Post surf on Saturday morning my wife and I set out to procure toe spacers for ballet shoes from a shop in Ilfracombe.(This post is going to be different is n’t it?:Ed) We found what we were looking for quickly and meandered towards the harbour to take in the sea air and salty ambiance.
I rarely venture to Ilfracombe because …well I just do n’t. Unsure of what we would find amongst the faded grandeur perched on the cliffs of Exmoor, we idled passed tat shops and the ephemera of the high street and down to the harbour. Bright and breezily fishermen pulled catches ashore, the gig rowers struck out and the ice cream lickers looked on. All was just as I expected and hoped for.
That was until we reached the commercial art gallery half way along The Quay. The day took an unexpected lurch at this moment. We entered gallery at 12.45am and the upshot was that we left it an hour and half later having bought a very pretty glass bowl for an equally pretty penny. Before the decision to execute the purchase was made we luxuriated in our daringness over a snack in the chi chi restaurant next door. That dotty artist who owns this establishment does chi chi well but not so the pesto sauce. (Jez, when did you get so metro-sexual? :Ed). We returned next door to do the deed but whilst Angie chatted to the assistant I noticed some prints and paintings in an alcove. The portraits by Robert Lenkiewicz seemingly pulsed and vibrated with an energy that was familiar but distant at the same time. As I stood there I was transported back to Plymouth’s Barbican in spring of 1973.
”Listen up boys!”
Miss Ada Alvey , the redoubtable Akala of 12th Highertown cub pack led the large group of small boys into the end of the Wharf of Plymouth’s historic Barbican and surveyed her brood. There must have been approximately fifty boys milling around in front of her. A sea of green jerseys, cream and purple scarves and the ubiquitous green caps with gold braiding floated in front of her.
”Now, just round the corner we are going to see, the most incredible fresco painted by a unusaul man.If we are very lucky we will meet him”
She looked for signs of interest. It was the last activity in a packed day trip to the big city for Truro’s finest. But evidently the finest were starting to flag.
”Barnicoat, do n’t let me tell you again, leave Trenowth alone or you will be sitting by me in the coach all the way home.”
Barnicott visibly shrunk at this news and cast his eyes downwards until he was certain the Akala’s attention had moved on.
”This man has made something amazing for all the people in this part of Plymouth. He has painted a fresco. Who knows what a fresco is?”
Fifty pairs of eyes searched the cobbles for an answer.
”Well, a fresco is a huge wall painting. This one covers the side of a whole building. It’s painted in the style of the Pilgrim Fathers time but if you look carefully you can see the faces of lot’s of the people who live around here now.”
”It’s just round the corner ,come on boys. You too Barnicott . I’ve got my eye on you.”
Ada struck out in her inimatable fashion, one part Victorian explorer and the other mother hen. The cub’s crocodiled behind her, variously sneaking punches, eating sweets or walking in an exhausted trance. They filed into the small square and all suddenly became aware of the vision in front of them. The fresco was spread across the substantial gable end of the house next to the artists gallery.A sky filled with Elizabethan faces met our gaze. There were judges, dusky maidens, sea dogs with gold earrings, gentlemen brandishing rapiers, queens, beards, gentlemen wearing ruffs, monkeys, bards and serious clerics. The entrancing cornucopia seemingly bulged out into the little street, filling it with the foreign hubbub of a different time.
It was then I caught sight of him. A giant had appeared at the top of an alleyway just in front of me. He filled the narrow passageway. I first took in the paint spattered leather knee-high boots, then the black pantaloons, the heavy cape and finally the long tousled hair and beard. The giant looked directly into my ten-year old eyes and then with a swish of his cape, he was gone. I did n’t sleep that night.
I happened upon Robert Lenkiewicz’s work a few more times in my early adult life. It always had an enormous emotional impact on me just as almost meeting him did when I was 10 years old. Though I love the rich colours , the shadows, the erotic fris-son,the sheer artistry and technique of his more acceptable works such as the picture above, it is the project work that fascinates. Vagrancy, old age, death. orgasm and sexual behaviour were amongst his subjects for long and detailed study. There are few who maintained such a direct gaze at the bits of existence that most of us give a wide berth to.