Richard Sheaf checks out the latest exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in London, which has just opened, celebrating the centenary of the birth of cartoonist Norman Thelwell…
Norman Thelwell Saves The Planet celebrates the centenary of Thelwell’s birth today, 3rd May 1923, and the recent re-publication of his premier collection of environmental cartoons, The Effluent Society, by Quiller Publishing Ltd., originally published in 1971.
As a fan of the original Eagle comic, I’ve been a fan of Thelwell’s work for a very long time, but I missed was what probably “peak Thelwell” in the 1960s to the 1980s, when he was drawing for Punch, Sunday newspapers and, seemingly, producing a book of cartoons every year. And that’s before we even start to consider the volume of Thelwell merchandise that was produced at this time – those ponies were just everywhere!
Born in 1923, Thelwell’s early cartooning featured in Eagle with the three panel gag strip, “Chicko”, which ran for years and, to my mind his best work, on the endpapers for Eagle annuals, where dozens of small children were running amok causing chaos a lá the “Casey Court” work that appeared in Chips from the early 20th century for 50 years. Great stuff!
Since his death in 2004, it’s perhaps inevitable that a man, who could easily be described as one of the most popular cartoonists to have worked in Britain since World War Two, has faded from view somewhat. This exhibition gives a great opportunity to help remind people not just of the quality of his work, but the pioneering environmental message he espoused.
First up, the work. For those who just love Thelwell for his small, plump girls on small, plump ponies this exhibition is maybe not quite for you – it does feature some pony art, but not much. Instead, the focus is on a recent re-issue of his thirteenth book, The Effluent Society which collected cartoons published previously in Punch magazine on the theme of “waste and ecology”.
The natural world was a key part of Thelwell’s life and is reflected in his life in Timsbury, where he lived, restoring a farmhouse and landscaping the grounds with three lakes which he dug; and the property he bought in Cornwall, Addicroft Mill, near Liskeard. Both these projects gave rise to factual books – A Plank Bridge by a Pool and A Millstone round my Neck respectively – rather than cartoon collections.
While the original edition of The Effluent Society, published in 1971, was no Silent Spring, the influential (and controversial) work of Rachel Carson first published in 1962, it tapped into a well of conservative (and probably Conservative) feeling that not only was change bad but that change to the countryside was even worse.
The cartoons themselves though are not laced with any overt political messages, instead simply highlighting the problems that change has brought with it.
Having been around the exhibition, I can tell you that I read all the cartoons and I laughed at all the cartoons. They certainly haven’t dated – this, perhaps, because the subject matter, while topical, was not political and wasn’t aimed at particular groups in society who we might have laughed at then but, rightly, wouldn’t laugh at now.
The exhibition also features a useful timeline of Thelwell’s life, his drawing desk, reference material, diaries, from early on in his life and much later in life, plus a work calendar showing just how many cartoons he was responsible for producing in a given month.
The Museum are also embracing the challenge of environmentalism and re-cycling some material from previous exhibitions, calculating the carbon footprint of staging the exhibition and generally trying to live the values that Thelwell espouses – good for them for doing so.
Thelwell fans will also be delighted to hear that the shop is stuffed full of merchandise to buy!
• Norman Thelwell Saves The Planet runs until Monday 4th September 2023, The Cartoon Museum, 63 Wells St England, W1A 3AE | Web: cartoonmuseum.org
• Here’s an album of all Richard’s photos from the opening night
• 100 years of Norman Thelwell
Runs until 7th May 2023 at Mottisfont House near Romsey, Hampshire, SO51 0LP
This major new exhibition features over 150 works, from Thelwell’s trademark ponies and other cartoons to glorious watercolours of local landscapes.
• Norman Thelwell – Official Site
Thelwell is regarded as the unofficial artist of the British countryside and is possibly the most popular cartoonist in Britain, since the Second World War. He commented on many aspects of human behaviour, but he is perhaps most synonymous with little girls and their little fat ponies. They have helped to ensure his continuing popularity and his immortality.
• The Effluent Society by Norman Thelwell
• Buy it from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
Artist Norman Thelwell is best known for his cartoons depicting plump, petulant ponies and their young riders, but The Effluent Society shows another aspect of his work and character.
Thelwell was passionate about the countryside and nature. During his life he became increasingly concerned about the impact of development, pollution and society’s treatment of the environment.
When The Effluent Society was first published in 1971, his concerns were way ahead of their time. Today, environmental and conservation issues are in the mainstream and have become a global priority.
Although the cartoons focus on a serious topic, there is no mistaking Thelwell’s inimitable style. He used his talent and humour to convey a powerful message: the need to protect the environment. He also takes a wry look at modern life and so-called progress. Thelwell admitted that out of all his books, The Effluent Society was the one that gave him the greatest “personal satisfaction” and, as such, the re-issue of this title is a fitting tribute to the artist.
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