Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory: Widening international understanding of the potential for authorial practice in illustration and picture-book making

Prof Martin Salisbury

Children’s book illustration is becoming an increasingly acknowledged area of the creative arts. It is also important financially, to the publishing and bookselling industries, and culturally – reflecting as it does a diverse range of heritages and influences.

It is an area that has been historically under-researched. The focus has tended to be on children’s literature studies and education, which primarily examine a finished outcome rather than its creation. Prof Salisbury has highlighted the importance of the creative process, and the research that underpins it.

Martin Salisbury

Prof Martin Salisbury

Martin Salisbury is an illustrator, author, and Professor of Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. He established the world's first Masters degree in children's book illustration in 2001.

Find out more about Prof Martin Salisbury Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Prof Salisbury’s research, closely linked to his creative practice, has had a distinct and material impact on the children’s publishing industry, the teaching of illustration in higher education, public awareness of the subject, and the careers of author-illustrators.

His particular interest in the art of illustration for children led him to design the world’s first Masters degree in the subject in 2001, which attracts a diverse community of students from around the world.

As a researcher, Prof Salisbury’s is interested in the practical and conceptual aspects of the rapidly evolving, highly sophisticated field of authorial picture-book making. This is a term chosen deliberately to avoid separation between traditional notions of ‘authorship’ and ‘illustration’ as discrete activities.

In 2004, he was commissioned to write Illustrating Children’s Books for Quarto. This became a best-seller and has formed a backdrop to his later research and teaching.

The research that underpinned Illustrating Children’s Books, and all of Prof Salisbury’s titles, examines relationships between commercial, commissioned illustration and the possibilities for personal expression within such perceived ‘constraints’. He explores the evolution of the art of illustration, its historical background, changing role, relationship to broader art and design movements and its rapidly changing form and status today.

Traditionally regarded as one of the ‘minor’ arts, illustration has been defined in terms of its role as subordinate to the written word. But Prof Salisbury argues that the so-called ‘commercial artist’ is now filling a vacuum in figurative, pictorial, narrative art, led by a new generation of picture-book makers and ‘visual thinkers’.

The work of this new generation, which increasingly deals with important contemporary issues such as migration, gender identity, environment and populist politics, is deconstructed and examined in the context of the structural challenges of visual pace, rhythm and cadence. Prof Salisbury also explores the emerging phenomenon of ‘studio publishers’, small, independent, children’s picture-book publishers evolving from graphic arts studios that champion the physical experience of the book.

Prof Salisbury’s close involvement with the design and physicality of books is a key aspect of the research process. He brings his own practical experience of design and illustration to bear on the selection and art direction of cutting-edge, international illustrators to create an appropriate physical reflection of the book’s content.

Prof Salisbury’s methodology is crucial to the insights gained through his research. There is a continuous, interconnected loop between his creative practice (‘knowing through making’), teaching, and writing, each feeding into and informing one another, building up and disseminating an understanding of the practice of illustration. It is supported by close collaboration and interviews with contemporary practitioners and publishers around the world.

Four books written by Martin Salisbury

Summary of the impact

  • Prof Salisbury’s books have become standard texts for illustration courses around the world
  • Many graduates of ARU's MA Children's Book Illustration work as published author-illustrators
  • Through industry and media work, Prof Salisbury has helped to raise the profile children's book illustration
  • Books by Prof Salisbury and Children's Book Illustration graduates have made a significant contribution to the publishing and bookselling sectors


Prof Salisbury’s books have become standard texts for illustration courses around the world, with 52 colleges and universities listing Children’s Picturebooks as recommended reading.

Since Prof Salisbury designed and launched the first MA course in children’s book illustration at ARU, four UK universities have followed.

A number of Prof Salisbury's PhD graduates combine their work as illustrators with academic posts – bringing their research into aspects of children’s book illustration to another generation.

One graduate, now a lecturer at National Autonomous University of Mexico commented: ‘In his books, Professor Salisbury condenses and structures the creative process in a way that allows for the necessary freedom and creativity, but also sets specific steps to ensure the result of that process is a well thought-out and thoroughly researched product… I have been able to use the knowledge obtained from Professor Salisbury’s research in my own projects, and I have conveyed that knowledge to my own students’.

Read more about more about inspiring illustrators.

Over the last ten years, the UK’s main industry awards for illustration have been dominated by students and graduates of our MA Children's Book illustration course, designed and taught by Prof Salisbury and based on his research.

A high proportion of graduates now work as published author-illustrators, with others teaching, or working in publishing and other areas of the creative arts. In a recent graduate survey, 93% of 186 respondents to agreed that the MA was life-changing or highly influential in their career.

One author, a winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal 2018, commented that ‘Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling has been a source of clarity and insight’, while the Publishing Director of one publishing house observed that through the MA Children’s Book Illustration degree, a significant and lasting contribution had been made to the children’s book industry.

Prof Salisbury is a high-profile advocate of the art of children’s book illustration.

He takes part in literary festivals, TV and radio programmes, and has served as jury member and chair of judges for international illustration and publishing awards – including those at the Bologna and Frankfurt book fairs.

Further impact is achieved through advisory roles. These have included the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic; supporting the UK Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child on curating a 2019 exhibition; being a member of the panel selecting the Irish Children’s Laureate in 2015; and appearing in and helping with research for Mark Gatiss on the BBC4 documentary John Minton: The Lost Man of British Art.

Prof Salisbury also contributes regular illustrator obituaries to the Guardian and an occasional column on illustration for the Literary Review.

Taken together, these activities help to raise public understanding and appreciation of the work of the illustrator.  

Read more about more about increased awareness of illustration.

Prof Salisbury’s research has had a significant impact on today’s publishing industry.

There has been direct financial impact through sales of his published books since 2004. These exceeded 111,000 by September 2020, not including Korean and Chinese editions.

Books illustrated and/or authored by graduates of ARU’s MA Children’s Book Illustration course, where Prof Salisbury’s research influences and shapes his teaching, have also made a significant contribution to the publishing and bookselling sectors. Since 2014, at least 140 graduates have had one book published, with many publishing multiple titles and being translated into several languages. Their overall output is around 450 published books. This figure does not include those graduates who have published in their own countries.

Some of our successful graduates include Harriet Muncaster, whose Isadora Moon series is available in 29 countries and has exceeded 1,500,000 sales; and Steve Antony, whose Mr Panda series has sold more than 1,000,000 copies.

There is also the wider impact on the visual culture of picture books. For example, Marta Altés’s Little Monkey (2016) has been translated into seven languages and had 700,000 copies distributed to UK schools by BookTrust. She and other non-British artists have brought different visual heritages and influences into the English language market.

The impact of Prof Salisbury’s research on these successes is clear. Eva Eland’s When Sadness Comes to Call (2019) won the 2020 Klaus Flugge Prize and has been translated into 20 languages. Eland confirmed that Salisbury’s advice was ‘pivotal in my understanding of how best to approach the subject and make the final artwork’.

Publishers have echoed this sentiment, with the Editorial Director at Thames & Hudson noting: ‘Martin’s prescient recognition of the best illustration from around the world has encouraged a wider recognition within the book trade of the value of this broader outlook. As a result, the material that is now being published in the UK offers a much more diverse range of approaches to illustration than was ever the case previously’.

Read more about more about impact on publishing industry.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 32: Widening international understanding of the potential for authorial practice in illustration and picture-book making

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