Family does matter

PUBLISHED: 09:00 17 March 2014

Images courtesy of Peter Surcombe and The Lenkiewicz Foundation

Images courtesy of Peter Surcombe and The Lenkiewicz Foundation


A collection of work owned by Robert Lenkiewicz’s family has gone on display for the first time. Carol Burns joins curator Annie Hill-Smith for a tour of this special exhibition

Work by Robert  LenkiewiczWork by Robert Lenkiewicz

Family Matters is a collection of mostly never-before seen work owned by his former partners and 11 children.

Curated by Annie Hill Smith, mother to three of his children, the exhibition reveals his treatment of more personal subject matters, including drawings and paintings of his partners in labour and of his children.

Work by Robert  LenkiewiczWork by Robert Lenkiewicz

Known for his ‘projects’ exploring marginalised groups within society, the Plymouth-based artist, like many, took endless likenesses of his large, extended family. Father to 11 children with seven women, Annie has thoughtfully included a family tree in the programme to help identify the sitters in his work.

The work begins with Lenkiewicz’s mother, painted in about 1960, and Ivorene in whitewhich was from his St Martin’s show, and which he kept and showed as part of his retrospective in 1997. Lenkiewicz moved to the West Country in about 1965 and the work on show traverses the next three decades, offering a wonderful journey as he developed as an artist. Annie herself featured in many of the works and provides a knowledgeable commentary to the work which provides a great insight into the artist who is so well known for his paintings of ‘down and outs’.

"Lenkiewicz moved to the West Country in 1965 and the work on show traverses the next three decades"

The sketches and watercolours of his children are fascinating – Shalom listening to the story of Samson shows his and Annie’s son, painted in 1979, as he sits fascinated by his father’s telling of the famous story. A sketch of the same son at just a few hours old sat in the window of Lenkiewicz’s studio, advertising his skills for £1 a head. He did many hundreds throughout the 1970s, but stopped, says Annie, because it was draining him from the work he wanted to concentrate on. “I remember saying, I understand that, but what are we going to live on?”

The largest work – a single painting but cut by Lenkiewicz into two paintings which are hung side by side on the end wall – is Robert presenting his entrails / Still life in the kitchen, the first featuring a family portrait of Annie with two children and the artist sitting with his entrails lying in his lap. The eye is naturally drawn to the entrails sitting on Lenkiewicz bare thighs, but as the eye moves across the canvas and the eyes rest on the glorious sleeping toddler on the sofa, the style becomes more expressive capturing perfectly the sleep of the just, which only children are capable of. The second half of the painting is more disturbing, a stillborn child lies in the doorway of a kitchen. “When that painting was shown,” Annie tells me, “I got several emails from people asking me if I had had an abortion - I hadn’t.”A wonderful self portrait Robert. Self portrait by stairsis hung so the viewer comes upon it unawares after turning the corner, the expression of the artist reflecting their surprise at being caught.

Much of the work includes the artist’s aesthetic notes. A page from Karen’s Aesthetic Notebook (watercolour) and entitled in the work as Pnurky’s first birthday Pnurky being a nickname for Thaïs – includes the lines: ‘You / The baby. The beautiful baby / Slow ascension to the would-be-me / I spread in fear / And melt in isolation / here with you - / in front of one long year / I Love / And Love is everything.

Thaïs writes in the programme that: “Much is mythologised about my father’s relationship with his children; sources often stating that he ‘littered the streets’ with swathes of unacknowledged children. The truth, though less entertaining, is certainly otherwise. In spite of these (often self-perpetuated) myths, my father knew exactly who is children were. He had a private side which was very family-oriented, and of which little is written or told.” But as Annie herself says: “The work should stand on its own merits.” And it does.

Family Matters: A Private Collection works by R O Lenkiewicz (1941 – 2002) is on show at Hannahs at Seale-Hayne until 23 March. Entry is free.

This article was first published in the March issue of Devon Life. To get the magazine delivered every month to your home, subscribe at or call 08448484217

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