We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk


Robert Lewin

Art dealer and philanthropist

Born Boruch Lewin, in another time and another place, Robert Lewin might have led the sort of ordered, civilised life that those lucky enough to live in 21st-century Western Europe take for granted. As it was, he was swept by the tides of war from east to west, and back again, before eventually finding fulfilment in London as an art dealer, benefactor and philanthropist. His life is a metaphor for the 20th century.

Boruch Lewin (Robert Lewin), art dealer: born Warsaw 23 December 1918; married 1947 Bronia Medrzycji (marriage dissolved 1954), 1957 Rena Langer (née Fisch, died 2002); died London 17 May 2004.

Born Boruch Lewin, in another time and another place, Robert Lewin might have led the sort of ordered, civilised life that those lucky enough to live in 21st-century Western Europe take for granted. As it was, he was swept by the tides of war from east to west, and back again, before eventually finding fulfilment in London as an art dealer, benefactor and philanthropist. His life is a metaphor for the 20th century.

Robert and Rena Lewin opened the Brook Street Gallery in Mayfair, London, in 1960 with a loan from friends. With Bob's expert eye and gift for sourcing and acquiring mostly small works of 20th- century masters, and his wife's exquisite taste and talent for people, the gallery soon gained an international reputation and a wide circle of devoted collectors. While he became known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of provenance, associations and value, she would draw in their clients with her charm, wit and shrewd intelligence.

For a quarter of a century, the Brook Street Gallery hosted exhibitions and dealt in artists such as Arp, Calder, Giacometti, Moore, Morandi, Picasso, Erté and Piper. He also had a talent for discovering and encouraging contemporary artists and was instrumental in promoting, among others, Eileen Agar, Scottie Wilson and Gillian Ayres.

Bob and Rena Lewin were, too, great hosts at their London home in Eaton Square and later in St John's Wood. An invitation from the Lewins was not to be turned down. Financiers, industrialists, writers, painters and film-makers would marvel at the eclectic art collection of pre-Columbian figures, African sculpture, European and Oriental furnishings, among the 20th-century masters and contemporary art.

Bob, meanwhile, would be found expounding on the origins of the Fauves, or the Surrealist nature of Rowlandson, before disappearing to his library on a sudden quest for an obscure fact. For his guidance and encouragement to up-and-coming dealers he became known as a "dealers' dealer", his expertise prized not only in art, but for his other great passions - tennis, riding, wild life, Israel. Those who encountered him in the rarefied echelons of the fine-art world were, however, rarely told of the extraordinary journey that brought him to England.

Born in Warsaw in December 1918, Boruch Lewin was the son of a Polish Jewish banker, Jacob, and the beautiful and adored Yochewet, who together brought him up strictly and urged him towards "solid materialistic goals", a formal education and a career as a professional.

With the death of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, rising Polish nationalism and increasingly overt anti-Semitism, fanned by Hitler's anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws, convinced Jacob Lewin that there was no future for Jews in Poland. He encouraged his son to apply for medical school in London, where he won a place at Guy's Hospital. Boruch's brother was already at boarding school in England. His parents moved to the South of France, where they thought they would be safe.

Within a year, Boruch Lewin decided not to pursue a career in medicine and instead found a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, to read Agriculture, beginning his studies in autumn 1938.

On the outbreak of war, he was recalled to Poland for military service. Perhaps naïve, and certainly idealistic, he left Oxford as soon as the academic year was over to fight for his homeland against the Nazis.

His arrival in Warsaw coincided with the collapse of the Polish army. As the Nazis moved up through Poland Lewin faced the deadly dilemma of every Polish Jew: escape east into the arms of the Russians, or west into what was now greater Germany. He decided to go east, making his way to Lithuania in November 1939.

By the end of 1940 he faced a second grim choice. Swear allegiance to the new Soviet regime, or flee again. Lewin, like thousands of other refugees, was looking for a way out of the country altogether.

He had been fortunate to find his way to "Japan's Schindler", Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno (now Kaunas), who had wilfully taken it upon himself to issue Japanese visas to Jewish refugees. Before he was ordered to close the consulate in late 1940, Sugihara had managed to save at least 1,600 refugees, who eventually got to Japan.

After arrival in Kobe, Japan, in February 1941 and a bout of typhoid, Lewin, with characteristic resourcefulness, managed with the help of his father in Nice to contact and be admitted to the University of California to continue his studies. While waiting for his United States visa, war once again thwarted his plans: preparing for Pearl Harbor, the Japanese transferred all Eastern European refugees to Shanghai.

Lewin was lucky. He stayed in Shanghai until the Allied liberation in 1945, working for an international trader and later for a charity helping Eastern European refugees. As for many refugees who survived, his immediate post-war experience was bitter-sweet. Boruch discovered that, while his brother Michel had survived in hiding in France, both their parents had been arrested in Nice in August 1942 and deported to Auschwitz.

After a brief spell as an administrator for the American army in Shanghai, Boruch Levin returned to Oxford in time for the academic year 1946-47.

Those who endured his generation's traumas were reticent about their wartime experience. Asked years later about his time in Kobe and Shanghai, he would say only, "When the whole world was at war, how could one complain of even the most miserable of existences?"

This was the defining period in Lewin's life. His notes include literary attempts, comments about books read, thoughts about art and life, and the sadness of a young man whose world has vanished and is a stranger to the world around him.

His peripatetic existence was nearly at an end. But not quite. With a no longer invalid Polish passport issued in Tokyo in 1941, it was almost a year before he overcame all the bureaucratic obstacles and found a flight (there were no passenger ships at the time) via Hong Kong, India and Egypt to arrive in England just in time for the beginning of the academic year.

Now Robert, or Bob, Lewin, he chose to read PPE rather than Agriculture, and graduated in 1949, before following his true vocation at the Chelsea College of Art, where Frank Auerbach was among his tutors.

An early marriage in 1947 to Bronia Medrzycki ended in 1954. Bob met Rena Fisch Langer and so began their lifelong partnership. Married in 1957, both were members of a circle of immigrants building a new life in England. Rena was an inspired speaker and worker for the Pioneer Women of Great Britain - a British-Zionist labour movement. It was Rena who encouraged Bob to expand his expertise in the art world, and gave him the confidence and support to open the gallery.

In the mid-1980s and at the height of his career, Bob decided to close the gallery. Later he would say that he could no longer connect with the direction of the contemporary art world.

After their retirement, Bob and Rena Lewin remained very active in the art world and became well known for their philanthropy both in Britain and in Israel. Typically, they left the bulk of their estate to charitable causes. Pembroke College, Oxford, has been endowed with a chair, the Robert and Rena Lewin Chair of Philosophy, while the Ashmolean Museum now benefits from a bequest of John Pipers, and the Tate Gallery, among other grants, has the gift of works by Jean Arp.

In 1992 they were made Honorary Fellows of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, to which they gave not only funds and works of art, but also their vision and time. Rena died in 2002.

Sharone Lifschitz