Robert Lenkiewicz (1942 - 2002)

Robert Lenkiewicz was born in London in 1941, the son of Jewish refugees. He spent his childhood in the Jewish hotel in Cricklewood run by his parents, whose elderly residents, many of whom suffered from dementia and other vicissitudes of old age, made a lasting impression on the young Lenkiewicz. Lenkiewicz’s interest in painting was sparked as a child when he watched Charles Laughton portray Rembrandt in Alexander Korda’s film. From an early age he worked prolifically and on a large scale, whether painting portraits of the hotel residents or large scenes depicting horses inspired by the works of George Stubbs. At the age of sixteen he was accepted into St Martin’s College of Art and Design on the strength of a series of anatomical drawings of dissected pigeons. He later attended the Royal Academy, but continued to pursue an independent course as a painter.

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, his neighbours did not welcome such colourful characters and he was forced to leave London in 1964. After a year living in a remote cottage near Lanreath in Cornwall, during which time he supported himself and his young family by teaching, Lenkiewicz was 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, known as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (access could only be gained by ascending a ladder) also served as a studio and in 1973 became the exhibition space for the Vagrancy Project. This project consisted in hundreds of paintings of the dossers and a large book of notes written by the dossers themselves and those involved in the ‘care’ and control.

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, Old Age, Death and Suicide 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. In 1994, breaking with his usual practice of showing his work in his own studios, Lenkiewicz exhibited many of the paintings from ‘The Painter with Women: Observations on the Theme of the Double’ at the Birmingham International Convention Centre. More than 35,000 people visited the exhibition in a single week. The aim was to raise funds to purchase the fine buildings which house his library and studios on Plymouth’s historic Barbican so that his enormous book collection and paintings can be preserved as a public museum. (Used by permission of White Lane Press).

Postscript - Robert Lenkiewicz's sad passing in August 2002 sees not only the death of a legend in the South West, but also the passing of a man for whom life was a picture in progress. (Triton Galleries).