Arabian Magic with a Polish touch: The Illustrations of Janusz Grabianski

Did you also have books, as a child, that you read over and over again? The images become so familiar that you cannot imagine the story without them. This is, for me, the ultimate edition of The Arabian Nights. The text reworked by Hedwig Smola, translated into Afrikaans by Andre Brink and above all illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

As a child I loved Grabianski’s vivid colours and strong brushwork – the storytelling in the pictures is just as lively as that in the text. Here you can see the first meeting of Aladdin with the evil magician, pretending to be his long lost uncle. I used to spend hours immitating this style with my own watercolours. Especially the lovely princesses like the princess Boedroelbadoer – whom Aladdin spies on when she goes for a swim:

For some reason I did not like the Sinbad the Sailor stories: things always happened to him by accident and I found it frustrating. But there were so many other more engaging stories, with suitably evocative images. Prince Seyn Alasnam met this strange ferryman on his journey to meet the King of the Spirits:

Apart from the full colour paintings, the book is filled with many sepia sketches:

The Arabian Nights has so many great characters. One of my favorites remain Morgiana, the Ali Baba’s maid servent. She is so clever and unflappable, a nice contrast to her naive and trusting master.

I suppose there is something a little disturbing in how much I enjoyed her exploits. She fools the robbers by having a corpse sown together to disguise the manner of its death, and she cooly murders 39 robbers by pouring boiling oil on them. And – as a small girl, remember – I was simply thrilled by the image of Morgiana charming the robber captain with her dance of veils and daggers, and then “plunging the dagger into his heart” to the horror of her rather dim master Ali Baba. I thought it was a very satisfying end to the story. And I still do.

I was unable to find out anything at all about Janusz Grabianski. I believe he is polish, and I know he illustrated many other books. He is particularly good at animals, as you can see from this page with many images from other books. I leave you with this frontispiece from The Arabian Nights.

Color by COLOURlovers
Morgiana's Dagger
Color by COLOURlovers

26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DC
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 05:37:09

    I love these paintings (especially the first and last ones)! Thanks for sharing!! πŸ™‚

  2. masha
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 14:29:27

    Thanks for visiting again!

  3. Queenie
    Jun 04, 2008 @ 23:40:04

    It’s so funny. . .I started to read what you wrote, and I said “yes, there are books that I read over and over and can visualize,” and then I realize you meant PICTURE books. I just realized that I started reading novels at such a young age, I cannot remember having a single picture book! How weird is that that it never even occurred to me before now? What a gorgeous book that is.

    PS I’ve tagged you to write your own six word memoir. If you’d like to play, please click through to my blog for the rules!

  4. masha
    Jun 05, 2008 @ 07:18:14

    Hi Queenie
    Yes – I went through a stage when I was about 12 that my mom took me to a bookshop and said “Right, we are buying you some books you have NEVER read” and bought me about six or seven new books. I had been cycling through the same books over and over again…(I remember, “My Family and Other Animals” was one of them).

    I only recentlyl realised how important the illlustrations in children’s books are to me which is absurd as I’ve been collecting them for ages.

  5. RaShell
    Jun 05, 2008 @ 20:58:01

    You know, I am absolutely certain I had one of his books. It was big and heavy with dark shiny cover. It was called something like “Orphan Marysya” or something very similar. I think I saw some links about him and his books on a Russian blog about illustrators. If you’re interested, I can take a look and point you in the right direction. πŸ™‚

  6. A Soldier's Girl
    Jun 06, 2008 @ 01:45:06

    Hola from NCLM πŸ™‚

    These pictures are amazing! I will have to read this book πŸ™‚

  7. masha
    Jun 06, 2008 @ 05:10:51

    @ Soldier’s Girl: Thanks for visiting! I’ve fallen so far behind on commenting, I am just visiting now so thanks for keeping up the good work πŸ˜€

    @ RaShell – that sounds promising! I would apreciate that very much.

  8. RaShell
    Jun 06, 2008 @ 13:55:48

    Here’s a link to illustrations from the book that I had:
    This is Puss in Boots:
    Unfortunately there’s not much in terms of information about him, which I’m guessing is because he died more than 30 years ago…

  9. masha
    Jun 06, 2008 @ 19:28:59

    Thanks RaShell those are great links. The illustrations are a lot more playful and childlike than the ones I’ve seen before.

