of Tenniel happened - he objected to the reproduction of the images in ‘Alice’s Adventures.’ Whether this was a gentleman's way of making a point to Dodgson for being so pernickety is not known. Some of the early editions still exist and comparisons with the final first edition do not show any lack of clarity/strength in the illustrations. Dodgson scrapped the first run of the first edition and ran off some more first editions which meant a delay of several months and the risk of Dodgson being well out of pocket. In the end the book was a success and Dodgson made lots of money on it and became famous. What the debacle also has caused is that the low number of true first editions that still survive can command premium prices in today’s market - courtesy of John Tenniel!

Tenniel was at this stage settling in as the main illustrator for Punch.  This involved him in taking directions from the editorial meeting and making up a cartoon to illustrate the message. The 29th July 1865 edition contained a Tenniel cartoon entitled ‘Pegasus Unharnessed’ which showed something that would have been of interest to Dodgson. Gladstone, to the satisfaction  of Dodgson, had lost the election at Oxford University. Gladstone supported free trade and free thought and he is depicted by Tenniel as slipping away having left a cart full of bigotry, subscription and other sins. Punch considered it a good thing that Gladstone was no longer associated with Oxford, where Dodgson was of course a don. How much of Tenniel’s cartoons were his own opinions and how much he was following company policy is hard to fathom. He claimed he had no political affiliations and this may be the case. He was however conservative in the wider sense of the word in that he was operating in a bohemian type of environment while not being fully into the Punch ethos.. He was however well respected despite not holding any extreme political views.
The work that Tenniel  put into his cartoons is shown when the detail is examined. Gladstone is shown in his fifties whilst Chancellor of the Exchequer. Politicians were often offended by cartoons but some revelled in being depicted and there is no evidence that Punch did Gladstone’s career any harm although others would not be so fortunate as Punch’s influence was great and Tenniel’s part of this was crucial. This one cartoon was Tenniel's only contribution to this issue, other illustrations were provided by other illustrators.

Religion was not spared by Tenniel in Punch, this cartoon from 1869 shows English converts to Rome including Newman, skating on thin ice while, on left, Pusey, a canon at Christ Church college Oxford, and his Anglo-Catholic Ritualistic friends, which perhaps included Dodgson’s friend Liddon, testing the ice before committing themselves. Tenniel continued with his Punch output throughout the time he was doing other things, including the illustrations for Dodgson’s second ‘Alice’ book.

The second ‘Alice’ book was mooted to Tenniel in 1868 and at first he refused claiming pressure of work but he relented after a while but this time he was able to set the pace. Despite this, but after many delays, by the middle of 1871, the book was ready and was published dated 1872 as was the custom in those days.

Caldecott worked alongside Tenniel on Punch but had a very restricted output for the magazine, research done by the Caldecott Society indicates only thirteen Caldecott illustrations in Punch. Caldecott never wished to be tied to a strict schedule either at Punch or at The Graphic, where quite a few of his illustrations were published. Tenniel however worked to the relentless timetable of the Wednesday meetings and publication dates for all of his time on Punch, he rarely took a holiday nor a break and there were very few occasions when anyone else took over the prime spot on the magazine.  Despite Tenniel rarely taking a break, in October 1872 he was in Bognor with his mother in law and he came across Dodgson there who recorded the meeting in his diary. Engen in his book calls Mrs. Giani Tenniel’s housekeeper but this is not correct, Tenniel lived in her house, and had done since his marriage in 1853, it not the other way round as Engen suggests. For a gentleman to be on holiday with his housekeeper would be frowned upon but to be with his mother-in-law and so on an equal footing was quite proper!

The 1870’s was a time when the Tenniel family incurred quite a few bereavements. In 1874 James died in Australia aged 50, in 1876 his brother William Rickards died in Hanwell aged 55, then in 3rd January 1879 his mother-in-law Eve Giani died, she left him the house in Portsdown Road. Her sister Ann who was unmarried and who also benefited from her will was on the documentation at the Portsdown Road house also. Eve had been with Tenniel for 23 years and it is said that she was greatly missed by him.

On 19th of April 1879 his father John Baptist Tenniel died at Nether Hall (left) near Burton on Trent. Nether Hall was where Tenniel’s sister Mary Green lived with her husband and children and presumably she had opted to look after her father in his last illness. She was later to do the same for Adlophus, Tenniel’s brother, who died at Nether Hall in 1883 at around the age of 55.

The coincidence of the two deaths in 1879 coming so close together allowed Tenniel’s unmarried sister, Lydia Victorie, to move in with him at Portsdown Road and take charge of the domestic arrangements there, she was in her late 50’s at that time and had lived with her father in Dorchester Place.  The portrait of Tenniel (right) was painted around 1883. Despite what is written elsewhere the Tenniel household was not extensive, in 1891 he was recorded with his sister and a nephew, probably Mary’s son Bernard, aged 24, who was a medical student, living in Portsdown Road with just a cook and a parlour maid. At sometime before 1881 his brother Frederick died, Mary died in 1895, his brother George in 1899 in Australia, Charles died in Los Angeles in 1900, aged 60 and Eliza in 1903 in London. There is no information about Caroline that had come to light.

