What do we really know about Robert Lenkiewicz?

Robert Lenkiewicz is certainly an enigmatic character to study, not least because so many accounts of his life are often contradicted.

It must be extremely difficult for historians to describe with any real accuracy events from hundreds or thousands of years ago when experience shows that even documenting someone who died relatively recently is a challenging task.Self Portrait at the House Compton | Non Project Piece | Robert Lenkiewicz

Lenkiewicz passed away in 2002, leaving behind thousands of paintings, volumes of books and the testimony of hundreds of his models, many of whom are still regaling stories. It should be relatively easy, then, to piece together a fairly detailed biography of the man and discuss, with some confidence, his early life.

It should be even easier to document his later life, understand his raison d’etre and know the stories behind some of his most famous paintings.

However, this proves difficult.

For example, we know that he was born in London in 1941 and he was brought up in his parents’ Jewish hotel. We know he spent his boyhood in the Hotel Shemtov in Cricklewood.

When attempting to dissect an artists work, it’s often to childhood that experts will look. So it’s at this segment of history that many focus on when trying to work out why Lenkiewicz painted what he did in the way he did it. Indeed, it’s exactly at this point in the painter’s life where people to look to explain his penchant for taking in homeless people in his adopted city of Plymouth.

If we were to do the same, we would apparently discover a childhood that would easily explain his actions in later life.

His parents had fled Nazi Germany, his mother was a baroness, his father a Polish horse breeder and it’s often said that the many residents of their hotel were mostly Holocaust survivors.

Here, then, is our answer.

But is it true?

It would certainly be a very convenient back-story.

Living amongst survivors of one of the most harrowing moments in history would certainly influence an impressionable young man, and this would surely make itself known when he then became an artist.

Moreover, it would make sense, then, that this led to him wanting to help the less fortunate. Maybe he saw the homeless of Plymouth as survivors themselves? Maybe he really saw his art as a means to an end – to attempt to help those around him, whilst being fascinated by their stories?

Robert Lenkiewicz | Holding Man Watching Woman Walk AwayAnd yet his brother, John, contradicts this story in one statement.

He says that the hotel residents “tended to be the parents or grandparents of 2nd or 3rd generation English Jews.”

Could it be that historians, desperate to fill in holes in a now very famous, and very bankable artist, are looking to a history that doesn’t exist?

There is much to say about Lenkiewicz, and it seems that we’ll have to dig much deeper to really unravel this most enigmatic of painters.