Today is the birthday (1820) of John Tenniel, Victorian graphic artist and political cartoonist who is generally known to the world as the first illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s works. Historians of the period know his political cartoons very well because they had a major impact on popular opinion, but they are not widely known outside of academic circles any more. I’ve covered his works several times here as an adjunct to discussions of Carroll. Now it’s time to give him his due directly.
Tenniel was born in Bayswater, West London. He was a quiet and introverted person, both as a boy and as an adult; a man whose “life and career was that of the supreme gentlemanly outside, living on the edge of respectability.” In 1840, whilst fencing with his father, Tenniel received a serious wound in his right eye from his father’s foil, which had accidentally lost its protective tip. Over the years Tenniel gradually lost sight in his eye but he never told his father of the severity of the wound, because he did not wish to upset him.
Tenniel was self taught as a youth but became a student of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1842. He found the training there unhelpful, though, and continued educating himself even as a student. He drew the classical statues at the London’s Townley Gallery, copied illustrations from books of costumes and armor in the British museum, and drew the animals from the zoo in Regent’s Park as well as the actors from the London theatres, which were drawn from the pits. It was in these studies that Tenniel learned to love detail. He did, however, become impatient with his work from life and was the happiest when he could draw from memory.
Tenniel’s first book illustration was for Samuel Carter Hall’s The Book of British Ballads, in 1842. While engaged with these illustrations, various contests were taking place in London, as a way for the government to combat the growing Germanic Nazarenes’ style and promote a truly national English school of art. Tenniel planned to enter the 1845 House of Lords’ competition to win the opportunity to design the mural decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. Despite missing the deadline, he submitted a 16-foot (4.9 m) cartoon, An Allegory of Justice, to a competition for designs for the mural decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. For this he received a £200 premium and a commission to paint a fresco in the Upper Waiting Hall (or Hall of Poets) in the House of Lords.
At Christmas 1850 Tenniel was invited by Mark Lemon to fill the position of joint cartoonist (with John Leech) on Punch. He had been selected on the strength of his recent illustrations to Aesop’s Fables. He contributed his first drawing in the initial letter appearing on p. 224, vol. xix. His first cartoon was Lord Jack the Giant Killer, which showed Lord John Russell assailing Cardinal Wiseman. In 1861, Tenniel was offered John Leech’s position at Punch, as chief political cartoonist.
Because his task was to construct the willful choices of his Punch editors, who probably took their cue from The Times and would have felt the suggestions of political tensions from Parliament as well, Tenniel’s work, as was its design, could be scathing, and rather unpleasant to modern sensibilities. The restlessness of the Victorian period’s issues of working class radicalism, labor, war, economy, and other national themes were the targets of Punch, which in turn influenced Tenniel. His cartoons published in the 1860s made popular the portrait of the Irishman as a subhuman being, wanton in his appetites and most resembling an orangutan in both facial features and posture. Many of Tenniel’s political cartoons expressed strong hostility to Irish Nationalism, with Fenians and Land leagues depicted as monstrous, ape-like brutes, while “Hibernia”—the personification of Ireland—was depicted as a beautiful, helpless young girl threatened by these “monsters” and turning for protection to “her elder sister”, the powerful armored Britannia.
When examined separately from the book illustrations he did over time, Tenniel’s work at Punch alone, expressing decades of editorial viewpoints, often controversial and socially sensitive, was created to echo the voices of the British public. Tenniel drew 2,165 cartoons for Punch, a liberal and politically active publication that mirrored the Victorian public’s mood for liberal social changes. Thus Tenniel, in his cartoons, represented for years the conscience of the British majority. Here’s a gallery:
Despite the thousands of political cartoons and hundreds of illustrative works attributed to him, much of Tenniel’s fame stems from his illustrations for Alice. Tenniel drew 92 illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Carroll originally illustrated Wonderland himself, but his artistic abilities were limited. Engraver Orlando Jewitt, who had worked for Carroll in 1859 and having reviewed Carroll’s drawings suggested that he employ a professional illustrator. Carroll was a regular reader of Punch and was therefore familiar with Tenniel. In 1865 Tenniel, after long talks with Carroll, illustrated the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
One of the most unusual and original elements of the Alice books is the placement of Tenniel’s illustrations on the pages. There was a physical relation of the illustrations to the text, intended to subtly mesh illustrations with certain points of the text. Carroll and Tenniel expressed this in various ways including bracketing, where two relevant sentences would bracket an image, thus defining the moment that Tenniel was trying to illustrate. Tenniel also produced L-shaped illustrations that contained relevant text within them, so that text and illustration were totally integrated.
