Sunday 18 April 2010

School Fees, Swoppets and Knights in Shining Armour!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, by the time that illustrator Patrick Nicolle commenced work on "A Book Of Armour", he had pursued a long and successful career supplying editor Leonard Matthews with superlative artwork on a variety of largely historical themes. In fact it was Nicholle's attention to detail and knowledge of armour that had first brought him to the attention of Matthews. Matthews who was a habitual browser of bookshops had encountered (in Woolworth's) a book of Robin Hood illustrated by an artist who he had been entirely unaware of. He was immediately impressed with the quality of the work therein and seeing that the work was credited to Patrick Nicolle he set about contacting the artist via a call to the publisher concerned.

The work that Nicolle supplied to Matthews such as his illustrations for Look and Learn, was (as was standard practice) on a work for hire basis, he was supplying work and consigning copyright and reproduction rights to the publisher concerned, in this case Amalgamated Press (later Fleetway). He was well rewarded for his labours but mindful of the need to free himself from the eternal treadmill of having to constantly seek work to maintain his standard of living he set about producing a book of his own.

His passion for armour was such that he was a founder member of The Arms and Armour Society, it was a constant source of fascination for him and the idea that he came up with was breathtakingly simple; it was to produce a thirty two page book on the subject and the publisher with the format best suited to make Nicolle's idea work was Penguin whose lie of Puffin Picture Books were already an established success.

Nicolle's book was a true labour of love and the royalties that he received from the book (as owner of the copyright) enabled him to cheerfully proclaim that he'd been able to put both his sons through independent schools and was still providing revenue for the Nicolle household long after a lot of other titles in the Puffin Picture Book range had fallen out of print.

In fact the book had such a high profile that it was used as a source of reference by the model makers (rumoured to be Charles Stadden) at Britains/ Herald when in the summer of 1961 as Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" was dominating the charts, they launched their range of Swoppet Knights.

 Swoppets which had first appeared in 1958 when a range of Cowboys soon to be followed by Indians; were exquisitely sculpted figures with interchangeable heads and torsos and accessories such as tiny pistols and knives that were removable from the miniature holsters and scabbards that held them. By the time the knights appeared some three years later a lot of the minor imperfections of the earlier models had been ironed out and the knights series is widely regarded as the best of them all. You can see Nicholle's influence particularly on the archer and also the knight with the halberd. There is more of this truly amazing  story to be uncovered over at the fascinating website; "Britain's Swoppet Knights History".

But the influences of Nicholle's book stretched across to the U.S.A. as well when model maker Aurora again used some of Nicolle's drawings as a guide to their "Knights in Shining Armour Series. Again if you check out these excellent sites you'll learn more.

More of Nicolle's work along with other Look and Learn artists can be found here:


  1. Wow! - I've often heard about Pat Nicolle's 'A Book of Armour' but never actually seen it: thanks so much for posting those pages Peter. By contrast I must have spent hours on end drooling over the 'Swoppets' section of the Britain's catalogue, and eventually managed to collect every one of the 'Knights' figures - including the ones on horseback (though sadly I never could afford the siege engines!). I must admit that this is the first I've heard of their connection to Pat however.

    Given his special affinity for the history of arms and armour Nicolle's most memorable comic strips made full use of this expertise. Certainly the two full-colour adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels 'Sir Nigel' and 'The White Company' which appeared in Look & Learn during the 1960s must count as some of his finest ever work - but for me his greatest comic strip appeared in no less than three different incarnations: this was the epic story of the Norman Conquest that was originally published as 'Under the Golden Dragon' in Comet during 1954, subsequently reformatted for a single issue of the Thriller Comics Library (no.132), and then dramatically redrawn in full-colour as 'The Last of the Saxon Kings' which took pride of place in the centre pages of Eagle in 1961.

    It's a shame one can't show pages from this last strip on the internet as it features some astonishing panoramic battle scenes that run right across the two pages in very long panels that Nicolle described as 'Cinemascope style'. Although Eagle had already been around for a full decade by this point, as far as I'm aware 'Saxon Kings' is the first time the centre pages were used to their full potential on a single strip, thereby setting the standard for a run of centrespread classics such as Frank Bellamy's 'Heros the Spartan' and Ron Embleton's 'Wrath of the Gods' (though it could be argued that Ron himself first set the ball rolling with his unique Christmas 1959 episode of Wulf the Briton).

  2. Yes I've got to admit Phil that I really enjoyed "Under The Golden Dragon" although the only incarnation I've seen is the Thriller Comics Library printing, but I would love to see the Eagle version which I know Pat Nicholle really enjoyed coloring.

    Really great that I've posted something you haven't come across before.
    Something of a first I suspect!

  3. Another forgotten element of my childhood falls back into place! I had some of those knights, and also a bunch of Greek warriors in similar poses, though those didn't have the detachable bits.

  4. The Greeks were really lovely Dave, if you check out some of the links from "The Britain's Swoppet Knights History" site you'll soon come across some pictures of the Greeks.

  5. Apart from that, Patrick Nicolle also penciled some of the best Robin Hood Comic, in Denmark issued under the "Helte Serien" brand.