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As an exhibition of his work lands in London’s Cartoon Museum, Karen Addison of Karen Addison Associates discusses opportunities around the Norman Thelwell brand.
Karen, thanks for making time. Firstly, I understand that 2023 marks the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Norman Thelwell. He has been referred to as the ‘unofficial artist of the British countryside’. Can you tell us about Norman’s career and how he rose to fame?
His career started as a professional artist during World War I. He was posted to India and had three cartoons published in the services magazine Victory, which led him to becoming art editor for a magazine for Indian electrical engineers.
Returning home, his love was landscape painting. It was hard to make a living from that so he transferred his skills to drawing cartoons – always perceptive and witty whatever the subject matter. His first commissions were for Punch, drawing over 1,500 cartoons for them providing sharp and witty commentary on the obscurities of British life. He covered everything from country pursuits to farming, politics to gardening, family life and stately homes.
How would you describe Norman Thelwell’s illustration style?
His best-known work was the hilarious vignettes, in colour and black and white, of recalcitrant ponies and the battle of wills between them and their stubborn little riders – where the pony invariable always wins!
It’s the accuracy of his observations that make his work lastingly funny, despite the years since Penelope and Kipper came into our lives and stole the public’s hearts with their joyous innocent antics.
To mark the 100th Anniversary, there’s an exhibition taking place at London’s Cartoon Museum. I understand this focuses on Thelwell’s book, The Effluent Society. What can you tell us about this?
The Effluent Society, published in 1971, was in fact his favourite book. Living in the beautiful Hampshire countryside on the River Test, he became increasingly concerned about the impact of development, pollution and society’s treatment of the environment. His concerns were way ahead of his time.
The exhibition of this work conveys this message perfectly, with the book being republished to celebrate his birthday. It’s doing a great job at introducing new fans to his work.
I know there was also an exhibition at Mottisfont Abbey earlier this year. How important are exhibitions to the Thelwell brand and how do you see this side of the licensing business developing?
Mottisfont Abbey is a National Trust property very close to where Thelwell lived and worked. As such, they have adopted him as their local hero. We have been lucky enough to have had three exhibitions there over the years, but this year has been the best by far with over with over 80,000 visitors viewing 160 works, including Norman Thelwell’s desk and personal possessions.
There are other exhibitions in the pipeline, with one in Amsterdam and it’s hoped that we may find a Liverpool venue too as that’s where he grew up. There is nothing like getting up close to this wonderful work to appreciate the details; it’s magical. I always get very excited when I see a “Thelwell” original.
You have built up a strong licensing programme for Thelwell, spanning greeting cards, publishing and equestrian products. Can you outline some of the licensing highlights?
We are slightly under the radar as a far as the rest if the licensing industry is concerned as the main emphasis of the licensing programme focuses on equestrian products and, as such, reaches different equine outlets.
One collection that took six years to get to market is the range of pony beauty products from NAF Equestrian, including shampoo, detangling conditioner, hoof shine and the essential citronella spray – not forgetting the must have ‘Muck off’ product that’s tough on grass and stable stains!
Hy Equestrian have produced over 40 products and changed the look for their Thelwell turnout rugs and fly veils each season. Back in the day, my fat little pony Snowy had none of these lovely cool products… How deprived he was!
To celebrate the anniversary, we have also been lucky enough to work with Anthem Publishing on a colouring book. Their distribution goes very much beyond the equestrian world and takes us into the centre of grocers and WH Smiths, so we’re hoping to attract a wider consumer base, introducing new fans to this fabulous brand.
Countryside Greetings have done a brilliant job with a range of giftware items and have been working with us since 2015. We tend to keep our licensees, which is great as you build up a really collaborative relationship with them.
Is it easy balancing Thelwell’s heritage with contemporary licensing requirements?
The main challenge is recognition of his work. If people know Thelwell’s work, their eyes light up and you can see the passion. If not, it’s hard work as his work might be perceived as dated and not relevant. I think we are gradually changing that perception now, but we haven’t yet cracked mainstream distribution channels.
Thelwell has a unique look and style. What design challenges have you faced translating his art into licensing?
Somehow there is always a design to suit every occasion and hopefully now we might be able to work with some of the Effluent Society images on alternative products that strike a chord having seen the exhibition. We are easy and flexible licensors when it comes to the design process.
I know you have licensed products in markets like the United States, Australia and Germany. How international is Thelwell? And how do you ensure the brand works well internationally?
Back in the day, all of the 34 books were published in languages as diverse as Finnish to Japanese, and particularly in Scandinavian and German speaking countries where there was a huge love for his work – and where we have a couple of licensees.
The Australians love Thelwell and we are following up various opportunities there. We have a Chaff bag in South Australia and stickers in Melbourne, with a growing collection of pony apparel in the US. Lots to build on – but hopefully, if the film comes to life, that will solve that problem. We’re aiming high!
If you had a magic wand that you could wave, what licensing ‘gaps’ would you like to fill?
I think there is a huge opportunity to work in a promotional way with Equestrian insurance companies. There are so many relevant cartoons for that sector, but haven’t cracked that yet. Also high on the list at the moment are embroidery kits, jigsaws and games.
If Thelwell was alive today, what subjects do you think would inspire him?
He would be more vociferous on the subject of climate and why we have failed to follow up on his wise observations of the Effluent Society. He wouldn’t be too impressed by our reliance on phones, but would no doubt have something to say on the subject via a witty cartoon or two!
Finally, before we let you go, do you have a particular favourite Thelwell cartoon?
Yes, Consolation Prize. Thelwell was ahead of his time there again in the sense that the child is clearly distraught and the best way to shut them up is to give them a prize. Everyone gets rewarded with a consolation prize!
It just appealed to my sense of humour – anything for a quiet life… Again, the detail that Thelwell puts into his pictures and the look on the pony’s face – priceless!
Great pick. Thanks again Karen.
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