ILLUSTRATION FEATURE How an Illustration Became a School

Illustrators can be honoured in many ways, but Julia Woolf has what must surely be a unique tribute to her work  a school building inspired by one of her illustrations! Interview by John Shelley.

So what happened when you discovered your image inspired the design of a school building?

A few years ago I got an email from the headmistress of a primary school in SE London – Ivydale Primary School in Nunhead – saying that they were having a new building and it was based on one of my illustrations. When I was first contacted by the headmistress Helen Ingham, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I wrote a polite email back but sort of forgot about it, as you probably know, as an illustrator you get contacted a lot about all sorts of stuff, and very few of those things ever materialise. So I just didn’t hang too much on it.

At first I thought it was a bit odd, but every now and again I would get an update from the headmistress. They were quite sporadic, so I would often forget about it.

But as time went on, of course, I became a lot more curious about the whole thing, but I still wasn’t sure which illustration she was talking about. It took quite some time for her to confirm which it was, as her reply to emails would take months. Teachers are very busy.

How did the designers come across your work?

I think Shoko Kijima at Hawkins Brown had come across my illustration on Google, so it’s really all down to the architect, who chose my illustration to inspire her building. I’m not sure what she exactly put in the search though.

Then, at the beginning of last year, I got another email asking me if I would come and officially open the school. I still wasn’t sure which illustration it was based on. But after a few emails, I found out it was an illustration I had done while on the MA in Cambridge.

Fox in the Forest, by Julia, the image that inspired a building

What prompted them to use your image for their building?

I’m not entirely sure. I think she wanted an image that evoked nature. Especially trees. The school is very close to Nunhead Cemetery which, in places, is an inner city forest. I was amazed when I realised how close it was to the school. One of the teachers told me that they have to make sure the children don’t leave food in the playground after lunchtime, as a lot of foxes that live in the cemetery come into the playground looking for food. My illustration is titled Fox in the Forest.

How much were you consulted during the construction/design process?

I wasn’t consulted at all. I would just get an email update from the headmistress. I didn’t hear from Shoko until about a month before the official opening last May.

Then, just before I was going to Bologna last year, I got a call from the architect, who told me that the building was up for a RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) award. We had a long chat on the phone, and she had also been invited to attend the opening of the school.

So about this time last year, I went up to the school to do a series of workshops and open the school. I had also, beforehand, sent prints of the illustration to the headmistress and the architect.

Harriet Harman, as the local MP, was also there for the opening. What was so brilliant was that as myself and my husband walked up to the building I said, ‘Wow, my colours’. It was a really fantastic day.

With project architect Shoko Kijima

Cllr Vicki Mills, Harriet Harman MP, Cllr Renata Hamvas, Shoko Kijima (architect), Julia Woolf (author/illustrator). (photo courtesy of Southwark News)

I wrote to Martin Salisbury (former head of the Anglia Ruskin Illustration MA course) and told him about the whole thing, and sent some photos. He asked if it was OK to share this with the university. Of course I agreed. And it was through this I was nominated and awarded an Alumni Award last November for ‘Contribution to Culture’ and I was also Alumni of the Month earlier this year.

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Congratulations to Julia! Read more about the construction of the school and the inspiration behind the design project on the Hawkins Brown website.

There's a report of the launch event in the press here, and on the Anglia Ruskin site here.

* header photo courtesy Hawkins Brown


Julia Woolf is an animator and picture book author/illustrator, her portfolio site is In 2014 she was an SCBWI Featured Illustrator.

John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Word & Pictures. He's twice been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, first in 2018, and again in 2019.

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