In memory of Norman Thelwell, 1923-2004.
2023 marks the 100th anniversary of Norman Thelwell’s birth, and the 70th birthday of the iconic and easily recognisable, ‘Thelwell Pony’, much-loved by young and old alike. The English landscape artist and illustrator was known to many as ‘the unofficial artist of the British countryside’ and is widely regarded as the most popular cartoonist in Britain. He was most famous for his hilarious illustrations of determined little girls with their chubby, hairy ponies, who invariably have the upper hand.
Join us here as we join in on the celebrations by taking a look back into Thelwell’s early inspiration, learn more about the great artist through reflections from his children, and discover what’s still to enjoy for 2023 and beyond.
Early equine inspiration
Norman Thelwell’s earliest surviving drawing is a pencil self-portrait done at the age of 10, on which his teacher has written in red ink: ‘V. good indeed’. He remembers always wanting to draw as a child and recalls finding drawing and painting much easier than other subjects – “with drawing, the answer was always there in front of you – you only had to look.”
The source of inspiration for his illustrations of short-legged ponies causing mischief, was his home in Codsall that was next to a field containing two small, fat hairy ponies, “owned by two little girls about three feet high,” he recalled in his autobiography. “They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs and velvet safety helmets. 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 those 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.”
In 1953, Norman Thelwell penned his first pony cartoon for the satirical British magazine Punch, renowned internationally for its wit, irreverence, and for publishing the world’s best comic writers and poets. In his own words: “One day I did a pony drawing and it was like striking a sensitive nerve. The response was instantaneous. People telephoned the editor and asked for more. In the end I dreamed up some more horsey ideas and people went into raptures. The ‘Thelwell pony’ was born.” Then Thelwell developed a cartoon strip about a particular horse-crazy young lady and her cheeky pony, called “Penelope and Kipper”, which became resoundingly popular.
Reflections on the artist
Thelwell’s children David and Penny (the original ‘Penelope’) are marking the centenary by celebrating his artistic skill in many ways this year, with exhibitions, re-publications and creating relationships with associations that align with their father’s values and passion for animals and the natural world.
Penny explains that she did have her own pony as a child. “He was a lovely boy – and he was fat! I used to hack him to the local pony club and I did a couple of gymkhanas, but not with any great success, I have to say!”
The enduring appeal of Norman Thelwell’s cartoons lies in that they are vignettes of everyday life, capturing the normality of life that combines his gentle humour and keen artistic eye. David says: “He did cartoons on every subject but it’s the pony stuff that has always captured people’s imagination. It’s partly because it’s well drawn, well observed and amusing. Even I laugh when I look through them. It’s timeless humour and not political. It’s poking fun but not being unpleasant so it’s easy to absorb.”
Charles Sainsbury Plaice, of CSP Countryside Greetings, is the main licensee reproducing Thelwell’s work in a wide range of products, and observes, “He also handles country sports in general very well in his work, because he always made the human the victim of the joke. Thelwell’s animals always come out on top, and we humans are the laughable losers.”
Books and exhibitions to enjoy in 2023
In 2023, Norman’s books continue to capture the hearts of the equestrian world and beyond. Penelope Rides Again, re-published in October 2022, features Thelwell’s plucky, pint-sized equestrian back in the saddle (or, more frequently, out of it) as she braves both showgrounds and countryside with the ever-obstreperous Kipper.
Thelwell was wholly passionate about the countryside and nature. During his life he became increasingly concerned about the impact of development, pollution and society’s treatment of the environment and published The Effluent Society in 1971, a heartfelt message combined with his unique humour, to conserve the environment and countryside. Re-published in March 2023, you can personally see some of the original cartoons, art materials and references, at The Cartoon Museum in London, from April to September 2023.
Thelwell was also a serious landscape artist, painting in both watercolour and oils, as demonstrated in his exhibition at Mottisfont, Hampshire (please note: only until May 7) that features some of his less-known works, such as watercolours of local Hampshire landmarks, including Mottisfont itself.
Thelwell continues to entertain
Looking ahead, with Penelope’s help, readers of all ages will continue to learn to pick themselves up after a fall, no matter how hard…and laugh about it. Anyone who’s ever been on a horse can most probably hark back to a ‘Thelwell moment’ Norman Thelwell’s timeless humour and the rider’s unconditional love for their pony can never be outgrown or forgotten.
Centenary Celebrations – What’s happening
- October 2022 – Penelope Rides Again republished by Quiller Publishing
- Exhibition of the original art at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire “100 years of Norman Thelwell” from 21stJanuary 2023 to 7th May 2023
- 14th March – republication of The Effluent Society’ by Quiller Publishing
- 26th April publication of Colouring Heaven colouring book in all major supermarkets
- 27th April to 3rd September – exhibition of the original art for The Effluent Society at the Cartoon Museum in London
- 3rd May – Norman Thelwell’s 100th birthday
- May 2023 – republication of 4 Thelwell titles, Up the Garden Path, Compleat Tangler, Play it as it Lies, and Three sheets in the Wind, by Allison & Busby
Discover more on the official Thelwell website.