In the year of the centenary of Norman Thelwell’s birth, the Cartoon Museum presents a new exhibition featuring an extensive collection of Thelwell’s original cartoons. The exhibition centres around Thelwell’s 1971 publication The Effluent Society, featuring for a first-time display, the original drawings from this cartoon collection. These are presented wall to wall throughout the exhibition space. Thelwell is a devotee of a prolific life-long practice to document with deep revelling satire and humour the world and how we choose to live in it.
This exhibition is sectioned to follow the themes that underpin Thelwell’s work, from chapters of his book The Effluent Society. We are walked through the trials and shifting forecasts surrounding the environmental, and societal changes of the 1940s through to the 80s and its growing exploitative production and over-consumption. This had that point in time reached such an expeditated rate it had never been experienced before. Thelwell’s commentary mainly focused on environment-spurning, his drawings focussed on the people’s desire to smoke poison pollution, the overpopulation of the UK as people spill from the land and are surrendered to the sea. The tactless take on animal welfare, the feverish pace of urbanisation, and its endeavoured making of progress.
The viewer is introduced to the biography of Thelwell himself and original drawings from his sketchbooks which he carried with him through childhood. Moving to and digging lakes in the suburban village of Codswall, Thelwell’s environmental consciousness was ignited, and the addition to his distinct and most famously known pony motif grows into more commentary-based comic strips. The choice of the exhibition to not draw centrally from Thelwell’s most notable motif, the pony is an interesting direction taken and instead seeks contemporary relevance within our fast-accelerating environmental crisis. Thelwell is shown as incredibly pervasive and ahead of his time with his work, satire, and political cartoons.
This environmental consciousness, faithful to Thelwell’s own values, is also made visible and lends itself to the physical design and build of the exhibition itself. Particularly with the reuse of materials from previous installs and exhibitions to help make up the infrastructure, recycled materials for the prompts and stools, as well as collaborating with sustainable suppliers.
Interactive prompts and materials are laid out for the viewer throughout the exhibition encouraging you to draw along and stop and answer questions with Norman Thelwell. Information is signposted alongside, to contextualise the cartoons to the contemporary moment. For example, an interactive map created by Climate Central demonstrates the land that will be below flood level in the years 2030-2150. The exhibition, and to say the wider museum encourages you to ask questions, with the balance-play between words and images and the story-telling carrying a kind of agency. A potency with the world and its surrealisms and insincerities of our contemporary being.
A favourite aspect of being able to access the original cartoons comes from the pencil markings – the instructions for the position, funny liners for the titling, dates, measurement, pages no. and so forth, all feed the production and the finalisation of the drawings. We get a sneak peek at the process of the artist.
Thelwell’s love for drawing and depicting animals made his environmental awareness obvious. Whether willing or not, this became a version of a kind of protest – a quiet protest. The animals are not shown as living with the same consequence as the human characters, as secondary things instead. The pollution in the air by the burning of fossil fuels is seemingly inconsequential in the eyes of the characters portrayed, the effects of flooding drilled as a market opportunity. The characters are left simply a little mystified but not truly off-put by it all – truly tying it to contemporary times.
Another theme that Thelwell delves into slightly is the human condition, on a social commentary between human relationships with each other. The human desire to reduce that condition to protocols, technologies, and services – ‘I’m sorry mate! I don’t know the antidote.’ reads the caption of one cartoon. Sometimes humans can be very inhuman.
The closer to the exhibition is a mini dive into contemporary artists in collaboration with their chosen environmental activist ‘Ten years to save the planet? But how many fiscal years’ – reads very emphatically as the caption of Matilda BergstrÖm’s cartoon. Alongside Rudy Loewe’s cartoon response, extracts from Walter Rodney’s film What They Don’t Want You to Know, are gifted to the listener and put in the conversation. This voicing the charge for activism regarding climate colonialism and that an explicit change in our world is a returned connection to our land and the prospected potential of a single individual’s impact in that.
For more information and tickets visit Normal Thelwell Saves the Planet — The Cartoon Museum
Review by Devika Pararasasinghe
Devika lives and works in London, by trade an artist and snake oil salesperson. Devika graduated, last September with a research MFA at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.
Read Devika’s latest review here Review: Civilization-The way we live now- Saatchi Gallery, until 17 Sept – Abundant Art