Ursula Moray Williams

Author of 'The Little Wooden Horse'

Tuesday 07 November 2006 01:00

Ursula Moray Williams, children's writer and illustrator: born Petersfield, Hampshire 19 April 1911; married 1935 Peter John (died 1974; four sons); died 17 October 2006.

The author and illustrator of over 70 books for children, Ursula Moray Williams brought style, pace and humour to her work, plus an occasional touch of melancholy more in the tradition of Hans Andersen. She was one of the few children's authors who defeated the national paper scarcity and continued to be published throughout the Second World War, and her books left an indelible mark on many young readers at the time and since.

Born in Petersfield, Ursula was one of identical twins to teacher parents, with her father responsible for tuition in Latin and Greek at the progressive boarding school Bedales. Her sister, who arrived 10 minutes earlier, later became a distinguished wood engraver and sculptor under the name Barbara Arnason. Brought up by governesses and soon becoming keen riders, by the age of nine both children had written and illustrated their own books for home consumption.

After spending time in France at a lycée when they were 16, they each enrolled at Winchester College of Art. But while Barbara flourished there, later going to the Royal College of Art, Ursula left after a year in order to write. With encouragement from her eminent publishing uncle Sir Stanley Unwin, her first book, Jean Pierre, came out when she was just 20, in 1931. Set in the Haute-Savoie region of France, which she had come to know so well, it describes the adventures of a small boy and his pet goat. Her next book had a distinctly home-grown flavour: For Brownies: stories and games for the pack and everybody else (1932) reflected the skills that had already led to Ursula's speedy elevation to Brown Owl for her own local group.

In 1935 she married Peter John, great-grandson of the poet Robert Southey. While pregnant with the first of her four sons, she wrote her most famous story, The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse (1938). This epic tale, divided into 19 short chapters, describes how the initially "gay fellow" of the title follows his own private Calvary after becoming separated from his beloved adopted Uncle Peder, the toymaker who brought him into life. Changing shape as often as Toad in The Wind in the Willows, the little horse, although pictured as rigid and trundling along on wooden wheels, is still capable of unscrewing his own head and kicking his legs into the air.

His astounding strength enables him to survive many a dangerous encounter, whether with jealous pit ponies, wicked farmers, out-of-control children or a fearsomely piratical sailor. Constantly giving way to tears, and frequently convinced of his imminent demise, the wooden horse finally makes his surreal way to a happy ending. The book's many fans include Nick Parks, creator of the cartoon pair Wallace and Gromit, who has described this story, which he read aged seven, as "so unputdownable".

Nineteen forty-two saw the arrival of Williams's other best-loved title, Gobbolino the Witch's Cat. Written in the tradition of the reversed viewpoint, where familiar literary stereotypes are turned on their heads, this tells the story of a black kitten born this time most unwillingly into a witch's household. Longing instead for an ordinary feline existence, Gobbolino, whose name is taken from the Italian word for little hunchback, sets out on his travels after discovering one morning that he has been abandoned by his evil family as a hopeless case.

Surviving an orphanage, hobgoblins, a malignant sea witch and a cat-hating mayoress, Gobbolino finally makes it to the obscurity he has always longed for. Saint-like in his patience before adversity, he is sometimes upstaged by his sly sister Sootica, still perfectly content to "ride a broomstick and turn mice into frogs and frogs into guinea pigs" all in the tradition of their sleekly dangerous mother Grimalkin. But Gobbolino's uncomplaining example proved very acceptable at a time for national stoicism all round, with his story remaining in print up to this day.

All this time Williams was also working as an illustrator, with her own The Good Little Christmas Tree (1943), a fine example of boldly coloured scissor cuts alternating with her more usual preference for pen-and-ink drawings. In The House of Happiness (1946), she further experimented with bright paper shapes. Around half of the books she wrote were illustrated by herself; at other times, as in Jockin the Jester (1951) she provided the text while her sister Barbara supplied the pictures.

Further books were illustrated by, among others, Edward Ardizzone, Faith Jaques and Shirley Hughes, whose pictures for The Toymaker's Daughter (1968) proved especially successful. This story about a doll who runs away from her evil toymaker in an attempt to become a real girl, marked a return to previous themes, with despair and fulfilment once again walking hand in hand until the arrival of a joyous resolution in the nick of time.

During the 1960s Williams moved from the more mannered literary style found in her earlier stories to a more demotic approach. Spid (1985) illustrated by David McKee, sees her in fine form in a story about a talking black spider who becomes best friends with the boy of an otherwise arachnophobic family. Also contributing stories to the television programme Jackanory, she produced The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse in 1984. Two years later came her lively Grandma and the Ghowlies (1986).

Involved with local life in the village of Beckford in Gloucestershire, where she had lived since 1945, she served as a magistrate on the Evesham bench for over 20 years, finally becoming chairman of its juvenile division. Ever hospitable to numerous children, family and otherwise, she continued to garden and give talks in schools whenever possible. She leaves behind a fine legacy of storytelling that manages to remain essentially moralistic but also fun at the same time.

Nicholas Tucker

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