This essay will explore the influence John Tenniel brought to the field of illustration. I will examine his work and his life in order to acknowledge how this impacted on illustration and society. Furthermore, I will consider how over artists such as Eric Ravilious used similar techniques in their styles of work and how this directly or indirectly relates to the work of John Tenniel. Sir John Tenniel was an English Illustrator in the nineteenth century who was famous for both his book and Punch magazine illustrations towards the end of the same century.
Tenniel’s most credited illustrations were those featured in Lewis Carroll’s: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). John Tenniel was a secluded person and kept himself from society the majority of his life. Tenniel was also mysterious, as Engen (1991) states he was “an elusive, enigmatic and thoroughly private figure”. Although an isolated individual, Tenniel’s work stood notably celebrated in England and eventually the rest of the world once his work became more popular. Tenniel’s illustrations were typically hand drawn pencil and ink pieces, which were designed to a very high standard in terms of detail and shading.
The process of which Tenniel’s final illustrations was achieved involved initial sketches which would later be ‘traced onto wood blocks. These wood blocks would then be engraved at different depths to achieve tone and lines. Tenniel’s first ever book illustration was for Samuel Carter Hall’s book titled ‘The Book of British Ballards’ (Engen, 1991). Although this did not help Tenniel achieve his personally unwanted fame, his offer to take the position as the Punch magazines; political cartoonist in 1851 truly did contribute to his national acknowledgement (Engen, 1991). The magazine’s cartoons took satirical approach and often depicted actual life events in Britain in a humorous, metaphoric and political form. Most of Tenniel’s work for Punch magazine was produced according to editor’s instructions as with any newsprint, an employment Tenniel kept for fifty years. Tenniel’s career took a rather unexpected path at the end of 1863 when Charles Dodgson (more commonly known as Lewis Carroll) wrote to Punch journalist Tom Taylor, enquiring if Tom knew Tenniel well enough to say whether he would have been able to illustrate a children’s book and also asked if Tom could put Carroll in contact with Tenniel (Engen, 1991).
The main reason Carroll specifically asked for Tenniel is because he would “prefer” Tenniel’s wood engraved illustrations, as his own techniques were not “satisfactory” (Engen, 1991). This clearly shows that Carroll, being a British citizen himself, became influenced by Tenniel’s work and wanted his style and methods to visually communicate his story to children across the world. Carroll describes Tenniel’s work as “grotesque” to explain the dark atmospheres that Tenniel’s drawings depicted (Engen, 1991).
Carroll spent most of 1863 writing the story he originally called Alice’s Adventures Underground, which later became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Engen, 1991). Carroll wanted the fantasy story to be filled with ink drawings so he could present it to his younger friend who was called Alice Liddell, who coincidentally inspired the story (Engen, 1991). Tenniel’s task of illustrating the book was regarded as “difficult”, although the illustrations themselves have been suggested to be Tenniel’s “greatest illustrations” (Engen, 1991).
Despite that, there are slight differences in Tenniel’s styles from Punch to the styles used in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For example, Tenniel’s Punch magazine illustrations had a tendency to be very dark in shading and were significantly more detailed. Although his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrations were more reserved from shading and not as detailed, they were a lot more innocent, as this was intended for the target audience of the story. Another artist who later uses a very similar approach in illustration was Eric Ravilious, who also lived in England.
Ravilious was an illustrator in the early twentieth century and used wood blocks just like Tenniel to print his highly detailed drawings according to Binyon (1995). It is possible that Ravilious could have taken inspiration from Tenniel’s work, but there are no sources which prove this other than their own work. (Fig. 1 Left image) Tenniel. J (1863) Alice and the dog from Alice’s Adventures in wonderland, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, England, image scanned from Engen (1991). (Fig. 2 Right image) Ravilious. E (1930) Maria meeting the clown from Twelfth Night, The Golden Press, image scanned from Binyon (1995).
As can be observed from these illustrations, Tenniel and Ravilious worked in very similar ways. This is noticeable from the style of line-work and the use of ink as opposed to other mediums. The only major differences are the tones. Although this could be considered irrelevant if no inspiration was taken from Tenniel by Ravilious. However, it is still intriguing to see the styles being used several decades apart. The illustrations for Carroll’s story took far longer than originally intended due to the duration of which it took Tenniel to produce the drawings and the aesthetic nature of the final prints.
