Obituary: Tony Hart

Television presenter who showed countless children that making art could be fun

Tony Hart, who has died aged 83, made a substantial and original contribution to art education in Britain by entertaining children at such a breathtaking pace on television that they overlooked the fact that they were being educated at all. He improvised with objects such as egg whisks, drew 150-foot images on deserted airfields and devised the intriguing Morph, an animated plasticine inhabitant of his wooden pencil box who could disappear through table-tops.

Impish-faced and with a soothing voice, Hart thought fun was a vital part of children's education, but that schools were teaching art as if it were a dull form of folkcraft. Determined to shake up the subject, he gained huge audiences and many awards, including the Bafta Special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

Though he insisted that soldiers as well as aesthetes were often artists, and his own local government officer father was an amateur cartoonist, the career of Norman Antony Hart (the Tony was thought better for TV) could have gone in quite another direction. He was born in Maidstone, and attended the choir school at All Saints, Margaret Street, in central London, and Clayesmore school, Dorset. There his best subject was art, and he was a member of the cadet force. At 17, he went to India to train for a commission in the 1st Gurkha Rifles, in which he served from 1943 to 1947. He thought wars, however undesirable, were sometimes unavoidable.

The independence of India put paid to military ambitions, and he returned to Britain. Indian art, in particular its vivid colourings, had greatly impressed him, and he did not suffer from the cautiousness about creating effects characteristic of the "serious" arts of the time. Hart trained at Maidstone Art College and graduated in 1950. He then took a job as window designer with an Oxford Street department store, for which he created a belfry with black bats fashioned from brassieres twirling around it.

After meeting a BBC producer at a party, he was invited for an interview, where he impressed by drawing a fish on the paper napkin that came with his coffee. On television from 1952, it was his hand rather than his face that was first seen, as it drew illustrations in crayon for the young viewers of Saturday Special. Then he did the graphics for the daily magazine programme Tonight.

In 1963, he designed the original Blue Peter badge, and the following year he became fully visible on Vision On, which started off as a programme for deaf children but then broadened its appeal, gaining awards from the International Children's TV Festival (1972) and the Society for Film and TV Arts (1974). One of his exploits was to create an 80-foot picture of a tractor on a Sussex hill, for which he used 144 roller towels. Ingenious animation techniques made the tractor appear to be moving.

Soon the producers realised that Hart was refreshingly different, and successive programmes usually featured not only himself, but his name in the title: Take Hart, Hartbeat, Morph TV With Tony Hart and Smart Hart. For Video Arts, he made films aimed at adults with such titles as How to Lie With Statistics and It's All Right, It's Only A Customer.

But it was his creations for children that were really longlasting. Morph, with his bulbous nose and stocky indestructibility, still appeals to children on video: the simplicity and charm make it a favourite of parents too. Morph was sometimes supposed to copy Hart's own artistic work, but not perfectly. In this way nervous children were reassured that even their endearing hero Morph could get it wrong, which made them determined to pick up their pens and pencils and other objects and do better.

When Take Hart was being broadcast on Tuesday afternoons in 1978, children would rush home from school to see it. It was estimated that no less than half those in Britain aged between five and 14 were glued to the TV set. They sent in up to 8,000 items each week, often displaying originality and humour, as with gold-painted macaroni. By 1979, Take Hart was being screened every morning.

At this time, Hart worked in a large shed in his Surrey garden, thinking up ideas for how mundane objects such as nuts and bolts, kitchen utensils and things in the garden could be turned into interesting art objects. Often, too, he worked directly with children, as when in 1979 he joined 40 authors and illustrators at a London "Book Bang", where he helped schoochildren aged from nine to 13 to produce arresting designs.

His books included The Art Factory (1980), Paint And Draw and Art And Craft (both 1984), Lettercraft (1986), Small Hands Big Ideas (1988), Draw It Yourself (1989), and The Tale of Billy Bouncer (1990). But it was television, from which health problems compelled him to retire in 2001, that enabled him to make his greatest quirky attack against conventional art education. He believed that most of the things he did could be done only in that medium: "I hope that by example, and by humour, children will start to make pictures for themselves. Show them, don't tell them!"

In 1953 he married Jean Skingle; she died in 2003, and he is survived by their daughter Carolyn.

• Tony (Norman Antony) Hart, television presenter and artist, born 15 October 1925; died 18 January 2009

Contributor

Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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