Artist, illustrator, cartoonist
Tenniel was born in Bayswater, West London, to John Baptist Tenniel, a fencing and dancing master of Huguenot descent, and Eliza Maria Tenniel. Tenniel had five siblings; two brothers and three sisters. One sister, Mary, was later to marry Thomas Goodwin Green, owner of the pottery that produced Cornishware. Tenniel was a quiet and introverted person, both as a boy and as an adult. He was content to remain firmly out of the limelight and seemed unaffected by competition or change. His biographer Rodney Engen wrote that Tenniel’s “life and career was that of the supreme gentlemanly outside, living on the edge of respectability.”
In 1840, Tenniel, while practising fencing with his father, received a serious eye wound from his father’s foil, which had accidentally lost its protective tip. Over the years, Tenniel gradually lost sight in his right eye; he never told his father of the severity of the wound, as he did not wish to upset his father further.
In spite of his tendency towards high art, Tenniel was already known and appreciated as a humorist and his early companionship with Charles Keene fostered and developed his talent for scholarly caricature.
Tenniel became a student of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1842 by probation—he was admitted because he made several copies of classical sculptures to provide the necessary admission portfolio. So, it was here that Tenniel returned to his earlier independent education. While Tenniel’s more formal training at the Royal Academy and at other institutions was beneficial in nurturing his artistic ambitions, it failed in Tenniel’s mind because he disagreed with the school’s teaching methods, resulting in Tenniel educating himself for his career. Tenniel studied classical sculptures through painting; however, Tenniel was frustrated that he was never taught how to draw. Tenniel would draw 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; however, he became impatient with his work and was the happiest when he could draw from memory. Tenniel was blessed with a photographic memory, undermining his early training and seriously restricting his artistic ambitions.
Another “formal” means of training was Tenniel’s participation in an artists group, free from the rules of the academy that stifled Tenniel. In the mid-1840s Tenniel joined the Artist’s Society or Clipstone Street Life Academy, and it could be said here that Tenniel first emerged as a satirical draftsman.
Tenniel’s first book illustration was for Samuel Carter Hall’s The Book of British Ballads, in 1842. While engaged with his first book illustrations, various contests were taking place in London, as a way in which the government could 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 amongst artists 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.