- The Lenkiewicz Book Project
- Book For Sale
- Lenkiewicz: The Artist
- Lenkiewicz: The Book Collector
- Lenkiewicz: The Philanthropist
- Lenkiewicz: The Writer
- Personal Memoirs
- a childs-eye view of lenkiewicz
- Lenkiewicz on Television
- Lenkiewicz's Students
- Limited Edition Prints
- The Lenkiewicz Foundation
Lust For Life (feature article published in the Independent on Sunday)
The following is the feature article that was published in the Independent on Sunday on 7 August 2005. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Independent on Sunday. Copyright and all rights remain the property of Independent on Sunday:
Lust For Life
By Mike Higgins
There aren’t many reasons for remembering the painter Robert Oskar Lenkiewicz, who died three years ago. To the art world, he was a minor portraitist. He painted largely figuratively, with embarrassing emotion. Prodigiously too - he was thought to have produced 10,000 drawings and paintings over his lifetime. At the time of his death you could have picked up one of his better works for £5,000 or so. He chose for most of his adult life to live in Plymouth, and therefore, provincial purdah. As it is, Lenkiewicz is probably most widely remembered for the eccentric act of embalming a tramp in 1984. The Times’ obituary declared that “his gift for self-publicity considerably outran his skills with the brush or the pencil.”
In Plymouth, where I grew up, Lenkiewicz’s reputation had a bit more life to it. He had affairs with his models! He slept in a coffin! He was a necrophiliac! He lived with dossers! And if you wanted to know the truth about him, you could usually go and ask him yourself. With his mane of greying hair, his fireman’s boots and fisherman’s smock, he was pleasingly conspicuous around town, in and out of Joe Prete’s cafe on the Barbican and striding between his studios (my dad nearly ran him over once). His appearance - he embodied the visual cliché of “the artist” - was deceptive, though. By the time Lenkiewicz died in August 2002, at the age of 60, the citizens of this sleepy Devon city and the wild artist son of European immigrants had, over four stormy decades, collaborated to produce an astonishing grand project of social art. And today one man is endangering our appreciation of this legacy. That man is Lenkiewicz himself.
Little in Lenkiewicz’s background suggests that Plymouth would become his home. He was born in 1941 and he grew up at the Hotel Shemtov, which his Jewish parents ran in Cricklewood, north London. They had fled Poland and Germany in 1939 and after the war the hostel’s 60 rooms were mostly filled with elderly European refugees, many of whom had survived the Nazi camps. “A lunatic asylum,” Lenkiewicz called it.
He began to paint at a young age and rattled through St Martin’s College of Art and the Royal Academy, at odds with most of his peers and tutors - while Rothko, Jasper Johns and their abstract-expressionist peers held aesthetic sway, Lenkiewicz attempted to emulate Velazquez, Goya and Rembrandt. By 1964 he was married to his first wife, who took him down to her home in Cornwall. Before long, though, Lenkiewicz was offered a studio in Plymouth, on the Barbican, the rough home of south Devon’s fishing fleet.
He set about personifying the stereotype of the bohemian artist, living in crumbling houses with various partners and assorted dossers. He fenced stolen goods, hawked Old Master copies he’d dashed off. But it was his sex life that most scandalised Plymouth. By his death, Lenkiewicz had married three times, fathered 11 children and claimed to have slept wit 3.000 women: “I look forward to the day,” he once said, “when the court of human rights regards it an imprisonable offence for anyone to live with anybody else for more than a fortnight.”
About the only aspect of Lenkiewicz that was conventional was, perhaps surprisingly, his style of painting. He specialised in the figurative single or group portrait, and with some success. He painted Terry Waite, Billy Connolly and Michael Foot, among others. And he worked swiftly - he would often grind through 11 sittings in a day, and sketch rapid likenesses for anyone who wandered in off the street. He painted big, too. There was a 364-ft. epic while at St Martins; the enormous Round Room mural at Lord Eliot’s estate in Cornwall; the 40 ft-long Temptation of St Antony that had to be removed from his studio by crane in 1994; not to mention several public murals around the city.
To cap the image of the struggling artist, he would often pay for his bills in oils. The result was that his work can still be found in homes across Plymouth, from council semis to grand Victorian villas. A friend of my family had done some building work for the artist and received one of their collection of three Lenkiewiczes as payment in kind. One was of some boys mooching around, called, I think, Barbican Boys, another an apparently unfinished painting of starving Biafran children. The last was a portrait he’d commissioned, of his two sons. This was the first “proper” art I remember seeing outside a gallery and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
Why did Lenkiewicz paint with such abandon, particularly when many of the results were, frankly, poor? Because he knew he wasn’t in the first rank of painters - Lenkiewicz himself said he was “the best bad painter I know”. According to his partner and sometime model in the Nineties, Anna Navas: “He used to say that every century produces two or three great painters and he knew that he was nowhere near that good, so what was the point in worrying about it?” Instead, Lenkiewicz turned his conventional style and his unconventional mind towards a much more ambitious portrait, one that was 30 years in the making and still unfinished at his death: a portrait of Plymouth.
