Best known as the creator of such children's classics as Meg and Mog and Haunted House, the artist Jan Pieńkowski also designed the original Booker Prize trophy.
Pieńkowski died, aged 85, on February 19 2022. While his legacy lives on in his influential illustrations and pop-ups, this hidden chapter of his creative life links the books that turned millions of children into readers with some of greatest literature of the 20th century.
She stands tall and straight, wearing a draped top and skirt. Her head is turned to the right, hair in a bob, and her arms stretch above her, holding a large rounded bowl. She doesn’t have a name, but she’s well known in book and design circles: she’s the original Booker Prize trophy.
Revealed to the public at the first Booker Prize ceremony in 1969, the trophy was, at 2ft tall, perhaps bigger than you might expect for such an award. The artist Jan Pieńkowski, then at the start of a career that would see him go on to create and illustrate award-winning children’s books, had come up something in the vein of an Olympic Torch. Footage from a BBC documentary in 1969 shows the original trophy with flames flickering from the bowl – dramatic, but in retrospect somewhat baffling given the short leap to associate it with book burning.
Pieńkowski was born in Warsaw in 1936, and was three when the Nazis invaded Poland. His father, who had organised resistance groups, was forced to live underground before fleeing with his family to different parts of Europe over the course of the war. Pieńkowski’s interest in paper cutouts was born during this period, when a soldier in an air raid shelter kept him entertained by cutting pieces of newspaper into magical shapes. After stints in Austria and Italy, the family settled in England in 1946.
Pieńkowski read English and Classics at King’s College, Cambridge, and upon leaving founded Gallery Five, a company that initially designed greetings cards. He illustrated children’s books in his spare time, although the latter was soon to become his focus. He started working with Joan Aiken, author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase among others, in 1968, and in the same year was approached to design the Booker Prize trophy.
Pieńkowski’s children’s books were published by Jonathan Cape, where his publisher was Tom Maschler, who was instrumental in setting up the Booker Prize. In the run-up to the prize’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Dotti Irving, chief executive of the culture arm of Four Communications, spoke to Pieńkowski about the trophy.
‘I went to see him, and he told me a rather odd story,’ says Irving. ‘He said that Tom Maschler had rung him up to say, “Jan, you’re a designer, could you design me a trophy for this new prize that’s being set up called the Booker Prize?”
‘Jan said that he didn’t have the first idea how to go about that, but by chance he was wandering around in Portobello Market and saw this old statue in a junk shop. So he bought it and modelled his trophy on that.’
Irving describes Pieńkowski as ‘mischievous’; she’s still unsure if the story he told her was a joke, but it does seem that Pieńkowski’s brief was fairly open. The de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi holds a number of Pieńkowski’s papers, including a brown cardboard folder labelled ‘The Booker Prize’. Inside is a series of black and white photographs, showing what are thought to be versions of the trophy. The four designs show an egg, a Pegasus, a woman with a book on her lap, and (puzzlingly but amusingly) a phallus.
The woman in the photograph from the de Grummond collection is sitting down and leaning back slightly, with her arms stretched in front of her, holding an open book on her lap. Her face and hair, and her outstretched arms, look not dissimilar to those of the woman in the final trophy; indeed both could have been modelled on the same thing (a statue found in a junk shop, perhaps).
In March 1969, Angela Holder, one of the directors of Gallery Five, tried to get in touch with the Booker Prize to confirm the order for the prize trophies. She had no luck getting through on the phone, so on March 3, 1969, Pieńkowski’s secretary Vivien Gledhill wrote to the prize, saying: ‘It is very important that we receive an official order from you for the expensive trophies of the Booker Award.’
The Booker Prize responded, and on March 6 1969, Gallery Five confirmed the orders in another letter from Gledhill. The prize ordered ‘eight expensive ones’ at £52 10s 0d each (about £739.39 in today’s money), with an extra £10 0s 0d (roughly £140.84) added on ‘for the aluminium finish, the latter to be confirmed when known’.
In addition, the prize ordered 100 ‘cheap’ replicas, which ‘are quoted at between £3 0s 0d and £3 10s 0d each and the exact finish will be known shortly’ (between roughly £42.25 and £49.29 today).
Those replicas were sent to bookshops to use in displays, and one of them made its way to the home of the first winner, P. H. Newby, to join his real trophy.
Newby’s daughter Sarah Newby, writing on the author’s website, recalls of the replica trophies: ‘They put them in the window, surrounded by piles of his books. My mother took one of the replicas. She just approached a bookshop and asked to pick it up after they had finished with it.
‘I can’t remember what my parents did with the trophies, the real one and the replica, at that time. But when they later moved, one was in the bathroom with a plant on it and I think the other one was in the hall, also with a plant on it. They framed the cheque and put it in the downstairs loo, and the trophy went in the upstairs bathroom.
‘Sometime later my mother spray-painted both trophies gold. My father wasn’t bothered. She just thought it would look better. And then later, when they lived in Garsington, one of the trophies went by the front door and was used to put keys in.’
Newby’s trophy was 6 inches wide at its base, 8 inches wide at the bowl and stood 24.5 inches tall. It was fairly hefty; its true size can be seen clearly in a picture from the Booker Prize archive of author Bernice Rubens with her trophy. And so, in 1973, a new, smaller version of the trophy was created. Artist Patricia Turner scaled Pieńkowski’s trophy down to a height of just 10ins, and this smaller trophy was handed out for a number of years (to authors including David Storey and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), until authors began receiving a leather-bound copy of their book instead.
By the time of the trophy redesign, Pieńkowski was well into his career in children’s books. In 1971, he had won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his and Aiken’s book The Kingdom Under the Sea and Other Stories. The first Meg and Mog book, about hapless with Meg, her striped cat Mog and their friend Owl, illustrated by Pieńkowski and written by Helen Nicholl, had been published in 1972. In 1979, the year in which Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore (she was given a leather-bound copy of her book), Pieńkowski won his second Kate Greenaway Medal for his pop-up book Haunted House.
Pieńkowski and Nicholl would continue to work together on the Meg and Mog series until her death in 2012, at which point Pieńkowski’s civil partner David Walser took on writing the books. In 2019, Pienkowski was awarded Booktrust’s Lifetime Achievement Award, given to a children’s writer or illustrator whose body of work, in the opinion of the panel of judges, merits recognition.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2009, Pieńkowski spoke about the real-life inspiration for Meg, whether he still felt like an immigrant after 60 years of living in Britain, and living with bipolar disorder. But there was no mention of his role in the Booker Prize’s early history on the show, nor was there when he appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions in 2008.
It is hardly surprising, given Pieńkowski’s myriad achievements, his extraordinary life and his place as the creator of some of the nation’s favourite children’s characters, that the Booker Prize is not even a footnote in his story (obituaries for Pieńkowski haven’t mentioned it). But for the prize itself, his oversized trophy (not to mention its flexible use as a flaming torch, plant stand or key holder) will always be remembered for kicking off the Booker Prize in style.