Jan Pienkowski (1936–2022) was a household name for generations of children. During World War II, he left his native Poland with his parents and lived in Bavaria and Italy before coming to England in 1946 at the age of ten.
He attended at Lucton School in Herefordshire as a boarding student, where he learned English, followed by the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London, which offered Greek and Latin. At King’s College, Cambridge, he developed artistic skills by designing theater posters and sets for university productions. He also attended a regular life drawing class and continued drawing from life thereafter.
He started his artistic career in advertising, designing 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 cover design and subsequently for children’s book illustration. Telling stories in pictures became his life’s work.
Jan Pienkowski was a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration as well as a recipient of the 2019 Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award. His work took him all over the world and gave him the opportunity to observe how people live and dress. This inspired the trademark black silhouette figures that peopled his kaleidoscopic compositions, including in his book A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from Across the Commonwealth, which he was honored to present to the Queen of England at a private audience in Buckingham Palace.
One of his most treasured books was The First Noël, which presents the Christmas story in carousel style with intricate three-layered tableaus and gold embellishment. At the request of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, England, the designs were enlarged tenfold and displayed in their stately home in Chatsworth, Derbyshire, accompanied by music and dramatic lighting.