    I especially love that tricksy fox that appears on a number of images in the first link.:)

  10. LiliOum
    Sep 19, 2008 @ 22:37:29

    Hello ! (sorry for my english, but i’m french). Well i’m an illustrator (beginner) and today, classing a little my flat, i found my marvellous old book of “Contes de Grimm”, illustrated by the wonderful Grabianski. This is a book of my childhood, printed in France in 1962, and i love it like a treasure ! So i decided to talk about Grabianski on my blog, and made a little search of images on the net, just to see, and so.. see yours ! And what a surprise ! Another person which had it in his childhood. Smashing ! πŸ™‚ I don’tknow your book but what so wonderful drawings ! Thanks for my eyes πŸ™‚

  11. masha
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 11:24:51

    Wow that’s neat, lilioum. I’m off to have a look at your blog…

  12. Trackback: The Hamish Hamilton Book of Princesses « Masha
  13. Grabianski Andrzej
    Aug 12, 2009 @ 23:56:29

    Its so nice to see such nice comments about my great uncle.
    He illustrated many books, in the core languages.
    His agent had head offices in New York and Vienna.

    I would like to make a web page about him, but as I understand his wife objects at the moment.

    There is also much more work which can be found at the LOT airline web site, which he did for them.


  14. mashadutoit
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 08:43:57

    That’s an amazing family connection πŸ™‚ I found one of those airline drawings you mentioned – here Do you know of any others?

  15. Brian
    Oct 03, 2009 @ 23:13:10

    Rather late to be writing a comment now. But I recently looked though a favourite childhood book of mine, namely an Afrikaans translation of a collection of tales by Hans Christian Andersen, that I must have read literally a hundred times when I was a kid. And I now think a lot of my enjoyment derived from Grabianski’s wonderfully atmospheric and evocative illustrations; he was truly a master of the art of suggestion, and stimulating rather than replacing the viewer’s imagination. I did a web search for his name, and stumbled upon this blog. Hence this comment.

    My copy of the Andersen tales is long out of print, and falling apart, because it was my older brother’s before I took it over, and he surely ALSO read it a hundred times. So I am now in the process of digitizing it, to save it for posterity. πŸ˜‰

  16. mashadutoit
    Oct 04, 2009 @ 10:16:55

    I agree – my enjoyment of these Arabian Nights stories was strongly influenced by the illustrations. Grabianski illustrated many similar collections of stories, and many of his books are still available in the Junior sections of our libraries. I’ve found quite a few in Rondebosch and Wynberg. Maybe there is even a copy of your Andersen book ?:)

  17. Brian
    Oct 04, 2009 @ 17:40:04

    There might well be copies of the Andersen tales still floating around. Never seen any in the local libraries, but I have seen a copy of the Arabian Nights one. Will borrow it some time, if only for the illustrations!

  18. DianaNolen
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 01:50:33

    I have a dozen of his prints that I may sell or trade. Some are fairy tales, some not. All but one (I think) have animals.

  19. Hans Erkamp
    Sep 12, 2010 @ 20:45:24

    I found this website because I was looking for information about Janusz Grabianski. Indeed it is very hard to find information about this great artist. I have a few fairy tail books illustrated bij him and I think he was one of the greatest illustrators ever.

  20. Hans Erkamp
    Sep 13, 2010 @ 18:15:02


  21. Yvonne
    Oct 16, 2012 @ 06:00:22

    I got this book as a present in 1968 and still have it, even though it is falling apart after so many years. It is among my most cherished possessions from childhood. What beautiful illustrations to go with the wonderful stories.

  22. mashadutoit
    Oct 16, 2012 @ 06:25:00

    I agree! Something so special about a book one grew up with, but this one really is a gem.

  23. Starry
    Oct 23, 2016 @ 13:49:52

    Hi! Stranger here. I just wanted to say thank you so much! I’ve been looking for this book for years, ever since I read it in middle school, and it stuck to my mind like it did yours. I’m a bit of an artist and was completely inspired by Grabianski’s work way back at age eleven.

    You would not BELIEVE how many copies there are of “Tales of the Arabian Nights.” I scrolled for a long, long time before Google gave me an image from this website, which looked slightly familiar… so I clicked!

    I fear this “ultimate edition” is out of print now, but I’m looking for some copies online. Thanks again!!

  24. mashadutoit
    Oct 23, 2016 @ 14:32:50

    It’s such a lovely book, I agree! I hope you find your copy πŸ™‚ He’s a wonderful artist.

  25. Brian van der Spuy
    Oct 23, 2016 @ 16:49:14

    Starry: Of course the thing to search for is “Janusz Grabianski” rather than “Arabian Nights.” Nowadays there are stacks of his illustrations online. Alas, not the easiest name to remember!

  26. eurudike de beul
    Oct 23, 2016 @ 17:48:47

    the grabianski drawings are in my soul ! my father bought at my birth 1964 three books, grimm, 1001 nights, andersen. recently I found 3 other books, I will save them till my death

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: