Friday, May 16, 2008

The Plymouth Bibliomaniac

When Alex Dove opened the 16th-century book on witchcraft, something black and scaly fell out into her hands.

Dove, who works in the books department at auctioneers Lyon &Turnbull, was horrified when she realised it was the body of a frog, wizened by time and pressed flat between the pages.
The books in question came from the library of one Robert Lenkiewicz, artist, and were sold on after his death in 2002. I didn't hear about the auction at the time, and in fact hadn't given Lenkiewicz much thought until I came across this piece by Alice Jones in the art section of The Independent today. During his lifetime Lenkiewicz failed to win acceptance among the art critics in London, but now, apparently, the value of his paintings is soaring, and I really am glad to hear that.

I lived in Plymouth in the late 1980's and have had a strong connection to the city ever since. (I still work for the same college.) It's impossible to visit the Barbican (the oldest part of the city surrounding the harbour) without coming across Lenkiewicz' work in galleries, restaurants, and on murals. And then of course there was his studio. We saw him sometimes standing before the open window, watching the street below, and almost biblical figure with flowing white hair and beard. At night when all else was dark, the lighted window showed a library of antiquarian books in rich bindings. I could not have guessed the extent of it.

But although there was a sign on a side door saying visitors to the studio were welcome to walk up, and though I very much wanted to, I lacked the courage to just walk upstairs and introduce myself. I regret that very much, even now.

Lenkiewicz was in every sense a much larger than life character, and he was also an incredible bibliomaniac :
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 ... He came to the door and said, 'I've been expecting you, what took you so long? Do you take sugar in your tea?'"
He had, amongst so much else, one of the world's largest collections of antiquarian books relating to witchcraft and demonology. The whole collection is described in detail here. Do go take a stroll around it.

Did I mention the mummified bodies he kept in there too?
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.


Ted Mahsun said...

Sounds like something out of a novel, maybe one of Roald Dahl's children's books?

It's a pity you never went up to meet him, Sharon, or else did blog post might have been much longer!

Ted Mahsun said...

*typo alert! by "did", I meant "this". *embarrassed*

Burhan said...

I used to live in Plymouth in the last 1990s and that large book collection of witchcraft was quite famous there. two of my Devonport high school teachers used to talk about it in class.

bibliobibuli said...

burhan - the gossip when i was there was about just how many women and how many illegitimate kids he had! the ladies who cleaned my halls of residence were full of stories ...

Burhan said...

#sharon - maybe my teachers knew that too, but could not talk about it in class.

#typo: "last 1990s" => "late 1990s"

also *embarrassed*