My hero: Sir John Tenniel by Chris Riddell

John Tenniel's white rabbit – the shading, the intricate lines of cross-hatching, the folds of the sleeve – was one of the reasons I became an illustrator

Before I knew a thing about him, John Tenniel was a hero of mine, or rather, I should say, his white rabbit was. As a child I copied Tenniel's illustrations from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland obsessively, particularly his drawing of the white rabbit in waistcoat and frockcoat, umbrella tucked under one arm and a fob watch in paw, a look of suppressed panic in his eye. I loved analysing the shading, intricate lines of cross-hatching, the folds of the sleeve, the tilt of the head, that wide-eyed rabbit stare. Tenniel was one of the reasons I became an illustrator.

Later, I began to notice old Punch cartoons with that familiar cross-hatch style, and a particular look to the figures. The British lion, Britannia, a forlorn Bismarck getting off a ship – they could all have stepped out of the pages of Wonderland. Then I saw in the corner an elegant monogram: "JT".

Born in 1820, Tenniel began his career as a painter – one of his murals, Saint Cecilia, adorns the House of Lords. But in 1850 he joined Punch as the magazine's principal political cartoonist, a post he held for 50 years. It was this work that caught Charles Dodgson's eye and led him to approach Tenniel to illustrate his book Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Published subsequently by Macmillan as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with 34 exquisitely engraved line drawings, the book became a classic that eventually eclipsed Tenniel's work as a cartoonist.

Sir John Tenniel self-portrait, 1889
Sir John Tenniel self-portrait, 1889. Photograph: Corbis Photograph: Corbis

In his self-portrait, with macassared hair and great drooping moustache, Tenniel looks every inch the grand Victorian gentleman – a cross between Bismarck and the White Knight from Through the Looking-Glass. But appearances can be deceptive. As the political cartoonist of the Observer for almost 20 years, I am drawn to a quote Tenniel gave about looking at his weekly Punch cartoon. "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."

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell (Macmillan Children's Books) won the Costa children's book award on 6 January.


Chris Riddell

The GuardianTramp

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