V&A Illustration Awards: In conversation with Harry Woodgate (Student Shortlist 2019)

National Art Library
August 12, 2019

This year’s student judges were bowled-over by Harry Woodgate’s re-imagining of the fictional city of Perinthia from Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. The shortlisted series of illustrations show a bustling carnival populated by individuals Calvino deemed to be outcasts. Drawing parallels with the real life experience of marginalised groups, Harry’s illustrations explore queer identity, morality and individuality. 

Harry combined the rich textures of mixed media with the vivid colours and precision of digital imagery to create these dynamic and captivating illustrations. A recent graduate of the University of Hertfordshire, Harry has since received recognition from  various awards and competitions. Alongside being shortlisted for the V&A Illustration Awards, their talent has also been recognised by the Penguin Design Awards and the Folio Society Book Illustration competition.

Harry has also received commissions from a number of clients since graduating and the Illustration Awards Team couldn’t be happier! Each year, the Awards recognise the remarkable work of illustrators with the aim of supporting new talent and the creative industry. I caught up with Harry to find out more about their shortlisted work and current projects.


Invisible Cities delighted this year’s V&A Illustration Awards 2019 judges Cat O’Neil and Suzanne Dean, many congratulations on being shortlisted! Your illustrations are based on Italo Calvino’s book of the same title, can you tell us more about the project?

Thank you! Yes, they are. The book is comprised of a set of prose poems which describe different fictional cities, most of which are allegories for philosophical themes – death, prejudice, the nature of reality, so on. In my second year of university we were given a brief to select one and produce a series of illustrations based on it, culminating in a group exhibition at the university gallery.

The city I chose, Perinthia, was supposedly built upon a map of the constellations, and the text explores this conflict between the idea of ‘heaven’ and objective reality – a city inhabited by ‘cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men and bearded women.’ In the end, the architects of the city must either ‘admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.’

was really interested by this idea – not just of who might be allowed into a heavenly afterlife, but of who is considered worthy of respect and compassion within our own society. We’re in a world where LGBT hate crimes are rising; we have white supremacists ‘leading’ countries; anti-immigrant sentiment is being peddled by the public and politicians alike; and our state still stigmatises and refuses to protect those with mental and physical disabilities.

It felt empowering to imagine this fictional metropolis in which people have reclaimed their identities from those who oppressed them; where queerness, diversity and disability can be celebrated, and where the language of hate has been replaced by one of love.

It has the joy of details and characters of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but an exuberant palette that demands your attention. Each time you go back to look at the piece, you notice new details, so the piece keeps surprising you!

Cat O’Neil, Judge of V&A Illustration Awards 2019 category

The vibrant colours and free-form complexity are refreshing and original.

Suzanne Dean, Judge of V&A Illustration Awards 2019 category


The judges described your work as “frenetic psychedelic joy… refreshing and original“. How do you create your illustrations? Do you use both traditional and digital techniques?

This piece in particular was made using acrylic markers, pencils, paint, coffee… anything I could get my hands on really! The original illustration is about a metre wide, which is huge considering I’m used to illustrating mostly for magazines and children’s books. It allowed me to add a lot of intricate detail and hidden symbolism, which is something I’ve always been drawn to anyway, but it’s reaaaally exaggerated here.

Since graduating I feel like my visual language has evolved in a way I’m quite happy with. I have two key ‘styles’, for lack of a better word, which I feel are quite well suited to the kinds of projects I’m interested in taking on. Most of the time I work purely digitally for commercial illustration work, and then use a mix of hand-painted and digital techniques for children’s books.

What or who inspired you to become an illustrator?

As a kid I was always an avid reader, and I remember being 3 or 4, still in nursery school, and I think I just decided there and then – that when I grew up, I wanted to be an author and illustrator. It’s the one thing I always come back to, the one thing I never get tired of, so it was always going to happen at one point or another, haha.

Nowadays especially with Twitter and Instagram, there’s such a huge community of illustrators and designers and poets and film directors and choreographers and activists that it’s just impossible to pinpoint exactly what inspires me. It’s just a huge big melting pot of creative brilliance (amongst all the horrible political bile) and I love it.

Within the illustration world, I get daily inspiration from my friends and peers, including (but not limited to, obviously…) Sancia Rose, Lydia Hill, Holly St Clair, Jem Venn, Michael Driver, Tahagsa Bertram, Ben the Illustrator, Bea Hatcher, Sharm Murugiah, Sophie Burrows who won this year’s V&A award!… just a ton of great people. So I absolutely recommend looking at all their amazing work and hiring them to create lovely things.


What have you been working on since graduating?

Two (maybe three?) children’s books which will be coming out over this next year, a lot of editorial illustration work for various magazines and newspapers, a novel, a few other illustration projects I’m not allowed to say anything about yet, a lot of emails to prospective clients (please hire me), a better sleep/work schedule, a good exercise routine, and a bathroom refit.


Above: A selection of illustrations from Harry’s portfolio, view more at www.harrywoodgate.com

See Invisible Cities at the V&A Illustration Awards 2019 display, on until Sunday 25 August 2019 in Gallery 88a. 

The V&A Illustration Awards is the UK’s most prestigious annual illustration competition. Free to enter, the 2020 awards will open on Monday 21 October 2019. 


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