HIS illustrations have earned him awards and national recognition but Jan Pienkowski has told how Herefordshire provided his gateway to British life.
Illustrator of the popular Meg and Mog series which he created with Helen Nicoll, and the Haunted House pop-up books, Jan, aged 77, has earned himself quite a reputation.
But, after being invited to settle in England following the Second World War in 1948, Jan’s path led to Herefordshire – first at Foxley camp and later at Barons Cross in Leominster – where his journey began.
“It was a relief to see the White Cliffs of Dover and be reunited with my dad,” Jan said of arriving in the UK.
“We were taken to a disused army camp in Foxley and we had a Nissen hut with an iron stove to heat us and cook basic food.
“There were half-a-dozen Polish children whose families were billeted at Foxley and we had all met in Italy so were already friends.
“I remember one weekend a well-meaning young Englishman was instructed to take us all on an outing to the village.
“We all had to hold hands so we wouldn’t get lost. I held his hand and tried to understand what he was saying in English. It was my baptism of fire. I became part of British society.”
He later moved to the Barons Cross army camp in Leominster where he had his first experience of English family life while visiting a friend of his father’s – Mr Finney.
“The crowning glory of the afternoon was Mr Finney taking us on a site seeing tour of Leominster High Street, culminating in a visit to the imposing church which had no less than two aisles,” he said.
“In the left hand one was a medieval ducking stool for drowning witches. After my experience of the horrors of the war, this seemed curiously entertaining.”
It was Mr Finney who persuaded his father to send him to a “proper, English school” and he subsequently began his education at Lucton.
“I arrived at Lucton on a bus with my dad and we were invited to meet the headmaster, Mr Hodges, in the splendid 18th century building straight out of a Jane Austen novel with little boys picking some remaining fruit in the walled orchard to add to tomorrow’s pudding.
"My father didn’t speak much English so he and Mr Hodges conversed in French, of which I had a smattering because my parents used to speak it when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.
“My father asked him how many other foreign boys were at the school.
The alarming answer was that there was one other.
My father asked where he was from and was told he was Welsh, with Wales being around only 10 miles away.”
And it was there at Lucton that his interest in art was sparked.
“I learned to play English games,” he said.
“I showed an aptitude for dodging capture at rugby – not so good at anything else, because I had one near-sighted eye and one far-sighted eye.
“Herefordshire was my gateway to the British way of life. Through the toasting of crumpets at Moat House, the drowning of witches and the bloody knees of Lucton rugby pitch to the dignified splendour of Hereford Cathedral and the heraldic creatures adorning the school, I felt I had become truly British.”
In order to pay for his son’s school fees, Jan’s father took on local gardening jobs where he came into contact with a local artist by the name of Mrs Chambers.
“When my father told her about me she very kindly offered to give me some painting and drawing lessons on a weekly basis in the school holidays,” he added.
Many years later, Jan was commissioned to create a picture for a medieval church in Buckinghamshire to commemorate a relative who was buried in the graveyard.
Since then, Jan’s career has flourished.
He won the Library Association Kate Greenaway Medal in 1972 for his silhouette illustrations to Joan Aiken’s The Kingdom Under The Sea and again in 1980 for Haunted House.
And Meg and Mog, which has reached 16 titles, branched out into the Meg and Mog show.
But for that Polish boy who moved to England in 1948, Herefordshire played its very own role in securing him a successful future.