Enchanting Alice! Black-and-white
Has made your charm perennial;
And naught save "Chaos and
Can part you now from Tenniel.
As Austin Dobson's verse suggests, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) is known to modern readers only as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books. But to his Victorian contemporaries, Tenniel was a highly respected painter, illustrator and, most important, political cartoonist for Punch. While Carroll's life and work have been the subject of numerous analyses, Tenniel has largely been ignored, except by historians of cartooning: Rodney Engen's study is the first full-length biography of the redoubtable artist.
Tenniel achieved artistic success despite a freak accident that cost him the sight in his right eye. During a fencing match, the protective button came off the tip of his father's foil: The sharp blade flicked across the young man's eye, permanently blinding him. Engen notes that Tenniel never expressed "the slightest hint of resentment or anger at such a seemingly serious setback to his artistic career." The injury had in fact little effect on his work: The errors in perspective and anatomy that occasionally appear in his drawings may have been caused by limited vision, or they may have been the inevitable result of an exceedingly busy schedule that left little time for corrections.
Tenniel drew with a firm, almost sculptural line and used masses of architecture or foliage shaded with crosshatching to bring his figures into relief. Unlike his American contemporary, Thomas Nast, who worked in a similar graphic style, Tenniel was usually content to poke gentle fun at his subjects. His drawings could be eloquent and powerful: One of his most famous cartoons, inspired by reports of the atrocities committed during the Sepoy Mutiny, depicted the British Lion furiously attacking the Bengal Tiger. But he never engaged in the kind of vitriolic attack Nast launched against Boss Tweed.
In addition to his political cartoons, Tenniel contributed numerous whimsical drawings to Punch, which probably led Carroll to ask him to illustrate "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." (A border for the 1855 Punch Almanack includes a little man in a fish costume who seems to anticipate the Fish-Footman in "Pig and Pepper.") The collaboration was not a happy one. Both men were perfectionists, and they drove each other to distraction. Carroll repeatedly asked Tenniel to make almost microscopic changes in his drawings; Tenniel was so displeased by the reproductions of his work that he insisted the entire first printing be recalled--at considerable expense to Carroll.
But they produced one of the most successful marriages of words and pictures in the history of English literature. Tenniel's exquisite drawings have helped generations of children and adults see the wonderland Carroll created to amuse three child-friends on an afternoon rowing trip in 1862.
In the years that have elapsed since "Alice" first appeared in November, 1865, numerous artists, including Arthur Rackham, Peter Newall, Ralph Steadman and Salvador Dali, have illustrated the "Alice" books; none has succeeded in supplanting Tenniel in the public's affection. Unhappily, the collaboration ended with the publication of "Through the Looking Glass" in December, 1871, although Tenniel agreed to color 20 of his original engravings for "The Nursery Alice" that appeared in 1890. He declined Carroll's request to illustrate "The Hunting of the Snark."
As the title suggests, Engen believes Tenniel modeled the White Knight in "Through the Looking Glass" after himself, including the trailing mustaches that were his trademark. (Many Carrollian scholars concur, although there are other possible models, including Don Quixote and Carroll's friend Augustus Vernon Harcourt.) Engen fails to mention that most scholars believe that the White Knight, with his "shaggy hair . . . gentle face and large mild eyes," is actually a self-portrait of Carroll. It's curiously satisfying to imagine the antagonistic partners blending to form the only genuinely kind character in book, who watches sadly as Alice hurries to cross the last brook and become a queen.
Tenniel may well have felt a kinship with the maladroit knight: He was a decidedly odd man who generally refused to use models, preferring to rely on his almost photographic memory. He stubbornly continued engraving his cartoons on wood blocks long after the photographic reproduction of ink drawings came into widespread use.
But it's hard to tell exactly what Tenniel thought about much of anything: By all accounts, he was exceedingly reticent. Engen suggests that an uncomfortable awareness of his French ancestry may have caused the artist to mold himself into a perfect, taciturn English gentlemen. He was also attracted to the romanticized vision of the Middle Ages popularized in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and silence may have appealed to him as a properly chivalric virtue.
Whatever the reason, he said little and wrote less. Even at the often riotous weekly Punch dinners, where the writers and editors chose the subject for his weekly cartoon, Tenniel remained quiet and sober, smoking his long churchwarden pipe. His contemporaries credited him with a dry wit, but the author can't find a single example to cite. Engen makes the most of the limited material at hand, but it's hardly surprising that the results seem dry and his subject often eludes him.
The book's real weakness, though, lies in its presentation. There are simply too few illustrations, and Engen has to waste words describing drawings instead of showing them. Only one of the engravings of Alice passing through the looking-glass is reproduced, and the reader must refer to the original book to follow the discussion of the mirror-images depicted in them. The publisher compounds the error by reducing cartoons that were designed to occupy a full page or even a double-page spread to the size of postage stamps, making it difficult to appreciate the often exceptional draftsmanship.
Although large-format anthologies of Tenniel's work were published during his lifetime, they're long out of print: Anyone who cares about illustrations or cartoons must hope "Alice's White Knight" will spark enough interest in the artist to enable Engen to prepare a suitably sized collection as a companion volume. In its present form, this biography can offer readers only a glimpse of the familiar yet little-known talent of Sir John Tenniel.