Illustrator Norman Thelwell Celebrated in New Centenary Exhibition

Norman Thelwell/The National Trust

Penelope and Kipper get into another scrape

A major new display at The National Trust’s historic Mottisfont property in Hampshire focuses on the legacy of one of Britain's best-loved illustrators and cartoonists, Norman Thelwell.

More than 150 works including his trademark ponies and cartoons, plus beautiful watercolours of landmarks and landscapes around Hampshire where Thelwell (1923 – 2004) lived are featured in 100 Years of Norman Thelwell. Many items are from from a vast family archive and have never been exhibited before.

Illustrations from student days (including a self-portrait aged 10), sketchbooks, diaries and letters are displayed for the first time, alongside his paintbrushes, easel, and the desk at which he drew for many years. Also on show is a rare surviving Thelwell pony rocking horse.

Thelwell always travelled with a sketchbook, including when he was on active service during World War Two. Serving in the East Yorkshire Regiment of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in India he captured scenes of daily domestic life, on show in the exhibition. Thelwell also documented life in personal diaries he kept from teenage years onwards. Early entries reveal the anticipation of a local dance, and the boredom of waiting to be billeted during the war.

Thelwell had his first cartoon published by Punch magazine in 1952, beginning a relationship which lasted for 25 years and over 1,500 cartoons. While some of these were social satire inspired by country life, he is probably best known for illustrating the comedic antics of comic characters Penelope and her mischievous pony, Kipper, the stars of a cartoon strip in the Sunday Express newspaper from the 1960s onwards.

Alongside a number of pony cartoons on show at Mottisfont is the original preliminary pencil spread of ‘Thelwell pony’ sketches commissioned by Punch magazine, and which later inspired the Penelope and Kipper partnership. According to son David, this insight into a world where small girls battled with tubby, badly-behaved ponies came from watching similar, real-life scenes in the field near his house in Wolverhampton. A series of illustrated notebooks reveal the techniques Thelwell used to perfect a particular scene or character, with specific books dedicated to the drawing of hilarious pony and rider situations.

“My father lived to draw and paint,” said Norman Thelwell’s son, David Thelwell, “and when I was very young, about seven or eight, I would go into the studio to see what Dad was working on. I loved watching him create the small strip cartoon he did for the Eagle comic. It was fascinating to watch as a pencil drawing was inked and sometimes painted in. I thought it was a wonderful way to earn a living, but later on I realised how difficult it is to do that successfully.

“I love all of Dad’s illustrations and paintings but my favourites are the scenes full of kids messing about and getting up to mischief. I think they reflected his upbringing in Birkenhead when terraced houses that had no gardens meant children played on the streets, which felt safe then because there were hardly any cars.”

100 years of Norman Thelwell runs until May 7, 2023.