A new exhibition celebrating the work of Norman Thelwell will feature more than 150 works, including his trademark pony illustrations.

The National Trust’s Mottisfont in Hampshire will be hosting the exhibition in Thelwell’s centenary year. 100 Years of Norman Thelwell opens tomorrow (21 January) and will be on show until 7 May.

Illustrations from his student days, sketchbooks, diaries and letters are displayed, alongside Thelwell’s paintbrushes, easel, and the desk he drew at for many years. A rare surviving Thelwell pony rocking horse is one of several items of merchandise on show.

Drawing on Thelwell’s autobiography, Wrestling with a Pencil, the exhibition explores his artistic life. Early drawings including a self-portrait aged ten and a pencil sketch of a much-loved family cat reveal his young talent, and a fondness for animals that continued in his work throughout the decades.

A remarkable life

From early adulthood Thelwell travelled with a sketchbook, even when on active service during World War Two. Serving in the East Yorkshire Regiment of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers whilst 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.

After the war, followed by several years of studying then teaching art, Thelwell had his first cartoon published by Punch in 1952, leading to a relationship which lasted for 25 years and over 1,500 cartoons. He is probably best known for illustrating the antics of characters Penelope and her mischievous pony, Kipper – stars of a cartoon strip in the Sunday Express from the 1960s.

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 badly-behaved ponies came about from watching real-life scenes acted out in the field that lay beyond his house in Wolverhampton.

“My father lived to draw and paint, and when I was very young, about seven or eight, I would go into the studio to see what Dad was working on,” said David. “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, what 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.”

Helen Potts, Visitor Experience Manager at Mottisfont said the gallery was “really excited” to be be given the opportunity to share Thelwell’s work.

“It’s been a great privilege to work closely with the family; discovering many illustrations and sketches from a vast family archive that have never been exhibited before,” she said. “Norman Thelwell was no stranger to Mottisfont; several of his images on show capture bygone village life here as well as the mansion itself. The exhibition covers his life work, and we hope many people will have the opportunity to enjoy it.”

100 years of Norman Thelwell runs from 21 January – 7 May, 2023. The gallery opens 11am-4pm (closing at 4.30pm from 11 February) daily. Normal property admission price applies (free for National Trust and Art Fund members). Families visiting at half-term can enjoy a Thelwell-themed ‘Giddy Gallops’ activity trail (11 to 19 February, trail £2).  For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/hampshire/mottisfont 

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