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Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz (31 December 1941 – 5 August 2002) was one of South West England's most celebrated artists of modern times. Perennially unfashionable in high art circles, his work was nevertheless popular with the public. He produced more than 10,000 works, usually on a large scale, and in themed projects investigating hidden communities (Vagrancy 1973, Mental Handicap 1976) or difficult social issues (Suicide 1980, Death 1982).
Robert Lenkiewicz was born in London in 1941, the son of refugees who ran a Jewish hotel in Fordwych Road, whose elderly residents included a number of Holocaust survivors. He was inspired to paint after seeing Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda's biographical film Rembrandt. At 16, Lenkiewicz was accepted at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and later attended the Royal Academy. However, he was virtually impervious to contemporary art fashions, being more interested in his favourite paintings in the National Gallery.
Inspired by the example of Albert Schweitzer, Lenkiewicz threw open the doors of his studios to anyone in need of a roof – down and outs, addicts, criminals and the mentally ill congregated there. These individuals were the subjects of his paintings as a young man. However, such colourful characters were not welcomed by his neighbours and he was obliged to leave London in 1964.
Move to Plymouth
He spent a year living in a remote cottage near Lanreath in Cornwall, supporting his young family by teaching, before being offered studio space on the Barbican in Plymouth by local artist John Nash. The artist's home and studios once more became a magnet for vagrants and street alcoholics, who then sat for paintings. Their numbers swelled and Lenkiewicz was forced to commandeer derelict warehouses in the city to house the 'dossers'. One of these warehouses also served as a studio and in 1973 became the exhibition space for the Vagrancy Project.
He first came to public attention when the media highlighted his giant mural man on Plymouth's Barbican in the 1970s. Another furore occurred in 1981 when he faked his own death in preparation for the forthcoming project of paintings on the theme of death (1982): "I could not know what it was like to be dead," said the artist, "but I could discover what it was like to be thought dead."
Later life and death
After his first exhibition with an established art dealer, in the 1990s Lenkiewicz's work enjoyed growing commercial success and some recognition by the establishment. He received a major retrospective in 1997 at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, attended by 42,000 visitors.
Lenkiewicz, aged 60, died of a heart attack in 2002. Despite painting 10,000 works rated of 'national importance' by the British Museum he had only £12 cash in his possession (having never opened a bank account), and owed £2 million to various creditors.
Since his death, examples of his best paintings have fetched ever-rising prices in London auction rooms. In his obituary of Lenkiewicz, art critic David Lee observed: "Robert's greatest gift was to show us that an artist could be genuinely concerned about social and domestic issues and attempt the difficult task of expressing this conscience through the deeply unfashionable medium of figurative painting. In that sense, he was one of few serious painters of contemporary history."
The rise in Lenkiewicz's popularity was shown in a 2008 auction of his personal collection of his own works, the auction of his paintings and library raised £2.1million. The auction was held by Bearne's Auctioneers (now Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood) at Westpoint Arena in Exeter.
Lenkiewicz never paid tax or kept any records of sales of his works.
In 2009 when his estate was finally valued after lawyers spent 7 years going through personal effects he was found to have left £6.5 million. As well as paintings the estate included a £1 million book collection.
Lenkiewicz was the father of 11 children. Many of his children have become artists in their own right. Lenkiewicz's pupils include Piran Bishop, Yana Travail, Dan Wheatley, Lisa Stokes and Joe Stoneman.
The Vagrancy Project consisted of several dozen paintings of vagrants and a large book of notes written by the dossers themselves and those involved in their 'care' and control. Lenkiewicz hoped that the exhibition, and the down and outs' own stories, would illuminate the plight of these 'invisible people' and galvanise the community into humane action on their behalf. The format of the 'Project' – combining thematically linked paintings with the publication of research notes and the collected observations of the sitters – was to be used consistently throughout Lenkiewicz's career. Projects such as Mental Handicap (1976), Old Age (1979) and Death (1982) followed the one on vagrancy as Lenkiewicz continued to examine the lives of ostracised, hidden sections of the community and bring them to the attention of the general public.
The Paul Downes song "Robert and the Cowboys" was inspired by the project and describes a number of the vagrants.
In a parallel line of inquiry, Lenkiewicz also investigated some of society's most persistent taboos in projects such as Jealousy (1977), Orgasm (1978), Suicide (1980) and Sexual Behaviour (1983). Here, Lenkiewicz often adopted an allegorical pictorial style to portray human physiology in extremis. Lenkiewicz came to the conclusion that the kinds of sensations people felt when a lover abandoned them or when their cherished beliefs were threatened were identical in kind to the 'withdrawal symptoms' and anxieties experienced by addicts or alcoholics over their preferred narcotic. These projects thus became an extended study in 'addictive behaviour' (the title of his 20th, unfinished, project).
The conclusions drawn from his own observations were supported by his private library, which he viewed as a history of 'fanatical belief systems'. Lenkiewicz contended that in the absence of any good reasons for our beliefs or emotions we must always look to human physiology for an explanation of fanatical or obsessive behaviour and that it is there that we shall discover the roots of fascism – the tendency to treat another person as property. Lenkiewicz saw all his projects (21 in all) as part of a large-scale investigation into the origins of fascism – the tendency to treat other people as property – and the roots of obsessive and fanatical behaviour.
On and off, for nearly 30 years, he worked on his great masterpiece, the Riddle Mural in the Round Room at Port Eliot house, home of the Earl of St. Germans, but died before its completion. Half of the mural, in the 40-foot-diameter (12 m) room, shows death, destruction, insanity, unrequited love, and the apocalyptic end of the world. The other half reflects love and affection, friendships, harmony, proportion and consensus. Hidden in the work are various references to family skeletons, art history and cabalistic mysteries, hence the name – the Riddle Mural.
Over forty years Lenkiewicz built up a library of some 25,000 volumes devoted to art, the occult sciences, demonolatry, magic, philosophy, especially metaphysics, alchemy, death, psychology and sexuality, preoccupations which surface in some of his paintings. His collection of books on magic and witchcraft was one of the finest in private hands and was largely sold at Sotheby's in 2003, and a substantial part of the remainder of his library was sold at auction in May 2007 by Lyon & Turnbull.
- Robert Lenkiewicz: Paintings & Projects ISBN 0-9531370-9-0 (Autumn 2006)
- Robert Lenkiewicz: Free-thinking social artist, Mark Penwill, The Guardian, 26 August 2002
- Obituary: Robert Lenkiewicz, Francis Mallett and Mark Penwill, The Independent, 13 August 2002
- Robert Lenkiewicz paintings finally on display, BBC News, 2 March 2013
- Jones, Alice (16 May 2008). "Robert Lenkiewicz: Larger than life and death". London: The Independent. Retrieved 16 May 2008.
- "Pauper left a £2m art legacy". The Sun. 13 April 2008. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
- "Lenkiewicz 2008". April 2008. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
- Bibliotheca Lenkiewicziana
- 'Lenkiewicz: The Legacy' exhibition at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 8 April to 11 July 2009
- Lenkiewicz.org – non-profit forum with news and discussions
- The Lenkiewicz.Book Project – a collaboratively edited guide to the artist, Robert Lenkiewicz
- remembering Robert- the new book on Lenkiewicz
- Port Eliot House, St. Germans, Cornwall – home of the masterpiece, the Riddle Mural
- Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood: Biography of Robert Lenkiwicz (1941–2002) (with auction results)