Sunday, April 27, 2008

Norman Thelwell

Norman Thelwell is one of my favourite cartoonists. I was probably introduced to him by my sister who has always loved horses; I wouldn't be surprised if she had the first Thelwell books in the house, long before she actually got to own a horse.

Norman Thelwell remains hugely popular although as far as I'm aware not one of his many books is in print. You can, however, still buy a wide range of Thelwell gifts and merchandise which helps keep his name alive and, since they sold over two million copies, there are plenty of examples of his books available second-hand.

Thelwell was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, on 3 May 1923, the son of Christopher Thelwell (a maintenance engineer) and his wife Emily (nee Vick), and attended Rock Ferry High School. He left school at 16 and, filling time before his call-up for war service, worked in as a junior clerk in an office in Liverpool. A lifelong artist, his earliest surviving drawing was a self-portrait drawn at the age of 10, which a teacher had marked 'V. good indeed; his first sale (at 15) was a drawing of 15 chickens). In the early war years he livened up his weekends sketching in and around the city with occasional run-ins with the Home Guard who thought he might be a spy.

He joined the East Yorkshire Regiment as an infantryman where his artistic talents were not always appreciated: a zealous Welsh Guards' corporal, inspecting his kit bag, snapped every pen, pencil and brush he found in half, barking "How many bleeding Germans do you think you're going to kill with those?" A week later, the same corporal, with no hint of embarrassment, asked Thelwell to draw his portrait to send home to his girlfriend.

His talent for sketching was noticed and he was excused training sessions to stencil signs on vehicles and, later, was transferred to an intelligence section because of his ability to sketch positions and draw maps. This led to his training as a wireless operator at Long Eaton where, in the NAAFI, he discovered The Artist magazine which was to publish some of his drawings in 1945.

Posted to India with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Thelwell had his first humorous drawings published in the army magazine Victory, which earned Thelwell more rupees than he was earning in a month with the Army. He was shortly after appointed editor of a new magazine for Indian electrical engineers and, for the next 14 months, drew everything for it: covers, headings, strips, technical drawings and local adverts. He had a cartoon published in the monthly London Opinion and a weekly series of caricatures of Indian service leaders in News Review. He also designed new uniforms for the Indian Army.

Demobbed in November 1946, Thelwell returned to his clerking job at the Liverpool docks but lasted only a single day. He obtained his ex-serviceman's grant and spent the next three years studying at Liverpool College of Art. During the war he had been able to attend evening classes Nottinghamshire Art School where he met his future wife, Rhona Ladbury, a fellow student. They were married during an end-of-term break on 9 April 1949 and honeymooned at the Red Lion in Clovelly, the trip paid for by sales of cartoons to Men Only, London Opinion and Everybody's Weekly.

A Mr. Wedgewood of Liverpool College of Art recommended Thelwell to the Rev. Marcus Morris, who was seeking artists to work on his magazine The Anvil and a new comic. Thelwell visited Morris in Southport and had some of his cartoons published in The Anvil from February 1950. A colour strip entitled 'Pop Milligan', about a family living on a barge on the Liverpool Canal, appeared in the dummy version of Eagle, submitted to various publishers in late 1949 but did not make the cut when Eagle finally appeared in April 1950.

Instead, Thelwell produced a weekly three-panel pantomime strip, 'Chicko' which ran in the first six issues of the Eagle before disappearing for a few months. Thelwell was on the move, he and his wife taking up residence in Codsall when he took up a teaching position at Wolverhampton College of Art. Chicko returned in August 1950 and must have been a useful supplement to his wages in those early days. In fact, the strip—usually to be found on the Eagle Club Page—appeared regularly until March 1962, by which time Thelwell's work was widely known.

His big break had come in 1952 when he submitted his first cartoon to Punch. Nervous that the famous humour magazine would not appreciate his usual style, his first acceptance was rather more economic in its detail. A friend reprimanded him when he saw it published and Thelwell's second submission was, according to Martin Plimmer (The Guardian, 10 February 2004) "an intricately depicted gypsy encampment, complete with four varieties of tree, flowers, drystone walling, a five-bar gate, gypsies, horses, ornate caravans, pots, pans, washing lines, bundles and kitchen sinks ('It's their simplicity I envy,' says an onlooker)."

