Quick now…what best describes a shaggy, short, naughty, can’t-be-caught, too smart for its own good pony? If you said, “A Thelwell Pony” you win first prize. Little did Norman Thelwell know that when he began to create his cartoon riders and ponies, the words “Thelwell pony” would eventually apply to his diminutive equine creations the world over. So, what kind of a pony did you have as a child? Ahhh, a Thelwell pony…enough said!
How did the man who got ponies, horses, dogs, elegant riders, plump pony mad children, tweedy bowler hatted riding instructors and rotund whiskered hunting Masters down to a “T” when he had only once been on a horse? The artist’s eye sees what many others do not and as a country resident, he recalled watching two chubby girls manage/try to catch and halter two equally chubby devious ponies in a field. It was a game of chase, cajole, and catch for them and inspiration for him. The “Thelwell pony” was created on paper and took on a life of its own for decades to come to the delight of millions who appreciated the equine antics even if they had never stepped inside a stable yard.
Norman Thelwell began to sketch at an early age on visits to a Welsh Farm preferring painting and drawing to other school subjects. He loved the outdoors and the countryside and this knowledge, an ability to find the humour in almost anybody and any situation and his eye for details would hold him in good stead.
Born in Birkenhead, Cheshire in 1923 he joined the army for WWII and started to draw cartoons for army newspapers in India. He took some art classes at the Nottingham Art School in 1944 where he met his wife Rhona; they were married in 1949 and had a son and a daughter. He later studied art at the Liverpool College of Art and began to teach art in 1950. His first cartoon was for the famous PUNCH magazine in 1952 and for the next 25 years he sold them 1,500 more. However it was in 1953 that his pony cartoons enraptured and captured instantaneous response. He got fan mail begging for more and was asked by his editor to do a two page spread on ponies. Although he thought that the initial pony picture was the end of ponies, it was quite the opposite and the “Thelwell pony” was born. Little did he know what a wealth of subject matter there was to be found within the tiny naughty minds of shaggy ponies and the efforts of the pony mad girls who tried to ride and control them.
Eventually he realized that drawing was more lucrative than teaching so he put his efforts into a complete book and in 1957, Angels on Horseback was published capturing a collection of previous works. A Leg at Each Corner was published in 1961 and offered the public a whole new set of pictures. From this Thelwell created Penelope and Kipper, a pony mad child and her naughty fat pony
Thelwell was a lover of the outdoors and his cartoons went far beyond just equines and those who rode or tried to ride them. He drew sailors, gardeners, dogs, fishermen, country estate owners, house hunters, motorists, and those who enjoyed country living. Many of his cartoons include a smidgen of social comment and laugh a minute humour along with the highs and lows of the British at home, work and play. His characters are quintessentially British giving us a peak at their eccentricities at home and at play in an era before the internet and technology took over.
Thelwell also created lovely landscape works of art in watercolour and his books, all 32 of them, have been translated in countless languages. His artwork also graced the pages of pony annuals and he wrote a book on how to draw ponies. Interestingly enough, Thelwell himself had only sat on a horse once in his life and that was not a huge success as the horse took off with him!
Thelwell lived in Timsbury in the Test Valley for 25 years before he died and his love of restoring old buildings became a large part of his life. The restoration of an old farm building and two ponds was the inspiration for his factual book titled A Plank Bridge by a Pool. He also wrote A Millstone Around my Neck which was inspired by the restoration of an old Cornish water mill, Addicroft Mill at Liskeard, which he called Penruin. His autobiography Wrestling with a Pencil draws upon his love and the beauty he saw in old cottages.
For horse people and even non horse people, Thelwell’s cartoons never fail to bring a chuckle, and best of all you don’t need to know the difference between a hock and a hard hat to see the humour in his sketches.
Thelwell, later known as the “unofficial artist of the countryside”, died in 2004 having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for four years before his death. His name is synonymous with British country living and he is viewed as the most popular British cartoonist since WWII in England.
Thelwell is on Facebook too at https://www.facebook.com/ThelwellNorman?hc_location=stream
Thelwell books are still available with the originals often fetching high prices. Amazon.com offers paperback versions at a more reasonable price – Pony Cavalcade, Thelwell’s Horse Box and A Leg at Each Corner.