“I’m not an unhinged necrophiliac littering the city with children,” he once said, “I write social enquiry reports.” Between 1973 and his death in 2002, Lenkiewicz undertook 21 of these reports or “Projects”. Their subjects varied, from the obviously social - homelessness, mental disability, old age - to the less apparently so - death, jealousy, sexual behaviour. Each was years in the completion, involving the production of dozens or, occasionally, hundreds of paintings and an accompanying booklet in which Lenkiewicz’s research interviews, notes and forthright views were published.
His first Project, and one of his most powerful, was on vagrancy. It was exhibited in 1973 and was the culmination of Lenkiewicz’s lifelong interest in down-and-outs of all sorts. Soon after his arrival in Plymouth in the mid-Sixties, Lenkiewicz and some local vagrants started squatting a series of old warehouses, the so-called Cowboy Holiday Inns. (Interestingly, the “Inns” were by and large tolerated in Plymouth - Lenkiewicz had done much the same in Swiss Cottage in the early Sixties when, he says, he soon found himself run out of the neighbourhood by the police.)
A council representative turned up to the Project’s opening night and, surrounded by over a hundred of Lenkiewicz’s large, stark portraits of Plymouth’s destitute, gave a speech in thanks that Plymouth was fortunate not to have a vagrancy problem. “It was at that point,” remembered Lenkiewicz, “that I gave a prearranged signal and 73 dossers entered the room, most of them drunk, and they wrecked the evening.” The incident is caught, along with many others, in the lovely photographic account of Lenkiewicz at work from the early Seventies onwards, A Portrait of Robert Lenkiewicz: Photographs by Dr Philip Stokes.
The Vagrancy Project was the first proper illustration of Lenkiewicz’s ethos: “I was very unattracted to the idea of the artist intensively trying to represent all his thoughts, feelings about something in one image. To me there was more humility in one hundred images that didn’t worry about high art.”
Neither were the comments of Diogenes, Doc, Cockney Jim, the Irish Compressor in the booklet accompanying the Project an afterthought. They are by turns pathetic – “You wake up in the morning, you put your hand in your pocket, is there enough, enough for a bottle, a bottle, a bottle?” – and darkly funny - “Always keep the creases in your trousers - but don’t shit ‘em; that will take the creases out.” Today, of course, the Project as a whole cannot be experienced. But, 32 years after it was published, the booklet still provides a striking context for the paintings. It’s also a harrowing, evocative passage of social history, with its tales of invalided dockyard workers and down-and-out servicemen who never recovered from the war.
For the next 30 years, Lenkiewicz’s Projects served up his often tart views on Plymouth, and yet Plymothians kept volunteering themselves as the raw ingredients. For instance, in his mid-Eighties Project, Observations on Local Education, Lenkiewicz was unequivocal: “Some of the sitters became quite upset when they read my preface, which made the claim that contemporary education was not dissimilar to aspects of the Holocaust. That’s an extraordinary claim but I did tend to feel that it was about the mass spiritual slaughter of the young on a huge scale.”
By contrast, perhaps the most personal and extraordinary of the Projects was The Painter with Mary (A Study of Obsessional Behaviour). Mary was a 17-year-old girl who worked in the Co-op in Plymouth when the 36-year-old Lenkiewicz declared his infatuation with her. Lenkiewicz recorded his obsession with Mary in text, drawings, paintings, often in explicit sexual detail. The painter, who was a tireless self-portraitist anyway, then laid these feelings and their relationship bare in The Mary Notebook. After a few years, the two of them married - and soon divorced.
Lenkiewicz always insisted that one theory linked these disparate-seeming Projects: that we’re all trapped in destructive behavioural loops, be they of love or power or jealousy. He called this theory “aesthetic fascism”: “All the Projects have one feature in common: they are based on the suggestion that patterns of human behaviour are aesthetic experiences, a matter of taste ... I do not think there’s any line of enquiry of greater importance than to study the physiological - not the psychological - cause of addictive behaviour.”
And where better to test this theory than this “rather naive city”? But Lenkiewicz wasn’t merely observing and recording we Plymothians, he was trying to rouse us from what he saw as our complacency. The impact of the booklets and paintings of the exhibited Projects was one method, but so too were the elaborate pranks that Lenkiewicz enjoyed. And these, more often than the Projects, made the news. There was the time, in 1981, that he announced his own death in The Times; and the lecture he delivered, incognito as a frail, elderly academic, to local old age-care health professionals.
Most notorious, of course, was the incident that made Lenkiewicz’s name around the world: the embalming of Diogenes. When Lenkiewicz met Edward McKenzie in the late Sixties, he had been living for nine years in a concrete barrel overlooking a rubbish dump near Plymouth (hence his nickname). On McKenzie’s death in 1984, and at his request, Lenkiewicz had his friend embalmed. After a few weeks, the authorities demanded entry to the painter’s studios in pursuit of the McKenzie’s remains. They quickly found a coffin, prised it open... whereupon Lenkiewicz sat up wrapped in a duvet and clutching a hotwater bottle, holding a sign on which was written “HABEAS CORPUS”.
