Children's TV presenter Tony Hart dies

Television artist Tony Hart, who inspired generations of children to draw during a 50-year career, died on today after a long illness, his agent said. He was 83.

One of Britain's best-loved presenters, Hart served in the army and painted murals on restaurant walls for free meals before breaking into television.

His agent and friend Roc Renals said Hart's health had been declining in recent months and he had been taken to hospital in Surrey with a chest infection.

"Thousands and thousands of young people who are now grown up will thank him for inspiring them to take up art," he told Reuters. "His genius was that for all those many years every programme had some sort of new technique. He worked tirelessly."

Hart's big break came in 1952 when he met a BBC children's television producer at a party. Invited to an interview for a job as a TV illustrator, he was asked if he could quickly draw a fish blowing bubbles.

"His secretary took too long finding a piece of paper, so I drew the fish on a serviette. The producer was impressed, and I was hired as a freelance," he recalled in an interview.

He got a job on "Saturday Special" and then worked on "Playbox", "Titch and Quackers" and "Vision On".

He won a BAFTA prize in 1984 for perhaps his best known programme, "Take Hart", in which he would create small and large artworks from scratch and display the best viewers' efforts in a feature called The Gallery.

He was joined on screen by a Plasticine character called Morph and Mr Bennett, a janitor played by actor Colin Bennett.

Hart designed the sailing ship logo for the long-running BBC children's programme "Blue Peter", earning 100 pounds.

Born in Maidstone, Kent, in October 1925, he began drawing as a young boy, sketching clocks on the backs of envelopes saved for him by his mother.

After leaving Clayesmore School in Dorset, he joined the 1st Gurkha Rifles before deciding to leave the army after the war to become a professional artist.

He trained at Maidstone College of Art and decorated restaurants with pictures for free meals before embarking on his long television career.

Illness forced his retirement in 2001 and a subsequent series of strokes cruelly robbed him of his ability to draw.

Hart, who lived near Guildford, Surrey, said he continued to receive lots of messages from people all over the world.

"My aged heart is warmed by the lovely letters and e-mails I receive, especially when they tell me that my work on television inspired the writers to become artists, sometimes very successful ones," he wrote in the Times newspaper last year.