The first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was printed in 1863. Carroll was very satisfied with his finished product but was shortly traumatised by Tenniel’s letter written in mid-July of the same year where he expressed his complete dissatisfaction with the printing of the pictures (Engen, 1991). Tenniel was a man of hard work and seeing his illustrations in their lowest quality after years of drawing must have created a few tensions between himself and Carroll.
Nevertheless, Carroll paid a fortune to have the books reprinted and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland became an enormous hit and made Carroll ? 00, which is the equivalent to approximately ? 22,921. 34 in the present day, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, in just two years after the publication (Engen, 1991). The book was so successful, that many film adaptations have been produced since film was invented later that same century. (Fig 3. ) A theatrical poster for the film adaption of Alice in Wonderland (2010) directed by Tim Burton and produced by Walt Disney Pictures. As you can observe from the 2010 film adaptation, it features modern animation techniques and the characters closely resemble the ones drawn by Tenniel in the nineteenth century.
This shows that even 150 years after publication the illustrative processes of Tenniel are still appreciated as this was a high budget film and has made over one billion American dollars according to the Box Office (2016). The next two years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866-1868), Tenniel focused again on his Punch magazine work, putting in a tremendous amount of effort into his editorial illustrations, while still doing a handful of book illustrations for additional work. These book illustrations were mainly religious works and anthologies (Engen, 1991).
In 1866, having debated whether to write a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll approached Tenniel again to ask for help with the new book, which would later become Through the Looking Glass (Carrol, 1871). Tenniel declined the offer and Carroll desperately searched for a new illustrator. Carroll wrote a letter to Mrs Macdonald in 1868, who had originally encouraged Carroll to publish his first book, which said, “I shall try my luck again with Tenniel, and if he fails me, I really don’t know what to do… Dodgson (1868 cited in Engen, 1991). This clearly demonstrated Carroll’s reliability on Tenniel and indicated his work was the best for the job. After offering Tenniel ? 200, Tenniel finally agreed to illustrate Through the Looking Glass. The book was finally completed in 1871, five years after it was first announced by Carroll (Engen, 1991). The book, as expected, was a massive hit and by January 1872, 15,000 copies of the book were sold and there were orders for 500 more (Engen, 1991).
After his enormous success with his book illustrations, Tenniel continued to work with Punch, producing many illustrations. By the time Tenniel reached his fifties, he was nicked named “Don Quixote”, a title of high rating (Engen, 1991). Engen explains the vast amount of work Tenniel did for Punch when he says “The sheer number of political cartoons he produced over a fortyyear period was inspiring: 1,860 full page cartoons between 1851-1901” Engen (1991, P. 100) On June 10th ,1893, it was announced that Tenniel would receive a knighthood from Queen Victoria that same year (Engen, 1991).
Along with his comical personality, Tenniel did not sign any of his work or letters with his new title of’sir’, as he was quite embarrassed by the attention which conflicted with his quiet lifestyle (Engen, 1991). After a long career with Punch, Tenniel died on Wednesday 25th February 1914 (Engen, 1991). In conclusion, Tenniel is undoubtedly one of the most influential illustrators of the nineteenth Century and his work has still carried over to the present day with many children still reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Tenniel was a hardworking man and self-taught in his specialised field which indicates natural talent for drawing. His work with Punch magazine, which spanned over fifty years, inspired, entertained and informed the British public for generations which was an astonishing achievement, especially considering his illustrations are still recognisable today. The fact he was chosen several times by authors and editors alike proves he inspired many people and it is evident that he brought a substantial amount to the field of illustration, including new styles, techniques and flavours to British publication which proved a colossal success.
Overall, Tenniel brought a whole new level of style to publication and his lack of education in artistic methods proves you did not require to be taught the skill, but if you put the hard work and effort in, it will have enormous benefits. As mentioned before, he entertained generations and with his own personal ‘stamp’ he marked the illustration field with an aesthetic beauty which will last indefinitely.