Robert Lenkiewicz: Larger than life and death

He had thousands of lovers, faked his own demise, and kept an embalmed corpse in his home. Yes, Robert Lenkiewicz was one of the great eccentrics – and now, prices for his paintings are soaring

When the artist Robert Lenkiewicz died in 2002, he left behind a particularly macabre legacy. Nestling in a secret drawer, hidden behind some elaborate panelling at the bottom of a bookcase, was the embalmed corpse of a tramp. The Plymouth-based painter had befriended Edwin McKenzie – whom he dubbed Diogenes after he found him living in a barrel on a rubbish tip – and promised him that he would preserve his body after his death as a "human paperweight" rather than handing it over to the authorities for burial.

For 18 years, Diogenes lay concealed in Lenkiewicz's "death room", where other gruesome curios included the skeleton of Ursula Kemp, a 16th-century midwife who was hanged for witchcraft and nailed into her coffin (kept in a long wooden box on top of the piano) and a parchment lampshade he claimed had been brought out of Auschwitz in 1940 (on the desk).

To say that Lenkiewicz was obsessed with death is an understatement. "To paint oneself is to paint a portrait of someone who is going to die," he would say. "And the same applies if one paints anybody else." The artist often took this literally, producing two large-scale "projects" on the subject, each comprising hundreds of paintings, including Death Bed, an image of himself expiring wanly, surrounded by his friends and family, and a joyfully creepy family tableau, Mr Earl, funeral director, and family, in coffin warehouse.

In 1981, the renegade artist faked his own death, announcing his demise to the local newspapers when he was in fact bunkered in with his old chum Peregrine Nicholas Eliot, 10th Earl of St Germans, Cornwall, in his stately home. "I could not know what it was like to be dead," he explained without remorse when his hoax was uncovered. "But I could know what it would be like to be thought to be dead, which I engineered."

It's pretty fair to assume, then, that Lenkiewicz, far from spinning in his grave, would be delighted to know that he is still making headlines today, almost six years after his real demise. This week, two of his former lovers, Megan Clay (who has a 19-year-old son, Isaac, by the artist) and Karen Cambriello (two daughters, Thais, 19, and Chaya, 17) finally settled their child maintenance claims on his estate in a secret, out-of-court agreement thought to be worth £200,000.

It seems that Diogenes and Ursula were not the only skeletons in the artist's closet. When he died of heart complications in August 2002, aged 60, some 240 claimants to his will crept out of the woodwork. These amounted, says Peter Walmsley, senior partner at Boyce Hatton solicitors and executor of Lenkiewicz's will, to "millions of pounds of claims – from the Inland Revenue, council rates, book dealers, one of whom was owed over £300,000..." Then there were the child maintenance for his many mistresses, the friends he had borrowed money from, promising them a painting in return, and the hundreds of paid-for commissions left unfinished. But Lenkiewicz, who had never opened a bank account, died almost penniless. "We literally went through his pockets to see what he had and it came to around £12 cash," Walmsley says. "We never found any more."

Despite this apparent penury, there are now just five outstanding claims to resolve. In the six years since his death, Lenkiewicz's estate has been gradually sold off to the tune of more than £5m. While sales of his enormous collections of books at Sotheby's – the occult and witchcraft were among his favourite subjects – account for about £1.6m of the total, the rest of the money has been generated through sales of his paintings.

Luckily, in his work, as in all other areas of his life, Lenkiewicz was prolific. "There are some incredible statistics about Robert," recalls Jojo, a local photographer who knew Lenkiewicz for 20 years and has now written a play about the artist's life, The Man in the Red Scarf, which will be performed at Plymouth's Barbican in December. "He produced 10,000 works, had relationships with, if you believe him, in the region of 3,000 women, was married three times..." And how many children did he have? "I think the official count was 11."

Last month, an auction of Lenkiewicz's paintings at Bearne's in Exeter raised almost £2m. The highest price paid was £203,150, for his apocalyptic 36ft canvas The Temptation of St Anthony, which depicts Plymouth's Southside Street on a Saturday night. The Bishop Startled, a three-quarter-length portrait of Albert Fisher (a vagrant who used to sleep under a tree in Stoke Damerel graveyard), seated on a chair with a clown doll in his lap, went for £113,000, while even the aforementioned Death Bed was snapped up for £96,000.

There is, according to Dan Goddard, director and paintings expert at Bearne's, "no equivalent draw to an auction in the area", and the auction house was forced to hold the sale off-site at the cavernous Westpoint exhibition V C centre in order to accommodate the thousands of visitors, many of whom had been painted by the artist over the years and turned up keen to buy their own piece of the local legend. An upcoming exhibition of Lenkiewicz's self-portraits at the Ben Uri Gallery in September, his first ever exhibition in London, is further affirmation of this outsider artist's curious posthumous flourishing.

It's a renaissance that is long overdue, according to Francis Mallet of Plymouth's New Street Gallery, where Lenkiewicz staged several exhibitions. "He was a great painter and is finally being recognised as such after all these years of neglect by the art establishment, particularly by London, who would never have him. He didn't really play the game as far as London commercial galleries were concerned. He did his own thing out in the provinces, which was looked down upon.

"Unfortunately, the only things people ever knew about him further afield were the stories about faking his own death and embalming tramps. That's what he became known for, instead of the quality of his painting and the fascinating ideas behind the work. He painted on philosophical and sociological themes and he was deeply serious about what he did. The rest is just trivia, gossip really. When people talk about Picasso or other great artists they don't concentrate on the scandal, they just see it as great painters who had interesting lives," Mallet says.

