Harry Horse

Writer and illustrator of quirky, deeply affecting children's books
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The Independent Online

Richard Horne (Harry Horse), writer, illustrator and cartoonist: born Coventry 9 May 1960; married 1990 Mandy Williamson (died 2007); died Papil, Shetland c10 January 2007.

Harry Horse was a genius with words and pictures. As a children's writer and illustrator, he won awards for many of his books, including The Last Polar Bears (1993) and Little Rabbit Lost (2002). He also worked as a political cartoonist, his work appearing in The Guardian, The Independent, The New Yorker and the Glasgow Sunday Herald, among other publications.

His first children's book was Opopogo, or, My Journey with the Loch Ness Monster, published in 1983, which won the Scottish Arts Council's Writer of the Year Award. At this time Horse, based in Edinburgh, founded two bands (he played the banjo) - Swamptrash and Hexology - and it was while the foot-stomping, bluegrass-playing Swamptrash were doing a gig on Shetland that he met the enduring love of his life, Mandy Williamson.

Soon after their wedding in 1990, an event happened that was to be a turning point in Horse's creative life. Harry and Mandy found a small brown mongrel dog, which they named Roo, at the Portobello Cat and Dog Rescue Home in Edinburgh. Roo was to become central to their lives and was the heroine of the bestselling series of novels that began with The Last Polar Bears.

The manuscript of The Last Polar Bears arrived at Puffin Books in a beautifully manufactured parchment parcel knotted with string and covered in hand-drawn postage stamps. It looked as if it had indeed come from the North Pole, where the book is set. Most unsolicited manuscripts arrive unheralded but within moments all the senior Puffin editors were huddled round to examine this exotic package. No time was wasted in signing it up.

The writing in these loved novels is quirky, quixotic and deeply affecting. When Roo was interviewed, she said, "Writing is quite easy - I don't know what all the fuss is about", but one knew that Horse laboured over every word. The illustrations have that rare combination of perfect draughtsmanship and the capacity to tear at the heartstrings of the reader. The Last Polar Bears was made into a Christmas special for television in 2000. Nigel Hawthorne played Grandfather; Roo was herself. A later title, The Last Gold Diggers (1998), won the Smarties Gold Award, while The Last Castaways (2003) won the Smarties Silver Award. In 2006, Roo died in Horse's arms on her favourite beach in the Shetlands, with her family around her and listening to her favourite music.

Horse also wrote and illustrated full-colour picture books for younger children. His latest titles were about Little Rabbit, an enchanting character living with his large family and with illustrations reminiscent of Ernest Shepard. Little Rabbit faces the fears and struggles of a child growing up, in stories told with delightful humour. Little Rabbit Lost (2002) won the Scottish Arts Council's Children's Book of the Year Award.

Horse's work was translated into 12 languages and was particularly admired in America. He thought every book should be a work of art and every book he produced was just that. Among notable illustration commissions he took on were the illustrations for Fup (2002) by Jim Dodge, Chewing the Cud (2001), Dick King-Smith's autobiography, and The Great Rock Discography (1994) by Martin Strong.

Harry Horse was born Richard Horne in Coventry in 1960. His parents separated when he was young and he went to boarding school at an early age, finishing his education at Wrekin College. His precocity showed when he managed to telephone Bob Dylan from school and spoke to the great man, who made Richard promise he would never ring the number again nor give it to anyone else. He didn't break his promise.

The stories of how his name changed to Harry Horse are legion: he claimed that it arose out of his sloppy writing at prep school. But in later life he usually wrote in sepia ink on art paper in a beautiful cursive script.

After leaving school, he was initially articled to a firm of solicitors and one cannot imagine a career less suited to the mercurial, instinctive Horse. In 1978 he went to Edinburgh where he used to haunt the College of Art, sneaking into life-drawing classes. This was the extent of his formal artistic training.

Horse was also one of the outstanding political cartoonists of his generation. The great 18th-century cartoonist Gilray was his hero. From 1987 to 1992 he was political cartoonist for Scotland on Sunday, and at the time of his death was producing a weekly cartoon for the Sunday Herald. Much of his cartooning was driven by his anger at the horrors and injustices of the world but he was also capable of delicate, soft pieces of great beauty.

In recent years he wrote and directed computer games, and was the co-creator of the bestselling fantasy game Drowned God, launched in 1996.

Harry's wife Mandy was his most solid support for years and when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he cared for her with love, tenderness and practicality. They were both found dead on Wednesday morning at their home on the Shetland island of Burra.

Harry Horse was in many ways a man from another age, whose nature and sensibility were alien to the demands and vagaries of modern commercial life.

Caroline Sheldon

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