Jan Pienkowski is a household name to children of more than one generation. He left his native Poland together with his parents during the World War II and lived in Bavaria and Italy before coming to England in 1946, when he was ten years old.
Jan was educated first at Lucton School, Herefordshire, as a boarder, which gave him a chance to learn English (in self-defense), and subsequently at the Cardinal Vaughan, London, which gave him a chance to learn Greek and Latin and was a gateway to Kings’ College, Cambridge. While there, he developed artistic skills by designing theater posters and sets for university productions. He also attended a regular life drawing class and has gone on drawing from life ever since.
After earning his degree, he started his artistic career in advertising design, greeting cards, and drawing live on BBC television as part of a popular children’s program. He was soon discovered by the London book world and snapped up by art directors, first for covers and subsequently for children’s book illustration. It was telling stories in pictures that became his life’s work.
A two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, he now has more than140 books to his name. Going to work on London buses, where he sometimes got a seat, he developed a lifelong hobby of drawing people in his pocket sketchbook, of which there are now several hundred of these little black books, and he claims they are getting slightly more accomplished. He uses his sketches as groundwork for new publications.
He has traveled the world in Europe, the Americas, Asia, the Far East, and Australia, often to work with publishers, research new books, or to oversee his books being printed. World travel has given him a great opportunity for observing how people live, how they dress, and what they look like and has resulted in his trademark black silhouette figures, which people his kaleidoscopic compositions. A recent example of his paper-cut all black people is his book A River of Stories, an anthology of tales from the worldwide British Commonwealth, which Jan was honored to present to the Queen at a private audience in Buckingham Palace.
His only cut-out figures that are not covered in black printing ink appear in The First Noel ,a carousel book presenting the Christmas story in intricate three-layered tableaus with gold embellishment. The designs were subsequently enlarged tenfold at the request of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and displayed in their stately home at Chatsworth, Derbyshire, with appropriate music and dramatic lighting.
Jan works at home in his attic studio overlooking a set of playing fields of St. Paul’s School. This wonderful opportunity of seeing young people in motion, along with his early work in the theater and ballet and weekly visits to a gym (which is popular with dancers) has developed his intuitive ability to show movement, bringing the stories to life.
His new book The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland is done entirely in traditional Polish style with scissor-cut paper, echoing stories told to him as a young boy in wartime Poland when books were scarce. It contains some of his bedtime bogies: the witch Baba Yaga, the Dragon of Krakow, the Mermaid of Warsaw trapped in a fisherman’s net, and the horned, cloven-footed Devil.