John Tenniel, the third son of John Baptist Tenniel (1793–1879), a dancing-master, was born in London on 28th February, 1820. His biographer, Lewis Perry Curtis, has pointed out: "Living in genteel poverty in Kensington, his parents could not afford much formal education for their six children. Tenniel, the third son, attended a local primary school and then became the pupil of his athletic father, who taught him fencing, dancing, riding, and other gentlemanly arts. At the age of twenty, while fencing with his father, the button of his opponent's foil fell off and he suffered a cut that blinded his right eye - an injury that he concealed from his father for the rest of his life in order to spare him any pangs of guilt."
Tenniel attended the Royal Academy but left in disgust at the quantity of teaching he received. When Tenniel was sixteen he began having his paintings exhibited at the Suffolk Street Galleries. He was soon recognised as a talented artist and he received several commissions, including the production of a fresco for the House of Lords.
Tenniel had some cartoons accepted by Punch Magazine and one showing Lord John Russell as David with his sword of truth attacking Cardinal Wiseman, as the Roman Catholic Goliath, upset Richard Doyle so much that he left the magazine. Mark Lemon, the editor, decided to replace Doyle with Tenniel and in December, 1850, he became a staff cartoonist with Punch. At first Tenniel was reluctant to take the post arguing that he was more concerned with "High Art". He also doubted his ability to produce humourous cartoons. He asked one friend: "Do they suppose that there is anything funny about me?"
John Tenniel gradually took over from John Leech as the producer of the main political cartoon in the magazine. Tenniel was a Tory and some of his cartoons upset radicals on the staff such as Douglas Jerrold. Tenniel denied being political prejudice and claimed that "if I have my own little politics, I keep them to myself, and profess only those of the paper".
Tenniel, who was blind in one eye, had a photographic memory and never used models or photographs when drawing. He wrote: "I have a wonderful memory of observation - not for dates, but anything I see I remember. Well, I get my subject on Wednesday night; I think it out carefully on Thursday, and make my rough sketch; on Friday morning I begin, and stick to it all day, with my nose well down on the block. By means of tracing-paper I transfer my design to the wood and draw on that. Well, the block being finished, it is handed over to Swain's boy (Joseph Swain was the engraver) at about 6.30 to 7 o'clock, who has been waiting for it for an hour or so, and at 7.30 it is put in hand for engraving. That is completed on the following night, and on Monday night I receive by post the copy of next Wednesday's paper. Although I have never the courage to open the packet. I always leave it to my sister, who opens it and hands it across to me, when I just take a glance at it, and receive my weekly pang."
Where possible, he arranged meetings with the leading politicians so that he could obtain a close look at the subjects of his drawings. On one occasion he was invited to 10 Downing Street to study the face of William Gladstone. Tenniel later claimed that Gladstone disapproved of the way he was portrayed and he was "not honoured again". Tenniel, was was a strong opponent of parliamentary reform, gave Gladstone a hard time during the debate over the 1867 Reform Act.
The Conservative Party was grateful for the support John Tenniel had given them and the Marquis of Salisbury, the Prime Minister, decided to grant him a knighthood. However, before it could be announced, the Conservatives lost power. William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party, became new Prime Minister, had obviously forgiven Tenniel and agreed to let him have his knighthood.
Lewis Perry Curtis has pointed out: "Despite their dignified quality some of Tenniel's cartoons partook of the dominant prejudices of the day. His depiction of Jews included such standard antisemitic features as the hooked nose and the dark, oily locks of the Shylock–Fagin variety... Tenniel also endowed some African chieftains or warriors with such racialized traits as thick lips and big bellies. But when it came to the Irish - especially Fenians or republican separatists wedded to physical force - he delighted in simianizing rebel Paddy. Indeed, his Fenian apemen rank among the fiercest images of political violence ever to appear in the serio-comic format. By means of low foreheads, pointed ears, snub noses, high upper lips, receding chins, prognathous jaws, and sharp fangs, he turned these agitators into Calibans or gorilla–guerrillas."
M. H. Spielmann has argued: "Sir John Tenniel had dignified the political cartoon into a classic composition, and has raised the art of politico-humourous draughtsmanship into the relative position of the lampoon to that of polished satire - swaying parties and peoples, too, and challenging comparison with the higher (at times it might almost be said the highest) efforts of literature in that direction."
As well as working on Punch, Tenniel worked as a book illustrator. He is best known for the illustrations that he did for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872). Tenniel was replaced by Bernard Partridge as chief cartoonist on the journal in 1901.
Sir John Tenniel died at his home at 52 FitzGeorge Avenue, West Kensington on 25th February, 1914.