The grotesque quality in Tenniel’s work was one of the main reasons Carroll wanted him as the illustrator for the Alice books. Tenniel had a knack of combining the grotesque, fantasy, and realism in one package, as did Carroll. Thus the illustrations of Alice blend smoothly with the text which has exactly the same quality.
Tenniel was honored as a living national treasure and for his public service by being knighted in 1893 by Queen Victoria. This was the first such honor bestowed on an illustrator or cartoonist. His colleagues saw his knighthood coming as gratitude for “raising what had been a fairly lowly profession to an unprecedented level of respectability.”
What else to celebrate Tenniel than a dish from Mrs Beeton? What else but oysters? Steak with oyster sauce was a favorite “manly” meal for Victorian gentlemen. Here’s Beeton’s recipes (three in all to create the dish). You’ll note that she says these dishes are seasonable from September to April. That’s because these months have an “r” in them – months when oysters are at their best, and not breeding.
MELTED BUTTER MADE WITH MILK.
INGREDIENTS.—1 teaspoonful of flour, 2 oz. butter, 1/3 pint of milk, a few grains of salt.
Mode.—Mix the butter and flour smoothly together on a plate, put it into a lined saucepan, and pour in the milk. Keep stirring it one way over a sharp fire; let it boil quickly for a minute or two, and it is ready to serve. This is a very good foundation for onion, lobster, or oyster sauce: using milk instead of water makes it look so much whiter and more delicate.
Time.—Altogether, 10 minutes. Average cost for this quantity, 3d.
OYSTER SAUCE, to serve with Fish, Boiled Poultry, &c.
- INGREDIENTS.—3 dozen oysters, 1/2 pint of melted butter, made with milk, No. 380.
Mode.—Open the oysters carefully, and save their liquor; strain it into a clean saucepan (a lined one is best), put in the oysters, and let them just come to the boiling-point, when they should look plump. Take them off the fire immediately, and put the whole into a basin. Strain the liquor from them, mix with it sufficient milk to make 1/2 pint altogether, and follow the directions of No. 380. When the melted butter is ready and very smooth, put in the oysters, which should be previously bearded, if you wish the sauce to be really nice. Set it by the side of the fire to get thoroughly hot, but do not allow it to boil, or the oysters will immediately harden. Using cream instead of milk makes this sauce extremely delicious. When liked, add a seasoning of cayenne, or anchovy sauce; but, as we have before stated, a plain sauce should be plain, and not be overpowered by highly-flavoured essences; therefore we recommend that the above directions be implicitly followed, and no seasoning added.
Average cost for this quantity, 2s.
Sufficient for 6 persons. Never allow fewer than 6 oysters to 1 person, unless the party is very large.
Seasonable from September to April.
A more economical sauce may be made by using a smaller quantity of oysters, and not bearding them before they are added to the sauce: this may answer the purpose, but we cannot undertake to recommend it as a mode of making this delicious adjunct to fish, &c.
BEEF-STEAKS AND OYSTER SAUCE.
- INGREDIENTS.—3 dozen oysters, ingredients for oyster sauce (see No. 492), 2 lbs. of rump-steak, seasoning to taste of pepper and salt.
Mode.—Make the oyster sauce by recipe No. 492, and when that is ready, put it by the side of the fire, but do not let it keep boiling. Have the steaks cut of an equal thickness, broil them over a very clear fire, turning them often, that the gravy may not escape. In about 8 minutes they will be done, then put them on a very hot dish; smother with the oyster sauce, and the remainder send to table in a tureen. Serve quickly.
Time.—About 8 to 10 minutes, according to the thickness of the steak.
Average cost, 1s. per lb.
Sufficient for 4 persons.
Seasonable from September to April.