Lesley Jane Pinkney (née Magee) (born 1948) Jane Pinkney’s finely rendered depictions, reveal a variety of anthropomorphic narratives steeped in nostalgia and charm. Her work can be firmly situated within the tradition of illustrative art, and her name comfortably coupled with those of Beatrix Potter, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham.
Jane Pinkney was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, on 8 June 1948. The younger of two children, her earliest memories are of a rural idyll in which the family greenhouse, a garden of hollyhocks, and the painted borders of her sister’s bed feature most vividly. Her father was a mechanical engineer at the Sheffield steelworks, but also a keen amateur botanist and ornithologist. When Jane was just three years old, the family moved to Bradford, where she recalls spending many happy hours with her father at the nearby canal exploring the new and varied plants and insects, further stimulating her deep love of nature and her active imagination.
Her great aunts, on her mother’s side, were both artists, painting portraits and landscapes in oils, in the grand manner.
They bought Jane her first set of oil paints, although she much preferred working in poster paints at the time, and today still favours the versatility and immediacy of the watercolour medium to render such minute detail – a quality that makes her paintings so appealing and her narratives so convincing.
As a child in Bradford she attended Wellington Road Junior School. Recounting happily mischievous times, Jane was frequently summoned to the headmaster’s office. Despite her naughty nature, the headmaster proudly displayed one of her paintings on his office wall and was quick to admit that ‘she would go a long way in life’. Jane still has that twinkle in her eyes, suggestive of her mischievous childhood, a mischief transferred to the animated escapades of her often troublesome little mice.
At the age of 11, Jane moved with her family to Middlesbrough, where she attended Stainsby School (made famous by Chris Rea’s ‘Stainsby Girls’) – and she was allowed her first pony. Like many teenage girls she became ‘horse mad’. She entered a drawing competition at the age of 15 for Pony magazine. Although she came second, the judge, Doris Zinkeisen, commented on Jane’s entry:
'The horses are a little odd, but nicely odd ... with a touch of Stanley Spencer ... she hasn’t shirked or shied at any detail ... I think that if this girl decides to become an artist, she has great possibilities.'
Jane’s only artistic training was ‘O’ Level Art and, when she was just 15, her art teacher, recognising her talent, encouraged her to exhibit her plant drawings at Middlesbrough Art Gallery. Later, however, at Kirkby Grammar sixth form, she was discouraged from pursuing a career in art, and Jane applied to train as a physiotherapist in Bradford, from which she was forced to withdraw after a tragic car accident, at the age of 17, which put her in a coma for two months, and in hospital for six.
During her recovery she lived at home in Middlesbrough, and got a job tracing mechanical drawings, which she hated. At the age of 19 she married the driver of the fateful car. They were married by Cardinal Hume at Ampleforth Abbey, and lived in Cleethorpes, before moving back to Middlesbrough, and then to Hanging Hill Farm, Kennythorpe, near Malton – where she recalls how her life could not have been happier. They had three children in quick succession, and Jane populated the farm, not only with children, but with peacocks (which she bred), hens, goats, bullocks, guinea fowl, pigeons, horses and ponies. Among the menagerie was a 17-year old guinea fowl she had hatched on a range, a rabbit she had bottle- fed and reared after it was injured, a collar dove she rescued, all of which were rich sources of inspiration and imagined narrative. Like many old farmhouses, mice were popular inhabitants, and it was these furry beasts that frequently populated her drawings.
Painting was a wonderful pastime, and Jane drew principally for pleasure and to amuse her three young children. Her professional career was prompted by a remark made by her sister-in-law, Penny Pinkney, a professional book illustrator, who was bemused by Jane’s lack of ambition. To prove her wrong Jane picked up the phone to Marks & Spencer. A brief meeting at their head office in London resulted in one of Jane’s drawings, Mouse on a Sewing Machine, being selected and circulated to all the UK stores for sale as a framed print.
She was introduced to the publishers, Marilyn Malin and Andre Deutsch and it was Marilyn who commissioned Margaret Greaves to put words to Jane’s drawings, and so a successful partnership was formed. Characters such as Seraphine Sprout the washer-mouse, Belinda Bookery who ate a dictionary, and greedy Timothy Squeak who ate so much that he turned into a balloon, were born, and brought to life in The Mice of Nibbling Village, published by Marilyn Malin Books in association with Andre Deutsch, in 1986. With 17 colour illustrations, the book was published simultaneously in Britain and America. The book was an immediate success and the Sunday Express dubbed her ‘the new Beatrix Potter’.
Her second book, Mouse Mischief, was published soon after and her drawings were put to words once more by Margaret Greaves. The book was launched internationally and nominated for the prestigious Kate Greenaway award. In 1987 she received a Certificate of Merit from the Society of Illustrators for one of the best illustrations, and her work was exhibited as part of the society’s 29th Annual National Exhibition in New York.
Her third book, Little Mouse Alone, was published in 1989, using the same successful formula, and a year later, she was commissioned to illustrate Rumer Godden’s, Mouse Time, originally illustrated by Martin Ursell and published by Magnet Books. It comprises 24 pencil drawings and one colour cover, and was republished by Macmillan.
Her colourful and animated images also started to appear on greetings cards, and on cups and plates, and featured in the display windows of Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Harrods.
In 1998, in the midst of working on an ambitious compendium of Nursery Rhymes, and after considerable and sustained success, she decided to put down her paintbrush, and ‘never paint again’. She spent time with her family, and time readjusting her priorities.
Jane now lives in Kirbymoorside and, encouraged by her friends, she picked up her brush and revisited the mouse world with which she was once so vividly acquainted. In 2010 she, again, took the step to pick up the phone. This time the call was made to Nunnington Hall, a National Trust property which exudes all the charm and nostalgia that penetrate Jane’s work. The property manager, already a youthful admirer of her work, immediately suggested an exhibition and commissioned her to paint a series of interiors occupied by her mischievous mice. To complement the exhibition the National Trust and Anova Books republished The Mice of Nibbling Village. Requiring commercial expertise, Jane was put in touch with Chris Beetles who agreed to represent her, and collaborate on the Nunnington Hall exhibition, which took place in June 2011. Having previously only sold prints, the exhibition was an opportunity for Jane to sell her original artworks for the first time – and the exhibition was an unmitigated success.
In 2012 Jane Pinkney published a new edition of Mouse Mischief. The artwork for the book featured in the exhibition, ‘Jane Pinkney’s Mice’, held at Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire, between September and November 2012. The exhibition was the second collaboration between Jane Pinkney, Chris Beetles Gallery and the National Trust.