When he was 16 years old, Tenniel entered a competition to create a mural for the Palace of Westminster, which had just been completed. Tenniel received 200 pounds and a commission to paint a fresco for the Hall of Poets in the House of Lords. He studied at the Royal Academy. When he was 20, Tenniel received a severe wound to his right eye while fencing with his father. He never told his father how bad it was but he eventually lost sight in his eye.
In 1850, the founding editor of the humor magazine Punch, Mark Lemon, invited Tenniel to be a cartoonist for the magazine. Over the years, Tenniel's work came to represent the collective social conscience of the British public. For instance, when the citizens of India rebelled against British rule, people in Britain were outraged. Retribution was swift and bloody. Tenniel's cartoons represented the situation as the British Lion savagely attacking the Bengal Tiger.
Originally, Lewis Carroll (Dr. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) illustrated his book himself but eventually warmed to the suggestion from his engraver that he seek professional help. Carroll was an avid reader of Punch magazine, so he knew Tenniel's work. The two had numerous discussions before Tenniel finally illustrated Alice. Dr. Dodgson, ever the perfectionist, provided Tenniel with detailed instructions on how to draw the characters in the story, much to Tenniel's chagrin. However, by May 1865, Tenniel had completed 42 illustrations.
Tenniel didn't like the printing quality of the first 2,000-copy run so it was recalled. All but about 20 or so were recovered. That first printing was donated to children's hospitals. A second first printing was published in November 1865 but carried an 1866 date. The earliest copies of Alice in Wonderland are extremely rare and bring handsome sums at auction. Tenniel initially tried to avoid doing the illustrations for Through the Looking-Glass but Dodgson persisted and finally Tenniel agreed to do them.