Norman Thelwell

Cartoonist and illustrator dedicated to the rural landscape of England
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The Independent Online

Norman Thelwell, cartoonist: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 3 May 1923; married 1949 Rhona Ladbury (one son, one daughter); died Romsey, Hampshire 7 February 2004.

There is no more detailed pictorial account of 50 years of change to the English countryside than the work of Norman Thelwell. In an era when other cartoonists were reducing their subject matter to shorthand squiggles, Thelwell fleshed his out with abundant realistic detail, and backgrounds you could walk into. His subject matter, whatever funny caper happened to be going on in the foreground, was always the countryside.

It is not unusual to be able to identify three types of tree and two species of bird in a Thelwell cartoon. Ponds, cottages, combine harvesters and flowers are depicted ripple-, brick-, bolt- and petal-perfect. The trend in cartoons was (and still is) to subordinate all detail to the service of telling the gag, but, in Thelwell's work, nature endures. He was a landscape artist who happened to be funny.

Often enough the funny caper in the foreground involved a small, grim-faced girl willing a fat, reluctant pony to do - or not to do - something, a theme which tickled the middle-class readers of Punch magazine and the Sunday Express, for which Thelwell drew a regular weekly panel featuring a girl called Penelope and her pony Kipper, for eight years until 1971. Thelwell pony books, posters, puzzles, Christmas cards, table mats and horse blankets sold briskly among the gymkhana classes (and still do) and the stables of the shires filled up with Kippers.

Small girls and fat ponies made up only a fraction of his output, but Thelwell never resented the stereotyping their success caused him. They paid his bills, bought him leisure time in which to sketch his beloved countryside, and generated a measure of fame which, being a modest man, he valued for the feedback it generated, rather than the celebrity. Once, at an agricultural event, he came out in goose-pimples when a woman shouted: "Ha! Look at Thelwell!" But she was pointing past him at a fat, hairy pony with a small child clinging to its back, which three red-faced ladies were endeavouring to pull out of the WI tent.

Although Thelwell was fascinated by the human condition, and his humorous insight into it was acute, his characters often look cutely artificial in comparison to the credible landscapes behind them. This could be because the artist was never comfortable with human subjects. Figures rarely appeared in his serious sketches and, on the occasions they did intrude, even at a distance, he mistrusted them. He said he had the feeling they were "up to something".

Rural landscape held the profound truths. Thelwell had studied its shape since childhood, recording it with the grateful eye and devotional industry of a city boy who has been rescued by beauty, ever striving to nail it with "the swift incisive shape which can lift the heart like a chord of music". He was the son of a maintenance engineer and had been raised in a two-up, two-down terraced house in Birkenhead. There was no tradition of art in his family and, despite the common opinion of friends, neighbours and teachers that it was a decidedly aberrant hobby, drawing was Norman Thelwell's reflex habit. He couldn't not do it.

An early memory was squinting through the coloured panes of the leaded light in the front door, fascinated that he could use it to change the mood of the street outside. It wasn't long before he discovered that heaven was just a penny bus ride away in the Cheshire countryside. The occasional week's holiday the family took in Corwen, North Wales, was euphoric. During one school holiday Thelwell undertook a project to draw every church in the Wirral.

When, later, he lived in the country with his wife Rhona and children Penelope and David, it was with the sense that it might be taken from him. He differed from the indigenous population in that he never took it for granted. He hated the changes he saw take place after the Second World War: the widespread and indiscriminate demolition of smithies, shops, schools and old barns before the property boom of the Sixties, the ring development of country towns, the ripping up of hedgerows and filling-in of ponds, the lopping of spinneys and copses, the encroachment of concrete into his magical realm of sweet bryony and wild roses, the scars left by modern machine agriculture on what he called "the soft, warm farms of England".

Although determinedly non-political, Thelwell recorded this anguish in his cartoons for Punch: two children count roadkill for their nature notes; a display of artificial flowers at a show is labelled with the chemical names; a tramp chewing a mangel-wurzel he has dug up from a field remarks, "They could have done with a bit more sulphate of ammonia." The book which brought him the most satisfaction was his collection of cartoons about pollution, The Effluent Society (1971).

Thelwell left school at 16, at the outbreak of war, and worked as a junior clerk in a Liverpool dock office, spending nights firewatching on the roof with a tin hat and a stirrup pump. The drawings he did often aroused the suspicions of the Home Guard, who assumed he was spying. He was called up at 18 and the fear of going mad through boredom made him draw even more obsessively than before.

It was the Army, however, which first identified his skill as useful, something which he had not yet realised himself. 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. That move led to his being trained as a wireless operator, a direction which took him away from his former army friends of the East Yorkshire Regiment, many of whom died in the D-Day landings. In a Naafi club he came across The Artist magazine and submitted drawings, a couple of which where published. He also attended evening classes at Nottinghamshire Art School, where he met his future wife, Rhona Ladbury, a fellow student.

