Norman Thelwell has died at the age of 80, more than 50 years after he produced the first of his famous pony cartoons.
Born in 1923 in Birkenhead, Merseyside, his earliest surviving picture is a self-portrait, aged 10, but Thelwell is most famous for his images of short-legged pig-tailed girls bouncing off equally short-legged, fat, hairy ponies.
He drew at every opportunity, using a wide array of subjects which showed his fascination with animals and the countryside, and above all, what he termed “the enduring lunacy of human nature”.
The only time he ever rode was while serving in India during the Second World War. The first horse he was on reached over a precipice to grab a mouthful of dried grass, and the next horse he got on bolted down a mountainside with Thelwell clinging to his neck.
When Thelwell returned to Britain, he spent three years at Liverpool College of Art, and in 1950, he began teaching design and illustration at Wolverhampton College. It was here, apparently, that the true influence for his comic pony sketches was born.
He was by then married to Rhona Ladbury, also a painter, and their house overlooked a field where there were two fat hairy ponies.
“They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves. They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs and velvet safety helmets”, he remembered.
As the ponies were led meekly away, Thelwell noticed “they were planning vengeance – you could tell by their eyes”.
In his autobiography, Wrestling with a Pencil, (Methuen 1986), the cartoonist explained what attracted him to horses.
“My liking for horses sprang from the fact that they are beautiful to draw – like ships and trees. They are nervous, unpredictable creatures, likely to take off at the drop of a riding hat and they symbolise for me the nervous insecurity of almost all living creatures including humans.”
In 1956, Thelwell left Wolverhampton College to take up illustration full-time. He became a cartoonist for the News Chronicle in 1956, moving to the Sunday Dispatch in 1960, and on to the Sunday Express, where he remained, in 1962. He published his first collection of cartoons, Angels on Horseback, in 1957.
He occasionally turned his paintbrush to more serious issues such as factory farming and pollution, and he was a competent landscape artist as well as producing fine pen-and-ink drawings of his fellow soldiers while he was in the East Yorkshire Regiment.
Thelwell produced 32 books, including Thelwell Country (1959), A Leg at Each Corner (1962), and Thelwell’s Riding Academy (1965). Among his other work was the Penelope and Kipper series which appeared in the Sunday Express, postage stamps on a racing theme and drawings for James Herriott books.
Thelwell is survived by his wife and their son and daughter, who are also artists.