Tony Hart: Inspirational artist and television presenter

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The Independent Online

Growing up with a pencil in his hand and drawing on the used envelopes saved by his mother, Tony Hart not only became a talented artist himself, but came to encourage other youngsters to develop their own artistic skills.

These would be displayed, most memorably, in "The Gallery" during his Vision On and Take Hart programmes, when pictures and paintings from viewers would be mounted on a wall, with the camera panning across it, accompanied by a jazz tune that was as soothing and hypnotic as the presenter's own voice. Up to 8,000 viewers' contributions were received every week.

Hart will be remembered by many for the cravat he wore on screen and his animated, Plasticine sidekick, Morph, who expressed himself with squeaks and whose artistic talents did not always meet those of his master, thus encouraging young viewers to enter their own efforts without feeling intimidated.

Hart was a genuine pioneer in television art, sometimes creating giant pictures, such as those drawn with white-lining machines on tarmac, sand drawings filmed from cliffs on the Isle of Wight and mile-wide creations rolled out across the hills of Devil's Dyke, Sussex, with roller towels.

Hart always insisted that his art should reach everyone – "accessible to all, rich or poor" – and his artistic skills extended to making use of household and garden items. All of this was planned in the studio he had built in the garden of his Surrey home.

"It took a lot of thought and inspiration to create the new ideas that I used in all those 16-part series in which I featured every year," said Hart. Not only did he have the inspiration and the talent, but Hart was also able to produce his television masterpieces at great speed, making him perfect for the medium.

Born in 1925, in Maidstone, Kent, where his father was a local government official who was also an amateur cartoonist, Hart was educated privately at All Saints Resident Choir School, Westminster, and Clayesmore School, near Blandford, in Dorset. After completing his education in 1944, Hart wanted to join the RAF during the Second World War as a rear-gunner, but had a slight defect in one eye, so was commissioned into the Indian Army's 1st Gurkha Rifles.

With low-ranking British officers being replaced by Indian officers after independence, Hart had to decide on a new career, so he trained as a graphic designer at Maidstone College of Art (1947-50). His first job was as a designer in the display studio at Peter Robinson, a store in London's West End.

Then, in 1952, he accompanied his drama student brother, Michael – who later became a television producer and director – to a party, where he met a producer of BBC children's programmes. Invited to an interview, Hart was asked to show his ability to draw quickly by doing an illustration of a fish blowing bubbles. When a secretary had difficulty finding a sheet of paper, Hart drew it on a BBC paper napkin, impressing the producer, who hired him as the resident artist on Saturday Special (1952-54). He took on the same role in a subsequent children's series, Playbox (1954-59), and worked as a graphic artist for the nightly news magazine Tonight, which began in 1957.

During the 1950s, Hart was also an artist for TV Comic, drawing the weekly adventures of Sooty, Runaway Band, Billy Bean and Packi. Back at the BBC, he designed the sailing-ship logo for Blue Peter and, unknown to many, was the unseen operator of the duck puppet Quackers in Time for Tich, Tich Puzzle and Tich and Quackers. This might have brought no immediate fame to him, but there were some compensations, such as the time Lulu appeared on the show and clasped Quackers to her bosom.

Then came Vision On (1964-77), in which Hart produced his artwork alongside the programme's presenter, Pat Keysell, who memorably told children every week: "I'm sorry we can't return any of your pictures, but we give a small prize for those that we show."

Hart and Keysell had both appeared in a previous show, For Deaf Children, but the new programme was designed for both hearing and non-hearing children, using little dialogue but communicating with quirky, sometimes surreal, animation, art and performance.

"In Vision On, we showed them many things, man-made and natural, and linked together some of their similarities and contrasts," explained Hart. "There was always something there to inspire. They used their eyes, and their imaginations did the rest."

Hart also drew the squiggly frog logo for the show, which made him a star in Britain and many other countries, including Canada and France. Some of those young viewers who sent in their work were to find success themselves as artists, and there were contributions from students and those starting out in the industry. Surreal short films were produced by David Sproxton, Peter Lord, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who all went on to help make the Wallace & Gromit films.

When Vision On was dropped, after 182 editions, Hart was given a new series, Take Hart (1977-84), of which he was the main presenter. "The Gallery" continued, but a major new element was Morph, the animated character created by Peter Lord and David Sproxton (a one-off, one-hour episode was subsequently screened in 1989). Morph was later given his own series, Morph TV with Tony Hart (1997), wherein the character and his friend Chas formed their own television station, and then The Amazing Adventures of Morph (1998), narrated by Hart, who himself continued entertaining children with his creative art – and theirs – in Hartbeat (1984-93) and Smart Hart (1999-2000).

Take Hart won a BAFTA Award for Best Children's Educational Programme in 1984 and Hart was honoured with the academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. His books included Fun with Drawing (1961), Fun with Historical Projects (1971), Fun with Art (1976), Make It with Hart (1979), Paint & Draw with Tony Hart (1984), Small Hands Big Ideas (1988) and Draw It Yourself (1989).

Two strokes cruelly robbed him of the use of his hands in recent times. "I could no longer draw or even write my name," he revealed last year. In 1953, Hart married Jean Skingle, who then worked as a programme secretary at the BBC. She died in 2003.

Anthony Hayward



Norman Antony Hart (Tony Hart), artist and television presenter: born Maidstone, Kent 15 October 1925; married 1953 Jean Skingle (died 2003; one daughter); died Guildford 18 January 2009.

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