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Professor John Norris Wood (1930–2015)

John Norris Wood was a distinguished natural history illustrator, whose work combined artistic skill and scientific knowledge, and an inspiring and dedicated teacher who founded the Natural History Illustration and Ecological Studies course at the Royal College of Art.

Norris Wood's lifelong association with the College began in 1946, at the age of 16, when he was introduced to Edward Bawden: 'Edward phoned me up saying his wife Charlotte Bawden had been to see some pictures I’d been exhibiting in Braintree and that he would like me to come and visit him if I would care to. So I did, and it was all very amazing. There were so many things in his house designed by him, from fabrics to furniture to masses of pictures, of course, and I was enchanted. So I first came to know about the College when I was far, far too young to go there [through] Edward saying he taught at the Royal College and telling me about it.' 

Bawden was impressed by John's proficiency as a draughtsman, gave him some lessons, and allowed him to use his studio whenever he wanted – the anecdote goes – as long as he didn’t speak. John went on to study at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art, and then at the Royal College of Art, where his teachers included Edward Ardizzone, John Minton, Abram Games and – again – Edward Bawden, who had a profound influence on his developing practice. He graduated in 1955 with an ARCA Diploma in Graphic Design, having been awarded a silver medal for zoological drawing.

John taught at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art, Cambridge School of Art and Hornsey College of Art, where he founded the Scientific, Technical and Medical Illustration course. In 1971, he returned to the Royal College of Art (as Rector Robin Darwin's last formal appointment before his retirement), to found a course on Natural History Illustration and Ecological Studies, later collaborating with Professor Christopher Cornford in the General Studies department on a Conservation Study course. He was made a Fellow of the RCA in 1980, and was a Visiting Professor in the Drawing Studio from 1997. The John Norris Wood Natural Forms Drawing Competition was awarded annually in his honour, supported by Cyndy and Joshua Silver.

Sir Christopher Frayling, former Rector of the Royal College of Art said, 'John Norris Wood was a living link between the rise of Illustration at the College in the 1950s, in the Robin Darwin era, and the modern digital world of publishing. He ran the Natural History Illustration unit for many years, championed the College aviary at the top of the Darwin Building, and was a firm believer in the importance of drawing as a core discipline in art schools. He reckoned, rightly, that illustrations can often contain much more important visual information than photographs.' 

Norris Wood’s work as an artist and illustrator was extensive, and his drawings are recognised around the world. He wrote and co-illustrated the Nature Hide and Seek series for children with Kevin Dean, worked with Maxwell Knight on multiple books about reptiles and amphibians, and co-illustrated John H Barrett and Sir Charles Maurice Yonge's Collins Pocket Guide to the Seashore, which is still considered a standard reference. He also worked extensively for London Zoo and the Natural History Museum, providing illustrations to explain animals’ behaviour, anatomy and appearance, and designed stamps for the British Postal Service.

Norris Wood is remembered fondly, as an inspired maverick who was often single-mindedly at odds with the College and its administration, while being determinedly humane, wickedly humorous and deeply serious about drawing and the environment. This reminiscence from his time as a student is characteristic: 'I thought [Robin Darwin] was rather fierce and disagreeable, and I remember I was setting up a little exhibition in the V&A with other students and he was coming to check it out because the Queen Mother was coming the next day. And we made a very clever plan to ram him in the bum with a ladder. We did it and he shouted at us, "You stupid clumsy idiots!" But we’d timed it perfectly, it was absolutely brilliant. But later on, Dick Guyatt took one of my drawings of an iguana to Darwin who... sent me a very nice message back and became rather friendly. I came to like him a lot. And I found out that underneath the gruff, dictatorial manner, there was actually a very nice man.' 

John became increasingly eccentric in his later years, while maintaining a passion for drawing and ecology that was infectious and influential. Sir Christopher remembers, 'John was a gentle man – in every sense – who did not like the cut and thrust of academic politics. He was deeply loyal to the RCA, an institution he loved. And he was passionate about animals and birds. He once introduced me to a salamander with an infected foot – and that doesn't happen every day... In many ways, John was the last of a breed. I didn't agree with him about his taste for Bing Crosby records, but you can't agree about everything. There's now a John Norris Wood-sized hole in the history of the College – and it's a big one. His death is very sad news indeed.'

Rebecca Jewell, who completed her PhD in Natural History Illustration in 2004, describes John's unique and inspiring approach to teaching: 'John believed strongly in the importance of observational drawing, and he was adamant that every art student should be offered drawing classes, and that nature could inspire every artist, designer and illustrator. He believed that to be an abstract or non-figurative artist, you had to master the technique of good drawing first. I had the privilege to be taught by John for six years while doing my PhD in the Natural History Illustration department of the RCA. But he continued to teach and inspire me throughout my developing career as an artist after I left the College, and most of all he became a great friend.'

