John Tenniel and Technology: Anachronism and Social Meaning

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Virginia Tech


Sir John Tenniel worked for the Victorian magazine Punch for over fifty years, from 1850 to 1901, and served as head cartoonist for the latter thirty-seven years of his tenure at the magazine. Tenniel's cartoons effectively became the heart of Punch's visual lineup, and the sentiments expressed by these cartoons both reflected and influenced the opinions of the magazine']s vast middle class readership. However, they did not generally reflect the opinions of the cartoonist himself: Tenniel had little to no say in decisions regarding the content or stance of his cartoons. The artist ostensibly had no problem with this arrangement, once telling a historian, "As for political opinions, I have none… [I] profess only those of my paper."

This project argues that the artist did indeed inject a degree of personal opinion into his work, albeit in hidden and unconscious ways. Instead of using the medium of cartoons as an overt vehicle for his opinion, Tenniel's values and views come out in his use of iconography and his choice of models for his drawings. As a conservative Victorian man operating in the rapidly changing world of the latter nineteenth century, Tenniel used his drawings as a way to tap into the England of his youth and possibly reclaim the art world he originally studied to join as a young man. His iconography frequently looked back to medieval England, framing current events within these themes until the end of his career. Furthermore, Tenniel doggedly refused to update his mental drawing models for certain forms of technology, even when his depictions became obviously anachronistic. This thesis examines these tendencies through the threefold lenses of Material Culture Studies, Social Constructivism, and Nostalgia Studies in an attempt to link Tenniel's treatment of medieval iconography and depiction of modern technology with the nostalgic past.



John Tenniel, Punch magazine, Victorian England, Nineteenth century, technology studies, nostalgia studies, material culture