“Robert didn’t do things just for the sake of it,” says Annie Hill-Smith, the chair of The Lenkiewicz Foundation, a charity established to safeguard the artist’s legacy. “Robert did things almost always … to promote change.” In this way the embalming of Diogenes could be seen as Lenkiewicz’s final contribution to the Vagrancy Project. He noted at the time that the authorities had been far quicker to take an interest in McKenzie in death than they had been in life. Diogenes’ body was found among Lenkiewicz’s belongings after the artist’s death.
Stunts such as this invariably infuriated the local authorities, which in itself endeared “Mr Lannervitch” to many Plymothians. And despite his predictably anti-bourgeois pronouncements on the nature of charity - “I am revolted by any notion of altruism” - his generosity, frequently anonymous, was known around the city. For instance, he organised the annual dossers’ Christmas party in Plymouth for many years and donated funds to Age Concern.
By the Nineties the artist had subordinated his art to another obsession: his library of some 60,000 books on philosophy, theology, anti-semitism, fascism and witchcraft. “He didn’t look for approval in anything other than the library that he built from nothing,” says Anna Navas. “It wasn’t just a solid academic collection but a beautiful and rare antiquarian collection. He was hugely proud of it, and driven by it - he painted in order to feed his book-buying habit.”
One result of this insatiable habit was the unfortunate “girlie paintings” period of the Nineties - a faintly embarrassing series of portraits of young women, more or less deshabillées, that the painter knocked out for quick bucks. Lenkiewicz was cashing in on “Lenkiewicz”. And, at about the same time, the cultural institutions of Plymouth began to make a little capital from him. There was “an audience” with Lenkiewicz at the Plymouth Theatre Royal in 1996, and a successful retrospective the following year at the City Museum. Lenkiewicz’s reputation was changing. The outsider artist had become a mascot for the city as familiar as the Mayflower Steps or a drunk squaddie on Union Street.
And then, in 2002, Robert Lenkiewicz died, as the result of a heart condition. His death was unexpected - he had recently embarked on what he envisaged to be his biggest Project, on addictive behaviour. Hundreds attended his memorial service at Plymouth’s Guildhall, and his remains are now buried in the back garden of his house in Lower Compton, a quiet suburb of Plymouth.
Three years on, Lenkiewicz’s legacy is still being debated - was he one of the foremost English social painters of the 20th century? Plymouth’s greatest artist since Joshua Reynolds? Or a charlatan with little more than a dab hand and an eye for the ladies? Unfortunately, for those of us who want to put a case for the former, most of the evidence is going under the gavel because Lenkiewicz was, it turns out, in enormous debt when he died.
Initially, his estate was valued at over £6m. The above Lenkiewicz Foundation began to discuss options with Plymouth City Council. There was talk of a permanent collection of a substantial number of his paintings and access to Lenkiewicz’s remarkable library in a dedicated building on the Barbican, funded partially by a Lottery grant. Then the initially high valuation of Lenkiewicz’s library was revised downwards, drastically – Lenkiewicz had overpaid for many of his treasured books - and the claims on the estate began to roll in, 150 in all, totalling between £2m and £3m.
The claims are varied: from those for the provision of three of Lenkiewicz’s children to many much smaller claims in which, typically a painting was promised informally in return for work done. According to Peter Walmsley, the executor of Lenkiewicz’s will and a partner at the firm of solicitors dealing with the claims, the administration of the estate is “enormously complex ... if the Queen had died it would have been simpler to organise.”
It is still uncertain as to whether the estate will still be solvent once all the claims have been settled and the legal fees paid: Three auctions - of about 600 paintings and drawings and the better books - have raised around £2m. Another “major sale of paintings” is probable, either this year or next. Not even a collection of about 150 of Lenkiewicz’s most important works, currently earmarked for the Lenkiewicz Foundation, is safe. Will there be anything left in the will to bequeath the Foundation once the creditors have been paid? Quite possibly not, in which case any future exhibition would have to rely entirely on loans.
Annie Hill-Smith, the chair of The Lenkiewicz Foundation, remains optimistic, nevertheless: “It doesn’t matter if we aren’t left a physical legacy. We can build up a catalogue of [Lenkiewicz’s] paintings. We can build up information about the paintings, the library and Robert himself.”
If you walk around Plymouth Barbican today Lenkiewicz’s marks are there, but already they’re fading. Next to his studio is his 3,000sq ft mural originally painted in 1971, a multitude of peeling faces representing the influence of Cabbalistic thought on Elizabethan philosophy. Around the corner is another mural, of heaving naked figures on the Day of Judgement. Joe Prete’s cafe still has Lenkiewicz’s local take on the Last Supper on its rear wall. Plymouth City Museum has a couple of paintings, and the Library a meagre selection of newspaper cuttings and a few of the Project booklets. Will the money be found to establish a permanent, appropriate monument to his work? Let’s hope so.
Until then, the people of Plymouth keep to themselves the story of their affair with Robert Lenkiewicz.