Jan Pienkowski obituary

by | Mar 16, 2022 | IBBY NEWS

We were sorry to learn of the death of Jan Pienkowski, an inspiration to all of us and an honorary IBBY member. Here, Nicholas Tucker reflects on his life and work.

I knew Jan from when we were undergraduates at Cambridge. Friendly to all, forever laughing, he kept his relaxed social life apart from his single-minded dedication as a much-in-demand poster artist and stage designer. Having started with Classics, he was like me now reading English. Arriving late with a current girl friend to one of our final exams, he had left no room for answering the last question. Looking over his shoulder after time was called, Jan chuckling as he still wrote, I read the quick summary he came up with. ‘George Eliot. A man. I disagree.’ He still came out with a second class degree, pretty good for someone arriving in Britain aged ten not speaking the language.

We kept in touch, periodically walking round London’s streets, parks and cemeteries, Jan so enthusiastic about all we saw. On busses or trains, he would do lightning sketches of other passengers in the little black notebooks he was never without. Visiting me in Lewes, he totally charmed my daughter Emma with his lavish appreciation of her bedroom, where he had slept. Typical of him to make a small child feel so important, just as he did when creating vast murals accompanied by crowds of happily occupied schoolchildren. In London we all went to see the famous production of Nicholas Nickelby, Jan weeping, laughing and cheering along with the rest of us.

For forty years he shared a large detached house in Barnes with his partner David Walser. There was also Bridgey, a greatly loved dog with whom Jan would daily walk, picking up any discarded gloves, scarfs or hats he came across which he would later sometimes wear himself. Calling in at the same café each day, he would talk fluent Italian to its owner. When speaking Polish he would produce a range of gestures that disappeared when talking in English, which he did in warm tones with no trace of accent. He and David were well-suited – Jan volatile, David a calming and loving support.

I reviewed numbers of the picture books that they both put together, but when we met we tended to talk of other things. His marvelously bright, bold and innovative art-work spoke for itself. The past often cropped up, with descriptions of his having once lived in a village that churned its own butter and harvested, spun and finally wove the local flax. There were also memories of escaping from Warsaw in 1944, bullets flying everywhere, shells bursting, while across the road a pianist was hammering out Chopin’s defiant Heroic polonaise.  Giving a talk in Lewes in later years, he by then needed a little prompting from David, always so patiently by his side, and myself as chairman. When some time after that he received the Booktrust’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he was completely out of it. Seeing such an old and loved friend up there on the platform, bemused but beaming at the prolonged applause breaking out all around him, was unforgettably poignant.


Nicholas Tucker