Next he was posted to India - he was never sure what for - and while there picked up a magazine called Victory and was shocked by the low standards of its cartoons. He decided to try his hand at this new discipline, submitted a few cartoons and was amazed to receive a cheque for more than a month's army pay. The war ended, but Thelwell was seconded to a new army magazine for Indian electricians and mechanics, as art editor, a job he learnt as he did it. He also produced Christmas cards for soldiers, caricatures for an Indian army magazine and designed a uniform for the Indian Army and a flag for a Boys Regiment. Meanwhile he was sending cartoons back to English magazines via Rhona. The first was published by London Opinion.

He was 23 when he was demobbed and, taking advantage of emergency educational courses, enrolled at Liverpool College of Art. For the first time, he said, he was among people who didn't regard the pursuit of art "as a form of mental instability". He was such an enthusiastic student that on rainy days he was sometimes the only one who turned up for outside sketching trips. Even the tutor stayed at home. When the weather was bad, Thelwell merely saw an opportunity to draw the weather.

He married Rhona during an end-of-term break in 1949 and their honeymoon, at the Red Lion in Clovelly, was paid for by his increasing contributions to Men Only, London Opinion and Everybody's Weekly. Graduating in 1950, he taught design and illustration at Wolverhampton College of Art, moving to the suburban village of Codsall. He made sure his students attended his outdoor sessions by picking them up himself in a dilapidated Standard 8 and ferrying them to the site in batches of eight or nine, some of them perched along the running boards.

It was another two years before he plucked up the confidence to submit to Punch. He had been discouraged because his love of artistic detail went against the grain of the vogue for economy. His first submission, which was accepted, aped the fashion, but on publication he was reprimanded by a friend. The next cartoon he sent, of 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) was also published, this time across half a page, earning him 10 guineas.

Over the next 25 years, to 1977, his work was a staple of Punch, his cottonbud signature appearing on some 1,600 cartoons, including 60 covers. His engrossing passion for the countryside put him in a field of one. A 1953 drawing of a child on a pony stimulated many more letters than usual. It took a while for the penny to drop, but by 1957 he had produced Angels on Horseback, the first of a slew of "pony" books.

At the same time the encroachment of new estates around Codsall provoked a search for new pastures. He was able to give up teaching and live where he liked. After a three-year search across Britain for the ideal rural environment, he bought a plain-looking house in Braishfield, Hampshire, with two acres of orchards and pasture. He drew architectural embellishments on to a photograph of the house, then engaged workmen to build them. Suddenly fly-fishing on the nearby river Test became an obsession to compete with his love of drawing.

He was more than a cartoon conservationist. A conviction that anything visually beautiful was worth conserving for that reason alone led him into a difficult project to renovate two cottages on his property, on which the council had served demolition notices. He had to familiarise himself with the properties of flint walls and 18th-century roof tiles and teach himself dry-walling on the way. This was at a time when people thought nothing of tearing down old buildings.

He was three-quarters of the way through this when he impulsively bought a semi-derelict old water mill at Penruin in Cornwall, after seeing an advert in a newspaper. He was enticed by the river, the wild daffodils, circling buzzards, glow-worms among the wayside fuchsias and, most of all, the slightly menacing atmosphere of the granite mill itself. Part of why he loved it, he said, was because it was indifferent to him.

Far from exhausting his creative energy, the new property was a further source of artistic inspiration. He sold the mill before renovation work had been finished - mainly because of its remoteness from Hampshire - but a selection of the many drawings and watercolours he made of it appeared in a non-humorous book, A Millstone Round My Neck, in 1981.

This wasn't his first serious work. In 1978 his book A Plank Bridge By a Pool (1978) recorded 10 years in the life of a pond he had dug in the garden of another property he owned a couple of miles from Braishfield, which included part of the River Test. In it he notes with satisfaction that the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names reveals that Thelwall in Cheshire, where his family originated, meant "a pool by a plank bridge". His autobiography, Wrestling With a Pencil, was published in 1986.

Thelwell's sense of humour was always gentle, even when making a protest. A farm wife saying to her grandson, "Run along and help grandad freeze the chickens", is about as hard-line as he got, though in 1976 he sat up all one night to produce a poster for a successful campaign to stop a gravel company digging in the Test valley. The illustration, of a huge digger scooping up water meadows and deciduous trees, is so effective it has been used in environmental campaigns as far away as Brazil, despite its bosky Englishness.

Thelwell was prolific because he was enthusiastic. "There is nothing more enjoyable than painting for the sheer love of it," he said. He took on many commissions, including a set of postage stamps in the Seventies, illustrations for a series of James Herriot books, a Guinness calendar and a Christmas card for Royle Publications, which featured a child highwayman holding up Santa's sled, that was said to have reintroduced the figure of Father Christmas to the Christmas-card market after a gap of about 20 years.

He drew a series of stately-home cartoons for Tatler, which were collected in the 1982 book Some Damned Fool's Signed the Rubens Again. Always, whether sitting alone under an umbrella in the rain with his watercolours, or playing the fool for Punch, he was painting the portrait of England. Those who look to his cartoons for the joke alone are missing the big picture.

Martin Plimmer

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