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Artists Biography

Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz

British 1941-2002
Robert Lenkiewicz was born in London in 1941, the son of refugees who ran a Jewish hotel in Fordwych Road, whose elderly residents included a number of Holocaust survivors. He was inspired to paint after seeing Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda's biographical film Rembrandt. At 16, Lenkiewicz was accepted at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and later attended the Royal Academy. However, he was virtually impervious to contemporary art fashions, being more interested in his favourite paintings in the National Gallery.

Inspired by the example of Albert Schweitzer, Lenkiewicz threw open the doors of his studios to anyone in need of a roof – down and outs, addicts, criminals and the mentally ill congregated there. These individuals were the subjects of his paintings as a young man. However, such colourful characters were not welcomed by his neighbours and he was obliged to leave London in 1964.

He spent a year living in a remote cottage near Lanreath in Cornwall, supporting his young family by teaching, before being offered studio space on the Barbican in Plymouth by local artist John Nash. The artist's home and studios once more became a magnet for vagrants and street alcoholics, who then sat for paintings. Their numbers swelled and Lenkiewicz was forced to commandeer derelict warehouses in the city to house the 'dossers'. One of these warehouses also served as a studio and in 1973 became the exhibition space for the Vagrancy Project.

He first came to public attention when the media highlighted his giant mural man on Plymouth's Barbican in the 1970s. Another furore occurred in 1981 when he faked his own death in preparation for the forthcoming project of paintings on the theme of death (1982): "I could not know what it was like to be dead," said the artist, "but I could discover what it was like to be thought dead."

After his first exhibition with an established art dealer, in the 1990s Lenkiewicz's work enjoyed growing commercial success and some recognition by the establishment. He received a major retrospective in 1997 at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, attended by 42,000 visitors.

Lenkiewicz, aged 60, died of a heart attack in 2002. Despite painting 10,000 works rated of 'national importance' by the British Museum he had only £12 cash in his possession (having never opened a bank account), and owed £2 million to various creditors.

Since his death examples of his best paintings have fetched ever-rising prices in London auction rooms. In his obituary of Lenkiewicz, art critic David Lee observed: "Robert's greatest gift was to show us that an artist could be genuinely concerned about social and domestic issues and attempt the difficult task of expressing this conscience through the deeply unfashionable medium of figurative painting. In that sense he was one of few serious painters of contemporary history."

The rise in Lenkiewicz's popularity was shown in a 2008 auction of his personal collection of his own works, the auction of his paintings and library raised £2.1million. The auction was held by Bearne's Auctioneers (now Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood) at Westpoint Arena in Exeter.

Lenkiewicz never paid tax or kept any records of sales of his works.

In 2009 when his estate was finally valued after lawyers spent 7 years going through personal effects he was found to have left £6.5 million. As well as paintings the estate included a £1 million book collection.

Lenkiewicz was the father of 11 children, His daughter Alice Lenkiewicz is a painter, poet and editor of the literary magazine, Neon Highway. His stepdaughter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is an accomplished playwright who has had her work performed at the Royal National Theatre. Another stepdaughter is Bianca Eliot. Lenkiewicz's pupils include Piran Bishop, Yana Travail, Dan Wheatley, Lisa Stokes and Joe Stoneman.

Works by this artist…

  • Girl in Ivory Shawl
    Girl in Ivory Shawl
    ( ref : 14025 )
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