Ponies, ponies, ponies



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 Independent, described 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 1953-1971, 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 Panorama) and 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.

Finding the books: the Riding Frieze is scarce and expensive (as Horse Sense it’s less pricey, though still not cheap). How To Draw Ponies (also published as Ponies) is mid priced; Sporting Prints is the most expensive title at the time of checking (July 2010). Other titles as very good firsts with dustjackets not eye wateringly expensive. The paperback editions are easy to find and very cheap.

Links and sources

Thelwell - official website

Obituary: Daily Telegraph, 9 Feb, 2004

Obituary, The Independent, 10 February, 2004 (Martin Plimmer)

The Definitive Thelwell (Chris Beetles Gallery, 13 May - 13 June 2009)

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.

Thelwell’s Horse Box

Methuen printing

Thelwell’s Horse Box

Mandarin printing

A Leg at Each Corner
(Thelwell’s Complete Guide to Equitation)

Methuen, London, 1962, 128 pp

Reprinted Mandarin 1991, 128 pp


London, Studio Vista, 1966, pb

Also published as: How to Draw Ponies:  All the Secrets Revealed

Methuen, London, 1982, 56 pp

Thelwell Goes West

Eyre Methuen, 1975, 112 pp
Magnum Books, pb, 1979

Methuen, 1985

Mandarin, 1993

Thelwell’s Riding Frieze

Methuen’s Children’s Books, 1977

Republished in book form as

Thelwell’s Horse Sense

Methuen, London, 1980, 32 pp

Many thanks to Stephen for the photographs.  He sells his books on behalf of

Guide Dogs.

Thelwell’s Gymkhana

Eyre Methuen, London, 1979, 96 pp (left)

Paperback: Magnum, 1981 (centre)

Methuen London Ltd, 1985, 1986, 1987 (right)

Mandarin, 1991, pb

Methuen, 2005, hb, 96 pp

Thelwell’s Sporting Prints

Methuen, London, 1984, 62 pp

Methuen, 1989

Thelwell’s Pony  Panorama

Contains: Thewell Goes West, Penelope, Thelwell’s Gymkhana

Methuen, London, 1988, 304 pp

Mandarin, 1989, pb

Methuen, 1992 & 1999, pb, 302 pp (right)


Methuen, London, 1972, 96 pp

Magnet, 1979, pb

Mandarin, 1989, pb

Penelope Rides Again

Methuen, London, 1989, 112 pp

Mandarin, 1991, pb


Thelwell’s Pony  Cavalcade

Methuen, 1986 pb

Mandarin, 1992, pb

Boxed Sets

Annuals and others

Thelwell Annual 1980

World International Publishing Ltd, 1979

Thelwell Annual 1981

World International Publishing Ltd, 1980

Bibliography - horse and pony books only

Other equine works illustrated by Thelwell

R S Summerhays: The Delinquent Equine

Moss Bros, 1960

Margaret Baker: Away Went Galloper
Methuen, 1962

Jennifer & Dorian Williams: Illustrated Teach Yourself Show Pony
(Cartoon by Thelwell)

Brockhampton Press, 1968

Elwyn Hartley Edwards: Owning a Pony

(Foreword by Thelwell)
Pelham, 1977

Dorian Williams: Pony to Jump

Brockhampton Press, 1963

Caroline Ramsden: Racing Without Tears

J A Allen, 1964

The Pony Club Book no 10

Naldrett, Press Ltd, 1959, Ed Alan Delgado (Cover)

The Pony Club Annual/Book nos 6-14

Illustrations for Captain Hall series, Major C Davenport:

Angels on Horseback - and Elsewhere

Methuen, London, 1957

Methuen, London, 1963

Mandarin, pb, 1991, 96 pp

Thelwell Country

Methuen, 1959, London, 96 pp

Methuen, pb

Mandarin, 1993, pb, 96 pp

Thelwell’s Riding Academy

Methuen, London, 1965, hb, 128 pp

Eyre Methuen, London, 1981, hb

Methuen, 1986

Mandarin, 1992, pb, 128 pp

Methuen, 2005

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