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 ponymad 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.
I've written more about Thelwell here: many thanks to Momentum Licensing for giving me permission to use Thelwell's images.