When Caldecott died in 1886 Punch printed in the 27th February issue the following tribute:- (6)

‘All that flow of fun, and all,
That fount of charm found in his fancy,
Are stopped! Yet will he hold us thrall
By his fine art’s sweet necromancy,
Children and seniors many a year;
For long ‘twill be ere a new-comer,
Fireside or nursery holdeth dear
As him whose life ceased in its summer.’

It is not recorded how much Tenniel influenced Caldecott but this is not thought to be of any great extent. Caldecott’s style was well formed long before his meeting with Tenniel in London and at Punch magazine.

In 1893 a long overdue knighthood, in some of his friend's opinion,  was conferred and he became Sir John Tenniel. The talk at the time was about his work at Punch as an illustrator and any mention of ‘Alice’ was muted.  He went to Osborne House on the IOW on August 11th to receive the honour from Queen Victoria. He continued his work on Punch throughout the 1890’s and this included his now famous depiction of Bismark (right) being forced to resign by the Kaiser, which was in a March 1890 issue. It was entitled ‘Dropping the Pilot’ - some say this is Tenniel’s most famous cartoon. Even Bismark is said to have said that ‘it is a fine one indeed’ when Lord Rosebery sent it to him as a tribute.
In 1901 Tenniel decided, with his eyesight failing, that he could no longer carry on with his work at Punch. He was by then in his early 80’s and had been at principal cartoonist for 37 years. His last Punch cartoon in 1901 was an appeal for world peace. A farewell dinner was organised in the Hotel Metropole on June 11th at which Tenniel was extremely nervous and could not go on with his speech. Others thought things went off fine but Tenniel thought he had let himself down.
Retirement cannot of been easy for him and his attempts to keep busy by revisiting his old works were hampered by his failing eyesight. When his sister Victorie fell in 1909 and damaged her hip she could no longer use the stairs at Portsdown Road so they had to move out of the house he had lived in since 1853 and into a flat in Fitzgeorge Avenue, which was not to his approval.
The death of his sister Victorie in 1911 was a serious blow to him even though he had the support of his nephew Major Bernard Green who was his sister Mary’s son and a faithful servant. Tenniel died of old age related causes on 25th February 1914. Depending on whether the DOB of 19th July 1819 on the baptism certificate is correct or the date usually given for his DOB of 20th February he was 94 or 93! He was cremated and his ashes interred in Kelsall Green cemetery. His obituaries were long on his work at Punch and commented that he had ‘revolutionised the art of political caricature’ - another source chose his ‘Dropping the Pilot’ as his memorial. Others made reference to his ‘great art and his sweet and simple nature’ - Engen says that he left a legacy of ‘38 illustrated books, 2,000 Punch cartoons and two small unique classics’ meaning the two ‘Alice’ books for Charles Dodgson.

Recommended Reading.

It is impossible to compress the life and work of one man who lived so long and produced so much output into a small article like this so I hope members will take the time to read some of the sources mentioned in the text.

Artist of Wonderland - Frankie Morris

Despite her avowed intention not to define Tenniel by his ‘Alice’ books she curiously gave it an ‘Alice’ related title! However, the book is to be recommended for the amount of research that the author put into the study which was carried out for a PhD thesis.
This is available on Amazon at £34.44 (Price at 25th February 2013.) On ebay prices run up to £56
Published in 2006 - ISBN: 9780718830564


‘Alice’s White Knight’ - Rodney Engen.

Engen’s book sells on Amazon at £57 which, considering that it is not as well researched as Morris’s book, is a bit dear. Engen is of course the author of ‘Randolph Caldecott - Lord of the Nursery.’
Copies of the book come up on ebay and lately these have reached £30 so the book is much sought after despite its inaccuracies.
Published in 1991 - ISBN 0-85967-872-5


Sir John Tenniel - Aspects of his Work’ Roger Simpson.

Simpson’s book concentrates on Tenniel’s work and is a good read for those who want an alternative view to the two books shown above.
It is out of stock at Amazon (15th February 2013) but the price quoted is £49.50. There are no ebay copies available at the moment.
Published in 1994 - ISBN 0-8386-3493-1



1. Date of birth of John Tenniel, as given on the baptism record for Christ Church Marylebone.

2. Sir John Tenniel Alice’s White Knight by Rodney Engen. Scolar Press 1991

3. ‘Artist of Wonderland’ Frankie Morris University of Virginia Press 2005.

4. Christopher and John Greenwood - Map of London 1820’s.

5. Artists of Wonderland Frankie Morris University of Virginia Press 2005.

6. Randolph Caldecott - a personal memoir by Henry Blackburn 1886


Keith Wright - May 2013