Over the next 25 years Thelwell published some 1,600 cartoons and 60 covers in Punch. As he grew more successful, he was able to give up teaching illustration and design in 1957 and began searching for a new home, which he found in Braishfield, Hampshire. His love of the countryside had been established since boyhood and many of his concerns were with preserving rural Britain. With the end of the war, it seemed to Thelwell that the countryside was full of men on bulldozers "looking about them in a frenzy for something to knock down". Many of the cartoons that made up his collection The Effluent Society (1971) were filled with sewage and oil spills and high-rise buildings as the overcrowded countryside lost its beauty to soulless and over-complex factory farms, pollution and protesters.

Thelwell's love of quiet rural simplicity was reflected in the illustrations that made up his later books A Plank Bridge by a Pool (1978) and A Millstone Round My Neck (1981) which related stories of how he renovated a derelict Cornish mill and its outbuildings before moving to Heron's Mead, a cottage on the Hampshire Test near Romsey with seven acres where he landscaped a garden and lake.

He did not enjoy all country pursuits. During his time as an art teacher, he took a group of students out to sketch a fox hunt. Standing alone in a clearing, he saw the exhausted and bedraggled fox trying to jump a wall to escape and impulsively grabbed the animal by the scruff of its neck and helped it over. Hunts were often the subject of his rural cartoons and foxes usually managed to escape the hunters.

Thelwell's most memorable creations were his 'angels on horseback'—inspired by his observations of a neighbouring field where two fat, hairy ponies of uncertain temper lived. "They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves," he would later recall. "They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs and velvet safety helmets. I could hear the air whisper as they tested their whips—so could Thunder and Lightning, who pointedly ignored them and went on grazing.

"As the children got near, the ponies would swing round and present their ample hindquarters and give a few lightning kicks which the children would sidestep calmly, and they had the head-collars on these animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away; but they were planning vengeance—you could tell by their eyes."

The prototype of Thelwell's pony cartoons appeared in 1953: a blacksmith, with countryman's logic, asks a young girl " 'ow do they feel then?" of her pony's new shoes. Before long, both girls and ponies had added a few inches to their girths and battle was commenced between the determined and blindly optimistic equestrians and their equally determined mounts.

Thelwell's collection Angels on Horseback (1957) helped establish the roly-poly horse riders in the mind's of the reading public and it was for these that Thelwell became best known, although the cartoons were actually only a fraction of his output. He also drew political cartoons for the News Chronicle from 1956 before moving to the Sunday Dispatch in 1960 and the Sunday Express in 1962. For the latter he drew the weekly adventures of Penelope and her unkempt pony Kipper, later collected in Penelope (1972) and Penelope Rides Again (1989).

Thelwell did not resent the fact that his half-pint heroines and their reluctant, barrel-shaped ponies overshadowed his more serious work—be it watercolours or cartoons with a barbed social comment; the success of the pony collections (A Leg at Each Corner, Riding Academy, Thelwell's Gymkhana, etc.) meant that he could concentrate on things that he wanted to do: sketching, landscaping, renovating and fishing. "There is nothing more enjoyable than painting for the sheer love of it," he once said.

For Tatler he drew a series of cartoons about stately homes, collected in Some Damned Fool's Signed the Rubens Again (1982) and other collections ranged in subject matter from fishing and sailing to golf; both dogs and cats also came under Thewell's scrutiny. He produced prints, posters, designs for stamps and Christmas cards, calendars and, in 1978-80, was the subject of Thelwell's Annual. His autobiography, Wrestling With a Pencil, was published in 1986.

In later life, Thelwell's rural activities were hampered by Alzheimer's disease. He died, aged 80, at a nursing home on Saturday, 7 February 2004, after a prolonged illness.

Further information: Norman Thelwell has an Official Website where you can find many more images. More images can be found at the Chris Beetles website. Also found this gallery of cover illustrations which has images of many first edition hardcovers. The Punch Cartoons website has many cartoon images available to buy as prints.

