Respectability at last for the artist who embalmed a tramp

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He once embalmed the body of a tramp and kept it in a secret drawer at his studio, a place that also contained a parchment lampshade made at Auschwitz, the skeleton of a woman hanged for witchcraft in the 16th century and a 100,000 volume library of rare and ancient books.

Robert Lenkiewicz, the artist based in Plymouth, Devon, who died last year at the age of 60, was one of the country's great eccentrics with an enduring fascination for life outside the mainstream.

But Lenkiewicz did not, unlike many modern artists post-Damien Hirst, deliberately set out to shock and disturb. He was mainly a painter of relatively conventional figurative art whose work was largely ignored by the art establishment during his lifetime although it was loved by many ordinary people, particularly in the West Country.

Lenkiewicz's growing status was endorsed yesterday when Sotheby's staged an auction in London of 155 of his works to raise money to cover outstanding debts on his estate, largely caused by storage, legal and insurance fees. The sale, which was expected to raise about £500,000, raised almost £800,000 with the highest price of £26,000 paid for The Bishop and Painter - Dancing to Mahler. Previously, the highest price paid publicly for a Lenkiewicz work was £13,000. "It's gone extremely well, much better than we expected and the saleroom was packed with both ordinary buyers and dealers,'' a Sotheby's spokeswoman said. "Although some of the work sold will be going back to the West Country, a lot of it has been bought by people from all over the country.''

In November, Sotheby's will be staging another auction - this time of just a small part of Lenkiewicz's massive collection of books. His rambling studio was lined with shelves containing obscure and ancient volumes, some dating back to the 15th century, on subjects including art history, philosophy, witchcraft, death, suicide and metaphysics, a collection which many believe is of international importance. The sale was set up by the Lenkiewicz Foundation, the body which inherited the artist's estate and is charged with sorting out his complicated affairs.

Anna Navas, a trustee of the foundation, said after the sale: "It was very sad seeing the pictures being sold, but it was a horrible necessity. We hope that he will get the recognition he deserves after his death because he was a truly remarkable man.'' Lenkiewicz, who wore his hair at shoulder length and habitually dressed in flowing clothes and shapeless smocks, was more than just an archivist of the strange and unusual.

He was born in 1941 to Jewish refugees who established homes for the elderly and deprived, which would become a recurring theme in his own work. He developed a lifelong fascination with drunks, criminals, tramps, vagrants and mentally disturbed people.

After studying art in London, he first set up his studio in Hampstead, which he opened as a haven to the dispossessed. After being urged to move on by the police, because of the number of public complaints, he moved first to Cornwall and then to Plymouth, where he worked from a number of different properties, married three times and fathered an estimated 15 children.

He once housed hundreds of vagrants in several warehouses around the town and painted many pictures of them, which were exhibited with a collection of notes by the sitters. Lenkiewicz had a love-hate relationship with his adopted city - after once being commissioned to paint a mural in a shopping centre, he included many local dignitaries in the nude.

Yesterday's sale was important because of the relatively small number of his works that have been put on to the market. He rarely showed his paintings and normally kept them in his studio, only selling when he needed the money - such as the occasion when he hired part of the International Convention Centre in Birmingham in 1994 for a week-long show, which was visited by 35,000 people and raised about £500,000.

As well as tramps, his sitters included punks and skinheads, local fishermen, a large number of women who went on to become his lovers and celebrities such as Terry Waite, Billy Connolly and the actress Lesley Joseph.

One of the tramps he painted was a man he named Diogenes after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. The tramp asked Lenkiewicz to embalm his body after his death. He died in 1984, aged 72, and the artist duly carried out the task, but then became engaged in a long battle with the authorities, refusing to tell Plymouth City Council officials where the body was being kept. It was discovered in a secret drawer, two weeks after the artist's death.

A coroner ruled last year that the corpse was officially part of the artist's estate. Whether it is likely to go on sale at Sotheby's is not known.