Robert Lenkiewicz


Rarely in recent times can the death of an artist have elicited such an emotional public response as that of Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz. The sophisticates of the London art world may well put this down as a naïve provincial phenomenon but Lenkiewicz's paintings communicated directly with ordinary people, who recognised that here was not only an artist of considerable talent but someone who had the power to make them contemplate their own lives and the world they live in.

Like most things in his life, Lenkiewicz adopted a unique position towards his own paintings. At an early age he made a conscious decision to subjugate his skill to a greater service: to become a "presenter of information" or a "sociological enquirer", as he usually termed it. By this he meant to reveal the plain fact of a person or thing. For Lenkiewicz, the act of painting was a profoundly moving experience. "To paint oneself is to paint a portrait of someone who is going to die," Lenkiewicz would often remark when asked about his many self-portraits. "And the same applies if one paints anybody else." His main aim was to capture the transient and haunting qualities of his subject. He recognised the limitations of art and considered it second best to the mystery of his subject's sheer existence.

He began by recording the lives of the tramps in London and then Plymouth in his huge project on Vagrancy. In an era remembered as the "Swinging Sixties", Robert was spending most of his time painting the down-and-outs, the mentally ill and the misfits of the affluent society. Encouraged to leave London by the police for attracting too many undesirables to his Hampstead studios, Lenkiewicz soon relocated to Plymouth.

Many of the colourful characters he painted became an integral part of the Lenkiewicz myth, in particular Edward McKenzie, known as "Diogenes", and Albert Fisher, known as "The Bishop". According to Lenkiewicz, The Bishop was "an extraordinary man with large hands and a great red beard. He would sleep beneath a tree in Stoke Damerel graveyard and believed himself to have mystical experiences. He came rushing in one day and said that the sun had been shining through the tree, that every single leaf had turned into a man with a top hat, that each man with a top hat had a pint of beer in his hand and that each and every one of them had wished him "Good morning!" In the posh Oxford accent he had cultivated, he said, "I had a vision there. Not a dream, not a nightmare but a vision there!"

'by Francis Mallett - printed by permission of White Lane Press'.