11 JANUARY 1992, Page 26

This upright, long-lived anachronism

James Hamilton

SIR JOHN TENNIEL: ALICE'S WHITE KNIGHT by Rodney Engen Scolar Press, £37.50, pp. 232 John Tenniel — born five years after Waterloo, died five months before the first world war — was a unique witness to the life cycle of the Victorian age. He con- tributed political cartoons to Punch for over 50 years, and through his cartoons had supreme power to influence public opinion. With his snarling, defiant Lion, attacking or guarding, he created the self- image of the British Empire. He observed, commented upon and recorded British domestic and foreign policy and ways of life in the 19th century, roles which have been shared out across the 20th century among Pattie Newsreel, Richard Dimbleby and the BBC World Service.

Rodney Engen draws a useful portrait of Tenniel in this biography, and what the book lacks in sparkle, the author makes up for in fact. In his first paragraph, perhaps the most succinct and incisive of all, Engen sums Tenniel up as

an elusive, enigmatic and thoroughly private figure . . . [who] lived the exemplary life of the self-effacing gentleman, content to remain firmly out of the limelight.

Engen is not helped by his monosyllabic subject, who preferred to communicate by telegram, because it was quick, efficient and required the shortest message. It is to Engen's credit that he is able to squeeze some blood out of this dry old stone, though he could have been more selective, there being no pressing need for him to quote in full Tenniel's reply to an invitation from the Gladstones thus:

Mr Tenniel has much honour in accepting Mr & Mrs Gladstone's kind invitation to dinner on 11th of June.

This aloof and retiring gentleman had an extraordinarily hearty father, the sort of man who would turn even the most insensi- tive of sons into a Trappist monk. A Huguenot immigrant, he taught fencing, rowing, boxing and dancing to Regency bucks, and invented the Bullworker. He was disappointed at his son's disturbing signs of introversion, at his slipping off for hours on end to sketch quietly on his own after his daily fencing and riding lesson. The self-containment that Tenniel developed did, however, save his father from a lifetime of remorse, for during one of their ritual daily fencing matches the elder Tenniel accidentally cut his son across the right eye, blinding it permanent- ly. Despite the seriousness of the accident, Tenniel kept it a secret from his father — how, we are not told — and never seems to have shown the slightest resentment or anger about it.

Tenniel set out as a young artist with a dogged belief in the value of High Art, determined to be a History Painter in the footsteps of Reynolds. He was befriended by John Martin — who is to History Paint- ing what Cecil B. De Mille is to Bible Study — and with Martin's encouragement entered the Royal Academy Schools. There he learnt virtually nothing, but did demon- strate a healthy, if rarely exercised, talent to be obnoxious: 'I soon left in utter disgust of there being no teaching,' he recalled later. Although throughout his life Tenniel remained frustrated at his inability to make the grade as a painter, this was not through lack of talent, but through lack of time and his public's expectations of him as a politic- al cartoonist. Ruskin later recognised the would-be Old Master in Tenniel, remark- ing that had he been rightly trained 'there might have been the making of a Holbein, or nearly a Holbein in him'. Instead, Tenniel turned to book illustra- tion, decorating editions of Undine, Milton and Aesop in the 1840s, before being taken on in a hurry in 1850 by Punch when its Principal and popular humorous artist, Dicky Doyle, walked out of his job in Protest at the magazine's attitude to the Catholic Church.

'Do they suppose there's something funny about me?', Tenniel asked a friend in amazement, on being offered the post at Punch. Such modesty was entirely charac- teristic of Tenniel, though, as Engen points out, his later Punch cartoons were often criticised for their stiff, austere classicism, to the extent that in 1880 Tenniel found himself having to insist to his critics that he did actually have a very keen sense of humour and that 'my drawings are some- times really funny'.

There are, however, two Tenniels, as every reader of Alice knows, and Engen skillfully peels them apart. If Punch showed, paradoxically, the formal, even austere side to Tenniel's nature, his com- mission from Charles Dodgson to illustrate Alice in Wonderland, and later Through the Looking Glass, showed his imagination run- ning free despite the impossible demands that Dodgson put upon him. Although Engen does not introduce the point, it may be precisely because Tenniel had so strong a sense of duty that he was able to put up with Dodgson's whingeing on about com- position and proportion, where a lesser artist might have kicked him in the Isis. Engen gives a good account of the pair's highly creative but exasperating relation- ship, in which it soon dawned on Tenniel that Dodgson expected him to be not an imaginative illustrator but a hired work- man, a drawing machine to perfect and polish Dodgson's own ideas.

Engen is, however, hampered by his book's subtitle. It asserts that Tenniel is Alice's White Knight, though in the text Engen is, rightly, not so sure. Although we might wish it so, there is no evidence that the droopy moustachioed Tenniel, who col- lected armour, rode like a Cavalry Officer and preferred the past, used himself as a model for the armour-wearing, pigeon- chested, umbrella-waving, crusty old soldier. Engen properly lists Dodgson him- self and a Punch colleague, Horace May- hew, as alternative candidates, and does not attempt to reach a conclusion where there is no evidence to back it up.

Tenniel's private life had sadnesses which affected him profoundly, and which undoubtedly contributed to his apartness from life. His beloved wife died of TB aged 31 after only two years of marriage, despite Tenniel's constant nursing of her. His mother, nursed too by Tenniel, died while her son was trying with difficulty to begin his Alice in Wonderland drawings — poignantly with 'The Pool of Tears'. The death of his mother-in-law, for many years his housekeeper, crushed him too, as did the deaths of his sister and his great friends and colleagues, John Leech, Charles Reene and Linley Sambourne. In being blessed with a long and productive life, Tenniel had to suffer the consequential agonies of other people's funerals. In his final days, with the sight of his one eye weakening, Tenniel entertained himself by watching the blurred shadows on the walls of his room:

Sometimes it's a troop of cavalry riding by

enjoy a post-coital and a post-prandial cigarette.'

and 1 see every man and horse distinctly and even hear the clinking of their bits -- they're mere fancies, of course.

Although Engen is short on feeling, and is not helped by sloppy proof-reading, he is generous and careful with his facts. There can hardly be anything more to tell about this upright, long-lived anachronism, who maintained obsessive privacy and self- control, who sat silently smoking his churchwarden pipe at Punch dinners while his younger colleagues laughed and joked around him, and who spoke perfect English with the purest of vowel sounds. In the age of Aubrey Beardsley, Art Nouveau and Impressionism, Tenniel was out of date and probably out of touch. He remained, however, a master of high-minded and fair political satire in Punch and, in Alice, of sympathetic and highly imaginative illustration — more, probably, than politics, or Dodgson, deserved.