Harry Furniss, the son of an English engineer, was born in County Wexford, Ireland, on 26th March 1854. His mother was the miniaturist painter Isabella Mackenzie. After leaving school he worked as a clerk to a wood-engraver, who taught him the trade.
Furniss worked as an artist in Ireland but in 1876 he moved to England and found work with the Illustrated London News. Over the next eight years he developed a reputation as an outstanding draughtsman. He also contributed to The Pall Mall Gazette, The Daily News, The Sketch, Vanity Fair, The Graphic, and The Windsor Magazine.
In October 1880, Francis Burnand, the editor of Punch Magazine, invited Furniss to contribute to the magazine. Several of his cartoons were published and in 1884 he became a member of the staff at the magazine. For the next ten years he illustrated the "Essence of Parliament". He also supplied articles, jokes, illustrations and dramatic criticisms for other sections of the magazine. It is estimated that over the years he contributed more than 2600 drawings to the magazine.
Harry Furniss always drew William Gladstone with a large collar, and although he never wore collars like this, the public become convinced that he did. Furniss was a staunch Unionist and he was especially harsh on Irish Nationalists. One MP, Swift MacNeill, who was portrayed as a gorilla, was so angry with that he physically assaulted Furniss. Another group of MPs threatened him with a beating unless he ended his campaign against them.
Harry Furniss work became extremely popular with the British public and this enabled him to tour the country giving lectures on subjects such as "The Frightfulness of Humour" and "Humours of Parliament". Furniss also illustrated a great number of books including those by Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Mark Bryant has pointed out: "He rarely used an easel but preferred to work standing up at a waist-high desk. He drew in pen and ink but also worked in chalk and painted in watercolours and oils." R.G.G. Price, the author of A History of Punch (1957) has argued that Furniss was "not a great draughtsman... but a very experienced pictorial journalist who could work fast and get a likeness easily. It is said that he would chat to a man and caricature him on a pad held in his pocket".
Harry Furniss left Punch Magazine in 1894 after a discovered that the magazine had sold the copyright of one of his drawings to Pears Soap for advertising. Furniss had for a long time wanted his own business and that year he started his own cartoon magazine, Like Joka. It sold 140,000 copies on its first day. However, the magazine was not a long-term financial success and he moved to the USA where he worked in the film industry with Thomas Edison. Furniss helped pioneer the animated cartoon films with War Cartoons (1914) and Peace and Pencillings (1914).
Harry Furniss died at his home in Hastings on 14th January, 1925.