Great artist or not, Lenkiewicz lived an extraordinarily interesting life by anyone's standards. He was born in north London in 1941, the son of German-Polish refugees who ran the "only Jewish guest house in town", the Hotel Shem-tov, whose 60-odd elderly residents included several concentration-camp survivors. He grew up there with his two brothers, "surrounded by lunatics and rabbis" who became his first artistic subjects. From time to time, he would apparently be called upon to help his mother wash down the corpses of those aged residents who had died on the premises.

He gained places at St Martin's School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, and later set up himself up in Hampstead, where he taught art and began his lifelong dedication to society's unfortunates, throwing open his studio to vagrants, criminals, the mentally ill and drug addicts. In 1964, he was asked to leave the city by the Metropolitan Police who claimed he was attracting too many "undesirables" to the area.

He fled to a cottage in Cornwall for a year, where he made the useful acquaintance of Earl Eliot, who would be his most enduring patron. In lieu of rent, the Earl commissioned Lenkiewicz to paint a mural for the Round Room of his estate, Port Eliot, but the artist took 30 years to finish it, despite his generous patron sending empty taxis from Cornwall, bearing pleading notes ("Please Robert, come and finish the painting") to collect him.

In the early 1970s, Lenkiewicz moved to Plymouth, where he quickly became a recognisable local character around the Barbican, with his straggly long hair, Rasputin-esque beard and a style seemingly borrowed from his vagrant friends. He began by selling watercolours door-to-door for £2 apiece, all the time continuing to attract down-and-outs like a charitable magnet. He offered them accommodation and refuge in his nine derelict warehouses scattered around the city, which were referred to locally as "The Cowboy's Holiday Inns", for which he acquired worn-out beds from the local hospital, and where he hosted a Christmas dinner every year. His hundreds of charges eventually became the subject of his first project, an exhibition of portraits entitled Vagrancy.

It was followed, over the years, by 19 more large-scale projects that dealt with similarly taboo aspects of the human condition, from addiction, sexual behaviour, mental handicap, old age and death, to more personal portraits of his thousands of lovers. A notice pasted in the window of his studio 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." Nevertheless, he was never short of willing models-cum-mistresses. As well as his 11 "official" children, the playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Bianca Eliot, the widow of Lord Jago Eliot, are among his numerous stepchildren.

Aside from these projects, he painted several large-scale public murals for the Barbican (today neglected and bleached by the sun), as well as personal commissions. "He was a very good academic painter, and could produce very fine pieces," Jojo says. "If we're honest, he could also produce some crap, if he wasn't really into it. He did several controversial projects that delighted me. One was called Orgasm. I was photographing someone the other day who had called in to the exhibition with her elderly friend on a rainy day. They thought it was an exhibition about organisms. She still blushed talking about it today, 30 years later."

Though his work could be lurid and shocking to the uninitiated observer, Lenkiewicz always maintained that it was underpinned by complex sociological ideals and philosophies. Much of this background was gleaned from his library of more than 50,000 rare books, arranged by subject – witchcraft, metaphysics, art biographies – and housed in his various properties, including St Saviour's Church, around Plymouth. He spent all the money he had (and plenty he didn't) on them, even doing a two-month sentence in Exeter prison for stealing four rare books from the Plymouth City Museum in the early 1970s. "Nobody really cared about them until four years later when the police came calling," Jojo recalls. "He came to the door and said, 'I've been expecting you, what took you so long? Do you take sugar in your tea?'"

There are a hundred such eccentric stories from locals and friends about the shambling bohemian figure in the red scarf. The artist himself claimed that his more outrageous antics were never merely stunts, but an intrinsic part of his art. When he faked his own death and embalmed Diogenes in 1982, it was to provide empirical experience for his Death paintings. "I was interested in the total presence of the body and the total absence of the person," he explained, beating Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, to the punch by some nine years.

But the title of another project from the same period, Paintings Designed to Make Money: the Diogenes Con Show, suggest that Lenkiewicz, like Hirst today, was well aware that a little showmanship in art goes a long way. And Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz would be the least surprised of anyone that, since his death, he and his art have become an ever more valuable commodity.

But how good is his art?
By Tom Lubbock

They're a phenomenon and a puzzle, artists like Robert Lenkiewicz or Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook – loved and admired by that nebulous entity called The Public, dismissed and disregarded by that equally nebulous entity called The Art World. How can we build a bridge between the two?

It wouldn't seem so bad if (as one of the art world) I were to say, outright, that I think Lenkiewicz was a very poor painter, and why; for example, that his technique is just a means to an end, efficiently and repetitively delivering certain effects, with no creative life. Or that his emotional repertoire is absurdly cute and pathos-pumping – inside every Lenkiewicz figure, "The Crying Boy" is wildly signalling to be let out. And that his young ladies seem all to have stepped coyly from a copy of Brides magazine, circa 1972. And that he hasn't a clue about colour or how to organise a picture. And that everything glistens.

If arty people said that kind of thing, reasonably often, then we'd know what the issues were, and Lenkiewicz's fans could come back at us. But we don't. That would be to give his art too much recognition, when really we deem it beneath consideration. The most we do is laugh, groan, sigh, and look away. No wonder the public think we're snobs.

So let me helpfully write down a pecking order for straight figurative painters (no ironists), a sociological record of a current consensus of those more, and less, likely to be shown at Tate.

Class 1: Lucian Freud, Paula Rego. Class 2: Maggi Hambling, John Wonnacott. Class 3: Peter Howson, Jonathan Yeo. Class 4: Lenkiewicz... and probably beyond that, still, Vettriano and Cook.

This list could be the beginning of a discussion. In art, as in everything, just talking helps.

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