If you were to ask many people to name their top ten English artists, the name Robert Lenkiewicz is unlikely to be mentioned. In fact, a list on Wikipedia of “20th century English painters” doesn’t even mention him, it seems to many, he simply doesn’t make the grade.
And yet, one of his paintings, a 36-foot canvas called “The Temptation of St Anthony” fetched over £200,000 in an auction in Exeter in 2008. You might be forgiven for thinking, then, that this was a religious painting depicting the Christian Monk’s desert pilgrimage, or maybe someone confused it with the famous work by Salvador Dali.
But no. This picture depicts Plymouth’s Southside Street on a Saturday night, populated with men and women, some in limited attire. It’s not even a painting of historic Plymouth during some particularly memorable part if its naval history. It’s contemporary, with cars parked in the street next to modern shops with their lights on.
Another painting, “The Bishop Startled” sold for over £100,000.
The subject matter here was a vagrant who used to sleep under a tree in a graveyard. His name was Albert Fisher, and you might be wondering what it is that makes the paintings so appealing, and indeed, what is the theme?
For many, the attraction of an artist might be the rarity of their work. When visiting a local art gallery to view some up and coming new artist’s work, I heard someone say, “as long as they don’t paint too many, and die young, these will be worth something.”
So are there many Lenkiewicz paintings about? Is their cost down to the work of an unproductive painter who rarely put brush to canvas?
Not even in the loosest terms.
He was, by any measure of the word, a prolific artist.
Born in 1941, it’s estimated he produced over 10,000 works up until his death in 2002, although roughly half of these were small pencil drawings which he sold for a just a few pounds, but which are now worth considerably more.
He was, however, a controversial figure who didn’t court favour with the London based art set.
He eschewed commercial galleries, preferring instead to exhibit in his adopted city of Plymouth, where he became a bit of a local hero, becoming well known in the city after he arrived in the 1970s.
If you like your artists to be unconventional, then Lenkiewicz had it in spades. His nine warehouses which were scattered around Plymouth became shelters for the city’s many homeless.
The money earned from his paintings was not therefore invested in a jet-set lifestyle, but in helping the less fortunate. Indeed, he provided a free Christmas dinner for the homeless at Bretonside bus station right up until the year before his death.
Lenkiewicz was known for his “Projects”, and the people he helped often became the subjects in his paintings.
In 1973, one of his warehouses (called Jacob’s ladder due to the only entrance being via a ladder), was the venue for his “Vagrancy” project.
Many of the Plymouth establishment were invited to attend to see his work, and they were treated to paintings of the many characters who used his hospitality. It was also an opportunity for him to take a dig at the visitors.
Obviously oblivious to Lenkiewicz’s work with them, one council official had commented how lucky Plymouth was to have so few homeless. To which Lenkiewicz signalled for dozens of them to enter the room.
This, then, would begin to explain the enigma of Robert Lenkiewicz.
He was a larger than life character, of that there’s no doubt, but we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of a life so rich, that many now want to share in it.