L B-H’s Artist Profiles: Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz

The Man in the Red Scarf: Robert Lenkiewicz

Right or wrong, embalming the corpse of a deceased homeless person and keeping it in your home is an indisputably interesting thing to do. For Robert Lenkiewicz, this was the natural and kind thing to do for his friend, Diogenes. This might sound like the opening to a surrealist short story and I suppose, in many ways, it is – but Robert Lenkiewicz, who died in 2002, was a very real enigma of the art world.

Despite formal training first at Central Saint Martins and later at the Royal Academy, Lenkiewicz was the scourge of the artistic establishment and, early in his career, of London itself. His first studio, opened at the age of 23, quickly became home to the zaniest characters from the peripherals of daily life: the homeless; drug addicts; criminals and the mentally unstable. It goes without saying that Lenkiewicz’s neighbours were less than happy about the sudden influx of knavish characters to the area and Lenkiewicz was, in effect, exiled from London.

Lenkiewicz fled, first to Cornwall where he met one of his greatest sponsors, Earl Peregrine Eliot, and shortly after to Plymouth, where he would remain until his death. He was an affable rogue, shrouded in mystery and dressed in tattered black clothes with a vibrant red scarf hanging loosely around his neck. A novel curiosity, distinguished yet dishevelled, he began by opening a portrait gallery and was soon an established member of the community travelling from door to door selling watercolours for £2 a piece.

As Lenkiewicz continued his practice he came to acquire derelict warehouses around the city. He ended up owning nine in total and they would come to proudly command the epithet “The Cowboy’s Holiday Inns” as Lenkiewicz offered the space to those in Plymouth who were homeless. He acquired worn out beds from local hospitals and would host a yearly Christmas dinner. He held the mirror up to Plymouth and showed them the faces they had chosen to neglect in his first major project, Vagrancy.

His projects often grappled with subjects commonly deemed taboo, such as: Suicide; Orgasm; and Death, as well as many intimate paintings of women. He claimed to have slept with over 3000 women and a notice pasted in the window of his studio once politely requested: “Female sitters needed. A thoughtful interest in the subject of human relationships would be a helpful aside as no funds are available for the payment of models”.

He produced enormous murals for the Barbican area of Plymouth that now stand unpreserved and bleached by the sun but which, at the time, enriched and enlivened the area. The money he obtained from such commissions was invariably spent on books and he had amassed, by his death, a formidable library of around 50,000 books. His obsession with books once landed him in Exeter prison for two months after he had stolen four rare books from Plymouth City Museum but was only discovered and subsequently arrested four years later.

Many of the books in his vast library dealt with themes of the occult and witchcraft. His interest in these subjects explains another curiosity he kept in his home: the skeleton of Ursula Kemp, a 16th century midwife who was hanged for witchcraft and nailed into her coffin – he kept this on his piano.

His greatest interest, however, was death. It was this interest that led him not only to embalm his dear friend Diogenes (AKA Edwin McKenzie) but also to fake his own death when he was, in fact, quietly ensconced at Earl Peregrine Eliot’s home. He was intrigued by the total presence of the dead body and total absence of the mind, a Descartesian line of thought that predated Hirst’s iconic The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (an embalmed shark) by around nine years.

Upon his death only £12 was found on his person and it was subsequently discovered that he had never opened a bank account and had made his way in Plymouth mostly for free on account of the respect the locals had for him. His debts were endless, but his legacy endures and the stories mentioned above are just a smattering of the kaleidoscope of anecdotes rooted within the legend of Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz.

A full gallery of Lenkiewicz’s artistic projects can be found on his website: http://www.robertlenkiewicz.org/