Jan Pieńkowski’s gift to Chiswick

Image above: Jan Pieńkowski at the Russian Orthodox cathedral; photograph Sarah Cruz

Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz remember Jan Pieńkowski

Back in 2017 Sarah Cruz and I (Abundance London) were working on the Chiswick Timeline, the big mural under the railway arches at Turnham Green. We had a series of 16 maps through the years, from 1593 to the current day, with corresponding artworks representing Chiswick and its important buildings. Built between 1992 and 2007 the Russian Orthodox church was unrepresented in local art, but as a striking Chiswick building with its distinctive gold-starred blue onion dome visible from the A4, it was important to us that it be represented on the mural.

We approached Jan Pieńkowski, via his partner David Walser who himself came to Chiswick every week to create wonderful pottery artworks. Jan, who sadly died two weeks ago, was an outstanding artist, twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration and a household name to children over the last few generations for his pop up books, the Meg & Mog series, and his Joan Aiken book covers.

Jan left his native Poland during the Second World War and had made his home with David in Barnes, where his studio overlooked Chiswick. He often visited Chiswick to stock up on art purchases at the shop near where the mural would go. We felt we could stretch our “local artist” criteria.

Jan agreed to create the image and asked whether we could arrange a visit to the church for research purposes. The priest showed us around, and we admired the relics of the Romanovs (“Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks”) and the icons that graduates and students of the School of Iconography from the Moscow Theological Academy were then painting on the walls of the church.

We had originally wondered whether one of them could paint an image for us, but they were too busy. The conversation was not without its humorous side as the priest spoke little English and Jan was occasionally a little absent, the early symptoms of the illness that was to come. Both were utterly charming.

Jan went home happy and inspired, and shortly afterwards – without consulting his very fierce agent – sent us a lovely image of the church with the three wise men in his trademark black silhouettes arriving bearing gifts. One of the wise men sat atop an elephant in his howdah.

Image above: Russian Orthodox cathedral by Jan Pieńkowski

By now we were in touch with a different priest at the church, Father Baulk, an English convert to Russian Orthodoxy. He was not impressed with Jan’s illustration. “An Elephant” he said,  “was a strange and fiercesome creature and unknown to Russians, and they are only pictured on icons of the last judgement, dragging souls down into Hell for their destruction.”

We were in a quandary. How to ask Jan to change his image?  By now his agent was involved, and keen to protect her client who had offered this pro bono work. There is no way he will change it, she told us. We decided we would have no choice but to withdraw the work and apologise profusely to both parties. But without making any fuss, Jan had quietly and graciously excised the elephant. Now the king sat on a far more plausible camel. All would be well.

But no. It turned out, according to the Russian priest, that “In orthodoxy the three wise men are always depicted riding to Bethlehem on horses, camels are a Catholic addition.”

We tried to explain that the image was not supposed to be a realistic or religious depiction. Indeed, Christ Church on Turnham Green would be represented as the backdrop to a 19th century cricket match; St Michael & All Angels as the backdrop to an advert from 1893 for a housing estate (albeit the healthiest in the world); St Nicholas, the oldest church in Chiswick, as a backdrop to the river with fishermen. Other historic churches in Chiswick were not included at all.

In response the priest said that he felt that Jan’s palm trees were also inaccurate, as there were none in the vicinity of the church. In short, our mural, and Jan’s image “is just a mockery of the Orthodox Church.”

We decided to say nothing of this to Jan, who would have been mortified to hear of the priest’s reaction. We were delighted with it, and we regretted having shown the priest the image. We went ahead with the camels and palm trees swaying around the fairytale Chiswick onion domes, and Jan’s image has proved one of the most popular on the mural. I heard that the priest later came in quietly to buy a copy of the Timeline book from a High Road bookshop.

Eventually the mural was completed, we closed the road for the launch, also attended by Sir Peter Blake and Marthe Armitage who had also created artworks for the Timeline.  Literally thousands turned up for the unveiling. Fullers Brewery lent us a huge articulated truck to act as a stage and we lifted the artists very carefully up on the truck’s  tailgate, and tenderly placed them on the makeshift stage.

READ ALSO: Chiswick Timeline

I have a strong image of Jan, smiling beatifically as he rose gradually in the air on the tailgate, holding tightly to the safety officer to access the level of the beer lorry overlooking the crowd. The whole road was packed with people as far as the eye could see. It was probably Jan’s last public outing and we had all been worried he wouldn’t cope – he absolutely loved it.

Jan was a great artist, whose works will live on and give pleasure to many. He was also a lovely, gracious and generous man, and it was our absolute pleasure and honour to meet him.

Karen Liebreich & Sarah Cruz


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See also: “People are fearful” says Bishop of the Russian cathedral in Chiswick

See also:  Turnham Green Terrace piazza launch

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