Norman Thelwell was born on 3 May 1923 in Tranmere, Birkenhead, Cheshire, the son of a machinist. He was educated at Rock Ferry High School, Birkenhead, and always carried a pencil and a sketchbook, recalling later that "it was simply natural for me": "No one ever mentioned art, and I didn't feel I had any particular ability." Thelwell sold his first drawings - of chickens - at the age of fifteen, and left school a year later to become a junior clerk in a Liverpool office.
Thelwell turned eighteen in 1941, and served in the East Yorkshire Regiment, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. While Art Editor of an army publication in New Delhi, he had his first cartoons published in London Opinion, and was soon making a small but regular freelance income. After demobilisation in 1946 Thelwell studied at Liverpool College of Art under H. P. Huggill and G. H. Wedgwood from 1947 to 1950. With another local art student, Frank Hampson, he became involved with The Anvil, the parish magazine run by the Reverend Marcus Morris which was the forerunner of The Eagle. In 1950 he began drawing his first comic strip - "Chicko" - for The Eagle.
From 1950 to 1957 Thelwell lectured on design and illustration at Wolverhampton College of Art. In 1950 he sold his first drawing to Punch, showing two horse riders surrounded by a troop of boy scouts, with the caption "I'm sorry I ever mentioned that he had a stone in his hoof..." From 1952 to 1977 Thelwell contributed more than 1,600 cartoons to the magazine, including sixty covers. He also worked as political cartoonist for the News Chronicle from 1956 until its closure in 1960 - a time he remembered with pride. He then worked for the Sunday Dispatch from 1960 to 1961, the Sunday Express from 1962 to 1971, and Tatler from 1971 to 1976.
Thelwell's freelance work included London Opinion, Lilliput, Daily Express, John Bull, Illustrated, Picture Post, Eagle, New Review, Farming Express, Farmer's Weekly, Countryman and Esquire. He also produced book jackets, worked for television, and drew for advertising - for clients including Guinness, W. H. Smith, and the GPO.
A fine draughtsman, Thelwell's style was realistic, with great attention paid to detail. He placed his cartoon figures in naturalistic settings, and was particularly well-known for his cartoons on fishing, sailing, motoring and English country life, especially those - from 1953 - featuring young girls and ponies. These were published in book form by Methuen, beginning with "Angels on Horseback" in 1957, although Thelwell claimed only to have ridden once in his life and to dislike horses - "great windy things that'll grab your coat off your back as soon as look at you".
Thelwell signed his cartoons 'thelwell', written with blob serifs in a wavy line, but his landscapes and other paintings carried the signature 'Norman Thelwell'. "I'm more interested in the social than the political side of life," Thelwell told an interviewer in 1965: "I have no axes to grind and no torches to bear. I just hope that my drawings provide reasonably pleasant entertainment."
In 1966 Thelwell was one of the founder members of the British Cartoonists' Association. In 1968 he and his family moved to a house and studio beside the river at Timsbury, Hampshire, where they remained for thirty-five years. The pace of his work increased after 1969, when Charles Shirley became sales manager of Methuen Children's Books, and set up Momentum Licensing to merchandise Thelwell's drawings. As Thelwell's son recalled, "he would spend a full working day in the studio and go back in the evenings if he was working on a book": "And there was also the merchandising to oversee."
As a break from work Thelwell set about landscaping the gardens, recalling later that "for many years I was very, very busy indeed and I could really have been a recluse, but having these projects got me outside and doing some physical work which I think was a good thing." Norman Thelwell died on 7 February 2004.
- The Times, 17 March 1989, "Obituary: Marcus Morris."
- Nicholas Roe "From My Window: Not a pony in sight", The Independent, 14 December 1991, p.49.
- The Independent, 9 August 1995, p.10, "Charles Shirley."
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.221-2.
- Peter Birkett "Where Thelwell gave delight to generations", Mail on Sunday, 15 June 2003, p.25.
- Daily Telegraph, 9 February 2004, p.21, "Obituary of Norman Thelwell - artist with no horse sense."
- Dennis Gifford "Obituaries: Norman Thelwell", The Guardian, 10 February 2004, p.25.
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