Norman Thelwell (1923–2004) found drawing easier than academic subjects at school in Birkenhead, and took his sketch books with him when he joined the army (the East Yorkshire Regiment) at the age of 18. He had no formal art training until the war, when he took evening classes at Nottingham Art School in 1944 (at which he met his wife, Rhona). He studied for a degree at Liverpool College of Art, and after graduating, taught design and illustration at Wolverhampton College of Art. His first published cartoon was in the London Opinion; his first for Punch (for whom he drew for over 25 years) was published in 1952, and in 1956 he was able to leave teaching to draw full time. His first book was Angels on Horseback, a collection of already published cartoons. He went on to produce over 30 books, covering far more than just ponies. Golf, fishing, buying and selling a house and dogs were all grist to his mill. His obituary in The Independent described him as “a landscape artist who happened to be funny.”

He drew the countryside with what Martin Plimmer, his obituarist in The Independentdescribed as “the grateful eye and devotional industry of a city boy who has been rescued by beauty.” Having grown up in a thoroughly urban setting, he was always aware of the contrast between the countryside where he and his family came to live, and his urban roots. This awareness gave him an acute sensitivity towards the careless destruction of that beauty by development, indiscriminate demolition and the industrialisation of agriculture. He depicted the destruction in many cartoons, and in The Effluent Society (1971), the book of which he was most proud. He was a practical conservationist, and worked on the restoration of a derelict mill he bought in Cornwall. (A Millstone Round My Neck, 1981).

Norman Thelwell was probably best known for his ponies. He was the illustrator of many pony-mad children’s childhoods; not the lovely dream of a matchless grey swishing round the show ring, festooned with rosettes, but the foul tempered pony determined not to be caught and entirely deaf to any suggestion that it be schooled. Much though I would have loved the matchless grey, what I got was a succession of riding school ponies, each more inured to the charms of a child than the last. Like Thelwell’s girls though, hope sprang eternal. Penelope et al were always convinced that their day as Pony Club champion would come. So was I. Despite years of solid evidence to the contrary, so was I.

I was not so lost to sense that I did not know that there was a large gap between what happened to me every weekend, and my dreams. The first time I came across Thelwell, it was as though a light went on. Thelwell drew my experience, and made it funny. It was genius. He had a gift of getting into the soul of a pony and showing its cunning and often unobliging nature, contrasted with the blithe determination of a succession of pony-mad girls to tame these monsters. By no means was I alone in thinking this. As Thelwell said himself, he struck a “sensitive nerve.”

“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. Suddenly I had a fan mail. So the editor told me to do a two-page spread on ponies. I was appalled. I thought I’d already squeezed the subject dry. I looked at the white drawing block and wondered what on earth to do. In the end I dreamed up some more horsy ideas and people went into raptures.”

He had only ridden, he said, once in his life, in India, when the horse bolted and Thelwell was carted along, clinging to its neck. This experience presumably made a deep impression. Horses he described as “”great windy things that’ll grab your coat off your back as soon as look at you,” and the horse that took advantage was the horse that Thelwell drew. The inspiration for what became known as the “Thelwell pony”, an overweight, hairy and recalcitrant individual, came from two ponies who lived in a field next door to his house.

“They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves,” he recalled. “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 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.”

Thelwell’s ponies often do plot vengeance. Even if their eyes are shrouded with those huge forelocks and manes their essential malevolence shines through. The traffic is not all one way, however: a pony may be, surprised but passive, subject to a massage or any one of a range of treatments his owner thinks must be done, in line with current thinking on equine welfare.

Thelwell produced seven books concentrating principally on ponies for his legion of fans. The Pony Club, bastion of what should be done with a pony, very soon recognised Thelwell’s affinity with their members, and he appeared early in his career in the Pony Club Annual, illustrating the long running Captain Hall series by Major C Davenport from 1955 until the series’ end in 1963. As far as I am aware, this is the only horse-related fiction he illustrated. His work generally stood on its own, with his main characters, Penelope and her pony Kipper, appearing as a weekly cartoon in the Sunday Express from 1953–71, as well as in book form.

Despite his supposed lack of equine knowledge, he illustrated non fiction titles by such stalwarts of the horse world as R S Summerhays, Dorian Williams and Elwyn Hartley Edwards. Thelwell’s work was often re-published in different forms, with compilations appearing (Thelwell’s Riding Academy, Pony Cavalcade and Pony Panoramaand was gathered together in Annual form for two editions in the 1980s, which re-coloured some cartoons to rather alarming effect.

For the pony mad who wanted more than just books, there was a whole range of Thelwell merchandise, from the mug to the model. There is still a vibrant Thelwell industry today; his books are still in print, and his images decorate a wealth of material from jigsaw to mouse mats. While people and ponies carry on trying to exist together, Thelwell will always be there with them, showing how ridiculous the whole idea can be.

Thank you to Momentum Licensing for giving me permission to use images of Thelwell’s works for this page.

Links and sources
Thelwell: official website
Obituary: Daily Telegraph, 9 Feb, 2004
Obituary, The Independent, 10 February, 2004 (Martin Plimmer)
Chris Beetles Gallery: Thelwell
The British Cartoon Archive: Thelwell

Thank you to Susan Bourgeau, Fiona Williams, Jane Pitman, Jane Di Giuseppe and Fred Badger for photographs of their books.