Today in Literary History – February 28, 1820 – Alice in Wonderland illustrator Sir John Tenniel is born

Sir John Tenniel, the Victorian illustrator and political cartoonist, was born on February 28, 1820. Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have shaped how readers have imagined Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledee and Tweedledum and other characters for the past 150 years.

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When he was approached by Lewis Carroll to illustrate the first Alice book, Tenniel was already famous as the main political cartoonist for the hugely popular satirical magazine Punch. (He held that position for 50 years and produced more than 2,000 cartoons and illustrations for the magazine and its special Christmas editions.)

Tenniel was scrupulous about the reproduction of his drawings. When the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was printed in 1865 Tenniel objected to the poor quality of the reproductions. Consequently, a new printing was ordered and the 2,000 sub-standard copies were shipped to the United States for sale.

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Carroll was also a perfectionist and he and Tenniel clashed constantly during their collaboration. Carroll was overly proud of his own artistic abilities and frequently demanded that Tenniel follow his compositional advice. Tenniel, on the other hand, chafed under the constant criticism and restraints on his own artistic vision. Carroll had originally planned to illustrate the book himself, but was persuaded by his publisher that his work was not skilled enough.

The book was an immediate sensation in Great Britain. The first edition sold out and was reprinted many times to keep up with the demand. The book was popular with both children and adults. Queen Victoria was said to be particularly fond of it.

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Carroll wrote a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, and again wanted Tenniel to do the illustrations. Considering the bad experience he had working with Carroll on the first book Tenniel turned him down several times before finally relenting.

After that project ended in 1871 Tenniel withdrew from book illustration. When Henry Furniss agreed to illustrate Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno in 1893, Tenniel wrote to him, “Lewis Carroll is impossible…I’ll give you a week, old chap; you will never put up with that fellow a day longer.”

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Tenniel did continued to draw political cartoons for Punch until he retired in 1900 at the age of 80. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1893.

Tenniel’s father had been a fencing instructor and when Tenniel was 20 years old his father accidentally struck him in the eye with the tip of his sword while they were practicing. Tenniel was reluctant to embarrass his father and instead hid the injury and didn’t have it treated, winding up with no sight in his right eye.

As Tenniel reached old age he lost sight in his left eye as well and when he died in 1914, three days before his 94th birthday, he was totally blind.

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