Angels on Horseback—and elsewhere. London, Methuen & Co., 1957. Thelwell Country. London, Methuen & Co., 1959.
A Place of Your Own. A guide to the endless search. London, Methuen & Co., 1960.
Thelwell in Orbit. London, Methuen & Co., 1961.
A Leg at Each Corner. Thelwell's complete guide to equitation. London, Methuen & Co., 1962.
The Penguin Thelwell. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1963.
Top Dog. Thelwell's complete canine compendium. London, Methuen, 1964; New York, Dutton, 1964.
Thelwell's Riding Academy. London, Methuen & Co., 1965.
Ponies. London, Studio Vista, 1966; New York, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1966; as Thelwell's Pony Painting Book, London, Methuen Children's Books, 1972.
Up the Garden Path. Thelwell's guide to gardening. London, Methuen & Co., 1967.
Thelwell's Compleat Tangler. Being a pictorial discourse on anglers and angling. London, Methuen & Co., 1967; New York, Dutton, 1968.
Thelwell's Book of Leisure. London, Methuen & Co., 1968; New York, Dutton, 1969.
This Desirable Plot. A dream-house hunter's nightmare. London, Methuen, 1970.
The Effluent Society. London, Methuen, 1971.
Penelope. London, Eyre Methuen, 1972.
Three Sheets in the Wind. Thelwell's manual of sailing. London, Eyre Methuen, 1973.
Belt Up. Thelwell's motoring manual. London, Eyre Methuen, 1974.
Thelwell Goes West. London, Eyre Methuen, 1975.
Thelwell's Brat Race. London, Eyre Methuen, 1977.
Thelwell's Riding Frieze. London, Methuen Children's Books, 1977; in book form as Thelwell's Horse Sense. London, Methuen, 1980.
A Plank By a Pool. London, Eyre Methuen, 1978.
Thelwell's Gymkhana. London, Eyre Methuen, 1979.
Thelwell's Pony Birthday Book. London, Methuen Children's, 1979; New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.
Thelwell's Pony Cavalcade (contains: Angels on Horseback, A Leg at Each Corner, Riding Academy). London, Eyre Methuen, 1981.
A Millstone Round My Neck. The restoration of a Cornish water mill. London, Eyre Methuen, 1981.
How to Draw Ponies. All the secrets revealed. London, Methuen Children's, 1982.
Some Damn Fool's Signed the Rubens Again. London, Methuen, 1982.
Thelwell's Magnificat. London, Methuen, 1983.
Thelwell's Sporting Prints. London, Methuen, 1984.
Wrestling With a Pencil. The life of a freelance artist. London, Methuen, 1986.
Play It As It Lies. London, Methuen, 1987.
Thelwell's Pony Panorama (contains: Thelwell's Gymkhana, Thelwell Goes West, Penelope). London, Methuen, 1988.
Thelwell's Penelope Rides Again. London, Methuen, 1989.
The Cat's Pyjamas,. London, Methuen, 1992.

Illustrated Books
Show Pony by Jennifer & Dorian Williams. Leicester, Brockhampton Press, 1961.
Away Went Galloper by Margaret J. Baker. London, Methuen & Co., 1962.
Silver Stream. A beautiful tale of hare and hound for young and old by A.P. Herbert. London, Methuen & Co., 1962.
Racing Without Tears by Caroline Ramsden. London, J. A. Allen & Co., 1964; revised ed., 1976.

Owning a Pony. Buying, riding and management by Elwyn Hartley Edwards; foreword by Norman Thelwell. London, Nelson, 1970.
Thelwell (catalogue). London, Chris Beetles, 1989.
Mastering Watercolour. Learn from five masters of the medium, with others. London, Batsford, 1994.
Thelwell Country. 70 years of Norman Thelwell. Southampton, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2004.

(* all artwork © the estate of Norman Thelwell.)


  1. Thanks for so much information...I'm off to those links straight away..

    I liked his horses very much...the unkempt hair...round tum...and naughty look from the horse...I have one of his books..hopefully one day a best of Thelwell book will come to see his Punch work..

  2. Great stuff, I really liked Norman's cartoons. He was one of the cartoonists who inspired me to try to get into Punch and my Thelwell paperbacks sat proudly beside my Peanuts collection.

  3. Shame that the books show a very small reproduction of his works.

  4. An excellent piece on Thelwell, but you are wrong about one thing. Many of his books (all published by Methuen) are currently in print, including PONY CAVALCADE and PONY PANORAMA, each of which contains 3 titles in one volume, so they are particularly good value for fans.
    Ann Mansbridge

  5. I lived in Codsall in the 1950`s and remember my Mum telling me Thelwell lived just around the corner , next to a paddock with ponies . I should have knocked on his door . A great talent !



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