Robert Lenkiewicz

Robert Lenkiewicz


thumb|_Cockney_Jim_Waiting_For_Miss_Lesley_Miller_On_The_Barbican30x40cm_oil_on_canvas_piece_from_Lenkiewicz16 October -31 October 1975)] Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz (31 December 1941–August 5 2002) was one of the South West England's most celebrated artists of modern times. Perennially unfashionable in high art circles, his work was nevertheless popular with the public. [,,780831,00.html Robert Lenkiewicz: Free-thinking social artist] , Mark Penwill, "The Guardian", August 26, 2002] Obituary: Robert Lenkiewicz, Francis Mallett and Mark Penwill, "The Independent", August 13, 2002] He painted on a large scale, usually in themed Projects investigating hidden communities ( [ Vagrancy 1973] , [ Mental Handicap 1976] ) or difficult social issues ( [ Suicide 1980] , [ Death 1982] ).

Early life

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 in Plymouth. 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 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

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, attended by 42,000 visitors. Since his death at the age of 60 in 2002, 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. Dying with only £12 cash in his possession (having never opened a bank account), and owing £2million to various creditors, the auction of his paintings and library raised £2.1million. [citeweb|url=|title=Pauper left a £2m art legacy|publisher=The Sun|date= 13 April 2008|accessdate=2008-04-13]

The father of 11 children, Lenkiewicz was the stepfather of Bianca Eliot, now the widow of Jago Eliot, Lord Eliot. His pupils include Piran Bishop, Lisa Stokes, [ Joe Stoneman] , Yana Trevail, Nahem Shoa and Louise Courtnell.

Vagrancy Project

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 galvanize 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 ostracized, hidden sections of the community and bring them to the attention of the general public.

Other projects

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.


Over forty years Lenkiewicz built up a library of some 25,000 volumes [ [ Bibliotheca Lenkiewicziana] ] 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.

Further reading

* "Robert Lenkiewicz: Paintings & Projects" ISBN 0953137090 (Autumn 2006)


External links

* [ R.O.Lenkiewicz website]
* [ - non-profit forum with news and discussions]
* [ The Lenkiewicz.Book Project - a collaboratively edited guide to the artist, Robert Lenkiewicz]

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