The building is believed to have been built in 1860, Coates & co, now ‘Plymouth Gin’ as an extension of the companies bonded warehouse at 6 Southside Street.
By 1900, the building was being used as the bottling plant for Plymouth Gin, hence our name. Just a year on the bottling of the gin was also taking place on the first floor of the warehouse. One of the original workbenches is still in place today.
Quirky local artist Robert Lenkiewicz painted a mural on the north-east wall of the building. Maybe you know some of the local characters featured. Do let us know as we’re making a list!
Lenkiewicz made the first floor of the building his art studio and store. He painted many famous people and locals – we still have the floorboards where Ruby Wax sat!
When the artist Robert Lenkiewicz died in 2002, he left behind a particularly macabre legacy. 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.
For 18 years, Diogenes lay concealed in Lenkiewicz’s “death room”, where other gruesome curios included the skeleton of Ursula Kemp, a 16th-century midwife who was hanged for witchcraft and nailed into her coffin (kept in a long wooden box on top of the piano) and a parchment lampshade he claimed had been brought out of Auschwitz in 1940 (on the desk).
To say that Lenkiewicz was obsessed with death is an understatement. “To paint oneself is to paint a portrait of someone who is going to die,” he would say. “And the same applies if one paints anybody else.” The artist often took this literally, producing two large-scale “projects” on the subject, each comprising hundreds of paintings, including Death Bed, an image of himself expiring wanly, surrounded by his friends and family, and a joyfully creepy family tableau, Mr Earl, funeral director, and family, in coffin warehouse.
In 1981, the renegade artist faked his own death, announcing his demise to the local newspapers when he was in fact bunkered in with his old chum Peregrine Nicholas Eliot, 10th Earl of St Germans, Cornwall, in his stately home. “I could not know what it was like to be dead,” he explained without remorse when his hoax was uncovered. “But I could know what it would be like to be thought to be dead, which I engineered.”
It’s pretty fair to assume, then, that Lenkiewicz, far from spinning in his grave, would be delighted to know that he is still making headlines today, almost six years after his real demise. This week, two of his former lovers, Megan Clay (who has a 19-year-old son, Isaac, by the artist) and Karen Cambriello (two daughters, Thais, 19, and Chaya, 17) finally settled their child maintenance claims on his estate in a secret, out-of-court agreement thought to be worth £200,000.
It seems that Diogenes and Ursula were not the only skeletons in the artist’s closet. When he died of heart complications in August 2002, aged 60, some 240 claimants to his will crept out of the woodwork. These amounted, says Peter Walmsley, senior partner at Boyce Hatton solicitors and executor of Lenkiewicz’s will, to “millions of pounds of claims – from the Inland Revenue, council rates, book dealers, one of whom was owed over £300,000…” Then there were the child maintenance for his many mistresses, the friends he had borrowed money from, promising them a painting in return, and the hundreds of paid-for commissions left unfinished. But Lenkiewicz, who had never opened a bank account, died almost penniless. “We literally went through his pockets to see what he had and it came to around £12 cash,” Walmsley says. “We never found any more.”
Despite this apparent penury, there are now just five outstanding claims to resolve. In the six years since his death, Lenkiewicz’s estate has been gradually sold off to the tune of more than £5m. While sales of his enormous collections of books at Sotheby’s – the occult and witchcraft were among his favourite subjects – account for about £1.6m of the total, the rest of the money has been generated through sales of his paintings.
Luckily, in his work, as in all other areas of his life, Lenkiewicz was prolific. “There are some incredible statistics about Robert,” recalls Jojo, a local photographer who knew Lenkiewicz for 20 years and has now written a play about the artist’s life, The Man in the Red Scarf, which will be performed at Plymouth’s Barbican in December. “He produced 10,000 works, had relationships with, if you believe him, in the region of 3,000 women, was married three times…” And how many children did he have? “I think the official count was 11.” Written by Alice Jones@alicevjones Sunday 23 October 2011
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Lenkiewicz submitted planning to convert the building into a gallery and art studio where he lived and worked, until his death in 2002.
During this time, he completed many of his more famous pieces, and also some lesser known items as well. This includes the etching below of an unknown subject, that was found during the more recent property renovations. Do you know her?
For several years, the Barbican Pannier market was held on the ground floor of the building.
History in the making… we opened our doors just after lockdown! We spent time selecting an interesting mix of furniture, some Edwardian, some up-cycled, some made of barrels and even things from our home, but all with a story.
The walls are adorned with oils, prints and mirrors as well as working as a gallery once again. Even our loos are a gallery, with the walls painted by Ellie. Sit back, enjoy your time here and soak up the atmosphere and history.