There are some things in this world that your eyes are never quite prepared to see. Top of that list for most people is anything involving death, and yet when faced with an opportunity to glimpse mortality most of us can’t resist a good gawp. This explains ‘rubber neckers’ observing motorway pile ups whilst driving in the opposite direction, and it also explains why I travelled twenty five miles to Torre Abbey, Torquay and paid a fiver to look at an embalmed body. Not just any preserved relic, but a relatively recently deceased tramp (most, if not all, embalmed or preserved bodies on display are ancient artefacts).
The tramp in question was Edwin Mackenzie, who claimed to have lived as a vagrant since he was three and a half years old. When once asked if he was happy with his life he noted that were he to get a job it would only result in him ending up back “on the bottle”. If he were alive today it seems he would be able to tell quite the tale. Amongst his many professed achievements he listed playing for Arsenal, winning both the Grand National and the Derby and (presumably single-handedly) building the Tamar bridge. In life he lived in Plymouth and befriended local artist Robert Lenkiewicz. In the fifteen years before he died at 72 from cancer he built up a friendship with the painter. On discovering him living in a barrel overlooking a rubbish tip Lenkiewicz nick-named him Diogenes, after the greek philosopher who also resided in a barrel. Diogenes would charge people admission to Lenkiewicz’s studio, and like to refer to himself as a secretary to the artist. Their friendship would ultimately culminate in an agreement that upon his death Lenkiewicz could have Edwin embalmed. Whether or not he agreed to being used as a library paperweight is another matter. Not your everyday relationship, but then Lenkiewicz was no ordinary artist.
His career as a painter never really saw him drawing high prices for his work when he was alive. He traded portraits for a lifetime of free meals in local cafés and was regularly in debt. Of the two high profile commissions he did secure, he mischievously depicted his subjects in compromising positions effectively ending his career as a portrait painter. Fond of practical jokes, his obsession with death lead him to fake his own demise. He decided that although he could never know what it was like to be dead, he could know what it would be like to be thought of as dead. To this end he advertised his death in the local paper. When local journalists came to his studio he revealed his prank. Discovering the hacks were less than amused he made good his escape locking them in his studio for several hours.
Others still, sat and watched the informative video, ignoring the tramp, just as you might ignore a homeless man in the streets.
Years later he would pull a similar stunt following the death of Edwin Mackenzie. Following a dispute over the correct disposal of Edwin’s remains the artist invited council officials to his flat to collect Mackenzie’s remains. Instead Lenkiewicz leapt from a coffin shouting Habeus Corpus - ‘you may have the body’. The matter was dropped. However, when the artist died in 2002 Plymouth Council tried again to give Mackenzie a fitting burial after finding him hidden in a drawer within the artists library. Yet possession passed to Lenkiewicz’s estate and the decision was made to keep him as part of the artist’s body of work. First displayed in an exhibit in Bristol, the currently exhibition in Torquay is only the second time the body of Edwin Mackenzie has been viewable by the public.
Seeing death layed out, naked and wizened in a pristine white box is an unsettling experience. The warning before you enter the room doesn’t quite prepare you for the sight of it. Nervous giggles quickly gave way to uneasy silence at seeing the frail man before me. Other visitors raised their eyebrows at him and quickly moved on. Others still, sat and watched the informative video, ignoring the tramp, just as you might ignore a homeless man in the streets.
Once likened by Lenkiewicz to a “miniature Father Christmas”, his appearance now as with the pictures around him was more ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ than anything remotely festive. The brown, dessicated, bony limbs don’t reflect the happy go lucky man portrayed in stories from Lenkiewicz and quotes from the man himself.
‘Diogenes’ may well go on to be displayed in further exhibits and that is by far the saddest thing about Edwin Mackenzie, in that, in death as in life he looks destined to remain of no fixed abode.
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