How We Met: Serena Rees & Jan Pienkowski

'Something would always go wrong at his parties. One year something caught fire'

Jan Pienkowski, 76

The Polish-born British children's illustrator is best known for his long collaboration with the late children's author Helen Nicoll, illustrating 17 books in the much-loved Meg and Mog series. He lives in west London with his partner.

I was 18 when I first met Serena's mother, at a friend's house party, while studying at Cambridge University. She was an amazing woman called Bridget, and I became her best friend; we're still close.

It was at the Christmas party of my greeting-card company Gallery Five some years later that I first saw Serena, as a little girl – she'd turned up with her mother. What struck me was the confidence she already had, and how immaculate she looked in this pretty dress, with not a hair out of place. We'd planned a group photograph outside, with the photographer taking a shot of us all from the other side of the road. But a truck stopped right in the way and while we were deciding what to do, this tiny little girl went up to the lorry driver and got him to move out of the way!

I'm a visual guy, so a lot of my memories of Serena are based around that, such as seeing her at her wedding [to now ex-husband Joe Corré], in the early 1990s, wearing this stylish, white-leather wedding dress. I remember putting my arms round her and having this lovely feeling of warm, soft leather.

If she has a fault, it's that she works too hard. Though I always thought the Agent Provocateur lingerie she designed had a lot of style and poise, back then she was so busy she just used to rush from one taxi to the other. Since she left [after being brought out by a private-equity company in 2007], she's calmed down. I bumped into her the other day on the street in London and she was actually walking, which is progress, and I find I have time to see her.

While I'm close with both Serena and her mother, they're totally different. Serena finds her mum exasperating, particularly how untidy her house is; she's always offering to get a builder to doll it up. Serena has always been self-contained, and even during her divorce, she kept her own counsel. She is one of those people who always looks to make the most out of a [bad] situation; she's smart, capable, forthright and she never lets you down.

Serena Rees, 44

Rees co-founded the lingerie label Agent Provocateur with her then-husband Joe Corré in 1994. She left in 2007 to pursue other business interests, and co-founded the chocolatier Cocomaya in 2009. She lives in London.

Growing up, I really wanted Jan to be my godfather as I found him so much fun, so I sort of made him my unofficial, proxy godfather. Jan's old family friends with my mother and father, as they went to Cambridge together, so I've known him all my life and we've always been close.

When I was a child, I found him and his artwork mesmerising and magical. I was heavily into his Meg and Mog books and my room was filled with colourful friezes he'd made for me and posters of Mog the cat. I've kept all of my books from when I was a child and I enjoyed them all again when I started reading them to my daughter.

As I grew older I'd visit him in his studio, where my mother also worked for a while. He would draw for me and go through on a one-to-one with me what he was working on. He was doing stuff in theatre and he created this amazing hand-made pop-up book. I'd spend all my school holidays there and there used to be fights in the office over who was going to have me in their department for that day. Looking back I think that early work [experience] with him has had a huge creative influence on my life.

He had these incredible parties that I'd go to, in his fabulous house, packed with exciting people of all ages, and I remember running around and making a lot of friends there. Although there'd always be something that'd go wrong. One year something even caught fire.

He has a strong visual sense in areas outside of illustration – interiors and even computer games – he's just made one for Nintendo. I went over to his house for breakfast today and on this beautiful breakfast table was a wonderful flower vase and he'd carefully arranged all these plates and condiments so that it looked like something out of a still-life painting.

He had a difficult year last year when his writing partner [Helen Nicoll] died. If it's on his mind he'll talk it through; he's not a guarded person. He has an incredible sense of humour, though, whether it's making a funny quip about suffering from bipolar [disorder] or just general cheekiness. I've several friends who are bipolar and it's important to talk about it and bring it out into the open.

Children's illustrators Jan Pienkowski and Oliver Jeffers' 'New Art Academy' game, which teaches players how to draw and paint, is out now on the Nintendo 3DS XL

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