A passionate lover of animals, he opened his home to them (literally: he converted a bedroom to 'jungle' conditions, to support tree frogs and snakes, and housed something approaching a private zoo in his extended garden) and maintained an unexpected aviary on the the top floor of the 1960s Brutalist Royal College of Art building. He also undertook natural history expeditions around the world. Writing and broadcasting for television on a number of natural history subjects, he acted as a consultant to the iconic 1979 BBC television series presented by David Attenborough, Life on Earth. Also a committed conservationist, he supported environmental campaigners including Friends of the Earth, the World Land Trust, Fauna and Flora International, the Programme for Belize, the Egyptian Tortoise Appeal and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Rebecca Jewell adds, 'John was passionate about nature and wildlife. And he carried this passion through to his everyday living: his own home housed a menagerie of reptiles and amphibians – and he especially loved his tortoises, of which he had over 50 when I first met him. His garden was a wildlife sanctuary to songbirds, butterflies, moths and bees. John believed that the best way to draw was from life. He  encouraged his students to always work in the field where possible, and to try never to draw from photos. He made most of his beautiful watercolours and etchings by drawing directly from his own plants and animals which he bred and nurtured.' 

Xavier Pick, who succeeded John in Natural History Illustration and is now Professor of Illustration at SCAD Hong Kong said, 'There is only one John Norris Wood. The world has lost a true treasure with his passing; but the world is richer with the legacy that he has installed in those who were lucky enough to have spent time with him. I am devastated by losing John, and my heart goes out to his family, friends, colleagues and students. His good work continues though. His legacy is us; those whom he has touched with his vision of reverence of the natural world through drawing. He taught us to "see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower".' 


John Norris Wood’s paintings, prints and drawings have been exhibited all over the UK, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Redfern Gallery, London; the Natural History Museum, London; the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Society of Wildlife Artists, London; Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden; Chappel Galleries, Colchester; the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge; and the London Zoo Isaac Newton Centre; as well as at the Natural History Museum, Caracas, Venezuela. 


We are receiving numerous tributes to John Norris Wood, and those will be added below, as they arrive:

Having hesitated over visiting John at the hospital as I have lost all my family to cancer... I went, with Rebecca Jewell. Now I am so glad I did. It was easy to be with him. There was no sense that there was so little time left until I bent to kiss him goodbye.. He quickly, firmly took my hand and pressed it to his lips to kiss it (as he did Rebecca's). I am now back in Hong Kong, where I am based, painting floral species in vanishing rain forests. This is all thanks to John. I am so glad I got to thank him for my time at the RCA. This September Rebecca and I decided to teach a class, which we dedicated to John Norris Wood and Len Massey (Tutor in the Drawing Studio) who had inspired us both so much to keep the flag for Natural History painting aloft. John loved his family very much... they were his world, and I send them my sincerest condolences.
– Sandy Ross Sykes (MA Natural History Illustration, 2004)

I remember noticing John Norris Wood when I was a student at the College in 1996: his Natural History Illustration students would meet up in packs, then be gone, back to the country to continue drawing. When I took over the Drawing Studio, John and his students would book up long sessions and bring in natural objects from all over to draw. John would also bring out his collection of skulls and butterflies; the Drawing Studio took on an extra dimensions with dank smells from the mouldy logs and fungus.

When John retired from Natural History Illustration, I invited him to run Natural Forms classes and workshops in the Drawing Studio, that was the beginning of over a decade of encouragement to students from across the College in the drawing of natural forms and the importance of nature. A lot of fun was had in those classes and lots of wonderful drawings emerged. He would walk around the students and give advice like, 'Make that much darker, or try putting some white on top.' He would tell stories about nature and natural forms then sketch with great delicacy, starting off almost as if he was doing a technical drawing by hand then showing the student a different way to approach the drawing. He would frequently start talking about RCA times gone by and would have us all laughing.

On one visit to his house he disappeared into his 'hot room' and came back with a handful of glowing tree frogs and plopped them on, my son, Liam’s jumper. They were so beautiful (but were they poison dart tree frogs?), and it was a wonderful experience to see them at such close proximity. John and I spoke weekly about all things especially ecology, art and music, Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash, and John’s observation and love of nature was always there up to the last time we spoke.
– Len Massey, Tutor, Drawing Studio

John was a genuinely extraordinary naturalist, artist and teacher, with a childlike sense of wonder at the natural world which remained undiminished throughout his life. For many years, natural history illustration in the UK was characterised by a pedantic reliance on photographic reference material that rendered all subjects – plants, animals, insects – lifeless exercises in technical virtuosity at the expense of any sense of the living organism. John's course within the Illustration department at the RCA was ground-breaking because of his insistence on direct observation of the natural world, on drawing out in the field and from live specimens. This produced several generations of graduates from the College whose work as illustrators and artists is based on a deep understanding of the natural world, and whose passion for its wonders and concern at its fragility mirrors Johns own. I'll remember the many good times we spent together – his sense of fun, his moods, our shared love of music – and his total commitment to his students.
– Dan Fern, Professor Emeritus and former Head of Communication, Art & Design

I’ve been thinking about you all morning John, remembering so many happy times. Your presence and personality at the College meant a great deal to so many people who were lucky enough to be drawn into your orbit over so many years. There were lots of characters at the RCA during your heyday, but you were biggest of them all. It was an experience of total joy to be in the presence of your big beardy face, erupting in uncontrolled laughter. I had no idea that there could be so many shades of red. Your wisdom and outlook on the world were an inspiration to students and staff across art and design. We loved your stories (particularly the one about when you met Louis Armstrong in Paris…) and we loved the way you loved your wife. My most vivid impression of you may not after all be of the naturalist feeding pond carp in the sub-tropical forest that you created on the top of the Darwin Building (another good story…), but of the devoted lover, sharing a huge pot of tea and a homemade cake in your garden at home with Julie. We’ll miss you terribly. 
– David Blamey, RCA student 1982–5 and Tutor, Visual Communication