Friday, 1 April 2011

Jan Pienkowski's The Kingdom Under The Sea

This is something I found in Stockport's fantastic monthly Vintage Village fair. It was from Agnes Darling's stall, and she deserves a mention, as I seem to find something great there every month.

The Kingdom Under The Sea is a 100 page children's book first published by Jonathan Cape in 1971. It is Joan Aiken's retelling of 11 traditional Eastern European folk tales (some of which are based on Ivana Berlic-Mazuranic's 'Croatian Tales of Long Ago', a book I know nothing about, but I imagine should be worth tracking down too).

The tales themselves are, as you'd expect - fanciful, dark, mysterious and slightly sinister - but it's Jan Pienkowski's superb illustrations that make this a treasure. I was actually rather surprised at the lack of reproductions elsewhere on the internet, so I've reproduced seven of them below. The book won a Library Association Kate Greenaway Medal in 1972. And too right.

The stories feature such characters as the Dawn Maiden, Daybog the sun-god and, my favourite, the child eating witch Baba Yaga (who lives in a house on a hill that stands on a huge chicken leg, surrounded by a fence & gate made of bones). I suspect that readers younger than 5 might actually be disturbed and refuse to sleep with the light off after being read some of these.

The Polish born British Illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, is probably known best for his Meg & Mog children's books, books that any child of the 70s or 80s will be aware of all too well, with their bold lines, chunky shapes & primary colours. So I was quite surprised to see that these pictures were also his work, as they are far from the style that I knew him for.

Nearly every page of every story features incredibly detailed black & white silhouette style illustrations by Pienkowski - there must be at least 80 - spiky follage, delicate hands, flowing clothes & hair are repeating themes again and again.

Interspersed throughout are also several full colour pages in the same style but with the added bonus of being superimposed on various colour marbling backgrounds. The addition of these colourful slightly psychedelic marbling effects, add a superb otherworldly dreamlike quality to the narrative, making them swim and swirl with imagination.

For reasons known only to fashion, it's quite rare to see anyone using marbling these days, as part of an illustration, say, although it's quite common in the world of crafty hand made / bound books. And I think I'm right in saying that there did appear to be a slight trend for it in the 70s, there's a couple of other things I have from that decade that feature it. It's not a critism though, I like the slightly Hippy / Prog / Lentil Soup vibe about it.

Sadly, in the age of Photoshop, and stock textures, the idea of boiling a huge vat of seaweed, in order to make the liquid that will enable inks to float so you can get a unique pattern, is not something most of us, though, have the time to do. Pity.

Further information

For larger versions of these images click here.

Jan Pienkowski's website
Joan Aiken's website
The Kingdom Under The Sea (on Amazon)

Text © 2011 Gary Andrew Clarke
Illustrations © 1971 Jan Pienkowski / Jonathan Cape

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