Plymouth, a port city in the southwest of England, is not particularly known for being a cultural hotspot. Yet for many years it was home to one of the country’s most celebrated artists, whose paintings are now lavishly compared to Rembrandt in style and Hogarth in subject matter.
Robert Lenkiewicz settled there after leaving London in the 1960s, setting up studios in the cobbled waterside district known as the Barbican and spectacularly establishing his presence in 1971 with a 15 metre high mural that depicted images of many local characters, some of them nude. An eternal free spirit, he turned his back on the art establishment, preferring to use his art as social commentary, particularly on those living on the edge of society.
I had the misfortune of going to school in Plymouth and had my own reasons for feeling completely out of step with the place. But in common with most of my friends, I also despaired of having to live in a city where nothing much ever seemed to happen. So when we heard about the weird and wonderful Lenkiewicz, it was only natural that we would try to get a glimpse of him. We got more than a glimpse. Lenkiwiecz’s studios were open to all comers and we were welcome to hang out whenever we wanted. This was the 1970s and Lenkiewicz, bearded, longhaired and dishevelled, was the very image of a hippy and appeared hardly to notice the flock of youngsters who regularly congregated in his studios, so absorbed was he in his latest project. He didn’t mind if we wanted to stay overnight and kip down on the floor and didn’t ask whether our parents would mind.
We in fact were just a small part of his entourage, and only on the fringes at that. Fellow free spirits, artists and odd balls formed a kind of community around him, and many were to become the subject of his most sought after paintings. But for a pound he would produce a quickly drawn cartoon portrait for anyone who asked, including some of my schoolmates. If they still have them, they are probably worth a bit of money.
I myself only ever saw Lenkiewicz from afar, being far too shy to actually speak to him, but enjoyed being in the chaos of his studios or sitting in front of the famous mural, and trying to remember who was who. Everyone in it was alive and lived locally, from prostitutes to the mayor, but depicted as Elizabethans.
My friends would refer to Lenkiewicz as ‘the Pole’ because of his name. In fact, he was born in London in 1941, the son of Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland, and spoke with an English public school accent. The story goes that during his early years as an artist in London, his interest in what in common parlance might ignorantly be called weirdos brought him to the attention of the police – someone had hanged himself in his studio – and he was forced to find somewhere he could paint without attracting too much controversy.
Plymouth, a long way from anywhere important and economically depressed by the decline of its dockyard, was classic backwater territory and the Barbican itself was full of larger than life characters like himself. Famous as the place where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail on the Mayflower for America in the 17th century, its preserved Elizabethan streets had become a bohemian quarter alongside a busy fishing port and market, with a plethora of antique shops, artist studios and small pubs. One of them, the Dolphin, was the haunt of Beryl Cook, another famous Plymouth painter, who based many of her colourful caricatures on her drinking companions.
Lenkiewicz was her polar opposite, intending his art to become part of serious investigation into aspects of the human experience, mostly those ignored by the rest of society. One of his projects was called Vagrancy and not only included portraits of local vagrants but a book on the subject as well. Lenkiewicz had given shelter to a large number of street people in several derelict buildings near his studios in order to study them. Addiction, sexual behaviour, mental illness and old age were other themes that threw up hundreds more of his richly crafted canvasses. The proceeds of any he bothered to sell were spent on adding to his collection of rare books.
Needless to say, he was never far from controversy. There are well-worn stories of what he used to get up to, including embalming the body of a dead tramp he called Diogenes in his studios and keeping it in a drawer, and faking his own death by sending a notice of his demise to the local newspaper. There is also the very amusing tale of how he disguised himself as an elderly wheelchair bound professor to give a talk to Plymouth Age Concern after organisers apologised for Lenkiewicz’s apparent non-appearance.
All this happened after I left the city. Although I visited it from time to time, by now able to appreciate its sharp sea air and sparkly blue waters, Lenkiewicz had all but disappeared from my thoughts. Then six years ago, I heard that he had suddenly died so I decided to revisit the studios. They still bore his name but were locked up. As for the mural painted above them, it had been damaged by the elements and was covered by wooden panels, perhaps to prevent bits of wall crumbling off. Apparently Lenkiewicz had been thinking of restoring it, but never got round to it. Another, smaller mural on the other side of the studio building looked like it was going the same way.
With an auction of his paintings at Sotheby’s raising more than £1 million, it was clear that Lenkiewicz was now regarded as a world-class artist. So why was Plymouth City Council not trying to make the most of him by at least having the murals restored, I wondered.
Lenkiewicz’s executors had been forced to auction off his work because he had died penniless, owing the Inland Revenue more than £2 million. Although he had begun to achieve some recognition outside of Plymouth by the 1990s, now he was being feted by the art world, something he had studiously avoided. What would he have made of it all? More auctions have been held and, with one painting alone fetching £203,000, I am sure the taxman has got what he wanted.
Then a few months ago, I was able to see some of his work for myself at a gallery just up the road from where I live in north London. Staring at me from the walls were wonderful portraits of many of the “gentlemen of the road” that Lenkiewicz had taken under wing – they may have been down and outs but their dignified pose and steady gaze seemed to ennoble them.
But dominating the space, in terms of size at least, was a garish canvass showing a group of women and children surrounding a man on his deathbed. That man was Lenkiewicz, who was very much alive and kicking at the time of its execution – 1981. I stifled the urge to laugh out loud because standing next to me were some of those same women and children, looking at their younger selves.
They included Annie Hall-Smith, the exhibition’s curator and one of Lenkiewicz’s many ‘wives’. She had had three of his 11 children and when I spoke to her it was clear that he had been the love of her life. She didn’t seem to mind that he was not a brilliant provider or that he was had a habit of taking up with other women. In fact, several of his other lovers were present at the gallery, this being the opening night, and they could all be seen chatting happily together, their now grown up children in tow. One, who had a son with Lenkiewicz when he lived in London, was equally generous about him, even though he had had little to do with the boy while he was growing up. ‘He was irresistible,’ Hall-Smith said. ‘A force of life itself.’
Eccentric to the end, Lenkiewicz was buried in the back garden of his Plymouth home, though a weeping cherry tree has been planted in a public garden near his studios as a memorial to him. And in December there is to be a play based on his life at the Barbican Theatre called Man in the red scarf. I shall make a point of being there with some of my old classmates.