Commemorating Kenney

Photograph by Andrew Carpenter
Photograph by Andrew Carpenter

On Thursday 13 June 2019, the artist John Theodore Kenney was honoured by Leicestershire County Council and the people of Kibworth.

A green plaque commemorative plaque was installed at the Hunny Hive nursery in Smeeton Road, close to where John Kenney and his wife lived.

John Kenney, who lived in Kibworth for many years, created the illustrations for six Thomas the Tank Engine books as well as 31 Ladybird titles for Loughborough-based publisher Ladybird Books, the majority of them focusing on important historical figures.  


He was born in 1911 in the Belgrave area of Leicester and trained at the Leicester College of Art.   After his graduation, Kenney joined J.E.Slater, the Kibworth-based firm of commercial artists for whom he worked for over forty years. It was at Slaters that he met his future wife, Peggy. 


The Second World War disrupted Kenney's work, and he was called up. He served with the 44th Searchlight Regiment and the 121st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. He landed in Normandy on D-Day and, although he was not an official war artist, he recorded the scenes that he witnessed in a series of impromptu black and white drawings. As his regiment moved across Europe with the Allied Forces, he continued to create a visual record of the events as he saw them.


Returning to Kibworth, he resumed his work with his former employer, but after less than five years, working as a commercial artist, he resigned (in 1972 due to ill-health) to concentrate on his painting, particularly of sporting scenes.  His declining health was probably another factor in his decision to work for himself. 


His first freelance projects included the illustrations for two books which he penned himself, The Grey Pony in 1954 and The Shetland Pony' in 1955.

It was as a sporting artist that Kenney principally made a living and gained his reputation in the post-war years. The hunting landscape of south Leicestershire was an inspiration for his vivid and energetic scenes. As a mature artist, he preferred to sketch directly whilst out in the countryside and then transpose those sketches to oils on canvas. His preferred canvas size was two feet by three feet, but he was also able to adapt with ease to the small scale and constraints of book illustration demanded by Ladybird Books and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Kenney's animal studies led him to assume the role of mentor to the equestrian artist Neil Cawthorne. Cawthorne was born in Leicestershire in 1936, and began painting seriously in the late 1950s.  Kenney provided guidance to Cawthorne during the first four years of his artistic career.


John was the third Thomas illustrator from Leicestershire.  Kenney's freelance status came to the attention of the Revd W. Awdry, author of Thomas the Tank Engine, who was seeking a replacement for Clarence Dalby, another graduate of the Leicester College of Art.  Although Dalby's pictures were bold, lively and colourful, Awdry had become increasingly concerned by the problems caused by his lack of attention to detail.

`We got on splendidly. 'John Kenney was as different from Dalby as chalk from cheese. He was interested in the work and used to go down to his station [in Kibworth] and draw railway engines from life.'  


The steam engines which Kenney painted were longer, larger and less like the 'toy trains' of Dalby's pictures. His human characters became real people: pushing barrows, leaning on shovels, running along station platforms; even smoking and the scenery recalled the airy, relaxed country scenes that featured frequently on 1950s railway posters.

Kenney brought a much-needed lightness of touch and a naturalism.  In the first book, he illustrated, The Eight Famous Engines, which was the twelfth in the Thomas series, Kenney's acclaimed draftsmanship and his attention to detail are already obvious.

He also introduced new characters including Donald and Douglas (the Scottish Twins), Daisy, Diesel and Duncan. Kenney's last illustrations in the Railway Series were for the 1962 publication of Gallant Old Engine, but by that time his eyesight was failing and he was unable to handle the fine details required.

Edmund Ward, Awdry's Leicester-based publisher, also commissioned him to illustrate a series called Hunter Hawk, and Skyway Detective.


Kenney illustrated 31 books for Ladybird Books of Loughborough at the commencement of what is now regarded as that publisher's 'Golden Age'.  These included a series on important British historical figures including Charles Dickens, Admiral Nelson, Captain Scott, Oliver Cromwell, Florence Nightingale and Queen Elizabeth I.

He also illustrated one of the best-loved fiction books, Tootles the Taxi and the early Robin Hood series, The Ambush and The Silver Arrow, and provided the artwork for a 1956 book of motor vehicle characters which had a strong artistic and thematic affinity with the Awdry books.


Sadly, ill-health was a constant limiting factor in Kenney's artistic career. It was his health that forced him to stand down as Awdry's key artist. His eye sight began to fail and in 1968 he lost the sight in one eye.  He died in December 1972 at the age of 61. 

"Generations of children grew up with the Thomas the Tank Engine and Ladybird books and their beautiful illustrations are instantly recognised around the world.   John Kenney was an extremely popular choice among the people of Leicestershire to receive a green plaque and I am delighted to be involved in its unveiling."

John and his wife, Peggy, lived in Kibworth Beauchamp between 1949 and 1958. He died at Smeeton Westerby in 1972 at the age of 61.

The plaque was unveiled at the former old Kibworth Medical Centre, now the Honey Hive day nursery, in Smeeton Road.  The building is close to the site of Kenney's former home, Victoria House, which was demolished when Smeeton Road was straightened in the 1960s.

Victoria House on corner of Smeeton Road
Victoria House on corner of Smeeton Road