Adventures with new illustrators: this year's Sebastian Walker Award

Preparing for a Degree Show is always challenging. For students graduating from Cambridge School of Art’s MA in Children’s Book Illustration, there’s the added pressure of knowing that publishers and agents will be browsing their London-based exhibition and leaving messages for a lucky few in the notebooks placed invitingly beneath the work. 

Despite this, the private view at Candid Arts in Islington feels remarkably relaxed. The door is open, the airy white space is hung with enticing artwork and recent graduate Ellan Rankin is waiting at a welcome table neatly stacked with printed cards. The work she's exhibiting personally includes two dummy picturebooks together with large-scale prints and cut-outs, her sketchbooks, a stack of exhibition postcards and a customised notebook. It's fresh, appealing and looks seriously professional, so I ask her about getting so much ready in such a short space of time. 

Ellan Rankin's work on display at the CSA MA Show 2020

“Well, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” she laughs. We joke about bad rehearsals and good performances and I ask Ellan what drew her to the themes she's chosen to exhibit. She admits to loving animals and the “silly news stories” that circulate about them. “Both my books are based on news reports or true stories I’ve heard at home in Belfast,” she says. “I like stretching the truth slightly, or being inspired by real life.” 

So what brought Ellan to Cambridge, and what has she gained by taking this course?

“I studied Illustration for my degree at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee, and my tutors recommended me to do the MA in Cambridge. It’s been very intense, but I learned a lot within a short space of time. Going into it, I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t! I’ve learned what makes a picturebook work, and why and how. And that’s been really helpful in creating them.”

I ask whether she has advice for prospective students, or others who’d like to develop their illustration skills. “I wish I’d done more life drawing before I came on the course,” she says, “because of how important it is. And try to learn what you like and what you don’t like, too, even though you will experiment!” 

Later this evening, Walker Books will be presenting the prestigious Sebastian Walker Award to the graduate they consider to be most promising. Since its inauguration in 2011, eleven winners have worked with Walker to create “fresh, new picturebooks” that have sold in fourteen countries worldwide, so it’s particularly exciting to be selected. When I ask Ellan about it, she’s quick to tell me about the excellent work being done by other graduates, including Sonia Albert who created the arresting images of child plus shadow on the exhibition poster and catalogue, and Arthur Vergani, who took second place in the Macmillan Illustration Award last year.

But what are Ellan’s hopes for this evening on her own behalf?   

“I’d like to mingle and meet some people and maybe just get my foot in the door a little bit. We’ll see if that happens…”

Maybe a publisher will take a liking to one of her books? “Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it!” she laughs.

The exhibition is getting busier, so I wish Ellan the best of luck and head off into the crowd. The artwork is intoxicatingly accomplished, intriguing and diverse. I feel like a child in a very noisy sweetshop and rush round madly, trying to look at everything all at once. Common sense sets in and I calm down. There is work here by sixty-three graduates, and I want to do it justice. I browse more slowly, taking in the huge variety of subjects and visual languages on display, and chat to some of the students as I go. They come from all over the world to study in Cambridge. I speak to illustrators originally from Hong Kong, Kuwait, The Netherlands, Israel and South Africa, as well as many from the UK, and they are full of new ideas and hope and energy. 

Before the rush: browsing the CSA Children's Book Illustration MA Show at the Candid Arts Trust, Islington

I’ve been visiting this exhibition on and off for several years, and it’s always exciting. Two years ago I was here to choose an illustrator for Cast of Thousands and discovered Rosie Faragher - her characters now dance across the pages of this website, and her first picturebook Astrid and the Sky Calf was published by Child’s Play last year. 

This year, I’m struck by how much I want to commission everyone. Perhaps I should start publishing children’s books myself, I wonder, casting surreptitious glances at the other guests. Many of them are in the business, after all, and might be persuaded to give me some advice. Before I get carried away, though, it’s time to discover who has won this year’s prize. We gather round Shelley Jackson, Course Leader, as she introduces Ben Norland, Creative Director at Walker Books.

Award speeches can be dull, but this one isn’t. When Ben talks about the “high production values, innovative design, amazing typography and true proper critical appreciation for the work that illustrators and writers do,” you could hear a pin drop, and not just because we want to know who’s won. The “deep love and respect for the craft and the emotional power of the picturebook” that was so important to Sebastian Walker forty years ago is just as important to those assembled here tonight. We can see its impact all around us, both in the exceptional quality of the work displayed, and in the attitudes of those creating and attending to it. 

Before we have time to get too emotional, Martin Salisbury steps forward, big red envelope in hand. He’s Professor of Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University, where Cambridge School of Art is based. Back in 2001, Martin designed the MA in Children’s Book Illustration, which now has more than 150 students a year from nearly 30 countries, and he still teaches on the course. More importantly, he’s about to announce the shortlist. 

Professor Martin Salisbury announcing the shortlist

Looking a little overwhelmed, five students step forward to huge applause. They include Sonia Albert, Vyara Boyadjieva, Wen Qi and Sally Dunne. But the recipient of this year’s Sebastian Walker Award? 

It’s Ellan Rankin, who nearly disappears beneath a big bunch of flowers and her own enormous smile. According to the judges, Ellan “builds real, engaging worlds and shows a great sense of picturebook layout, pacing and storytelling” and her “bright and entertaining images are filled with texture, detail, humour and characterization” - accolades which signify more than just a foot in the door. 

Ellan Rankin with Audrey Keri-Nagy and Ben Norland from Walker Books

I couldn’t be happier for Ellan and am charmed to find the evening coming full circle. Dreams do come true, and it’s great to share the magic.

Meet some of the other students exhibiting at this year’s MA Show in the second part of this blog - coming soon!

To find out more....

The MA Children’s Book Illustration exhibition is at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge from 19th– 28thFebruary 2020. To download the exhibition catalogue or find out more, visit

To find out about the Cambridge School of Art MA in Children’s Books Illustration click here

To read more about the Sebastian Walker Award for new illustration, click here

To see Ellan Rankin’s work, go to

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Thu 04 Mar 2021



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