Born in London in 1941, Lenkiewicz spent his early childhood in Cricklewood, London at the hotel run by his Jewish parents. Exposed at an early age to the suffering and solitude of the residents, of which some were Holocaust survivors, Lenkiewicz was soon to find this thought provoking and a profound influence on his later work.
Whilst attending Sir Christopher Wren Technical School of Art between 1955-58, he was accepted at Saint Martin’s School of Art at 16, later attending the Royal Academy. His favourite paintings at the National Gallery were of more interest to him than the contemporary art to which he was exposed.
His social conscience resulted in the doors to his studio being thrown open to people in need of shelter, amongst them addicts, the mentally ill and homeless; many of these becoming the subjects of his early paintings. Sadly, these characters were not welcomed by the neighbourhood and he eventually left London in 1964.
A short stay in Lanreath, Cornwall as a teacher was followed by him being offered a studio on the Barbican in Plymouth by a local benefactor. Moving with his young family, Lenkiewicz soon attracted the same people that forced his move from London. Commandeering derelict warehouses, he was able to accommodate the masses of people that came to rely on his shelter. One of his first exhibitions in 1973, the ‘Vagrancy Project’, was shown in one of these warehouses.
Exhibitions and commercial success soon followed and by the 1990s a major retrospective had attracted close to 50,000 visitors at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.
Lenkiewicz painted many projects on society’s taboos, including ‘Death’, ‘Orgasm’, ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Sexual Behaviour’. In all over 19 projects were studied before his death in 2002.
Several monumental works added to his fame as someone unfazed by huge works of art and massive study projects. Two of these being the Round Room at Port Eliot and the gigantic mural on The Barbican in Plymouth.
One of his largest projects was ‘Education’, which resulted in some marvellous single character pieces. Another project to which Lenkiewicz devoted many years was ‘The Painter With Women’, a huge study on his own and other peoples relationships. Prior to this he had probed deeply into his obsessional behaviour in ‘The Painter With Mary’, his wife. Adjacent to this, Robert created ‘The Mary Notebook’.
Lenkiewicz was prolific in his output and perhaps one of the reasons was to procure books for his substantial library on metaphysics, medieval philosophy and the occult. A collection that extended to well over 20,000 volumes and was perhaps among the finest of its kind in Europe.
He was a maverick; a colourful character and a man who was genuinely concerned about social and domestic issues, who went through the medium of painting to express his conscience. He didn’t paint a portrait of a vagrant or addict to just reward them with money or a meal. He genuinely cared for his subjects in a very nurturing sense.
It is inevitable that such a huge presence will eventually create myths and legends of all kinds, many of which are hugely exaggerated and far from the truth. For the purpose of The Smithson Collection site, we have focused largely on the fact rather than conjecture.