Michael Lester Leszczynski
Sea Captain, Painter
Brief synopsis of a biography by Kenneth Jones
I have written and prepared this illustrated biography because of a deep personal conviction of the genius of Michael Lester and the belief that his place is among the greatest of modern painters. I am in no sense an expert but my view is shared by a number of collectors and institutions and by thousands of people who own work by this prolific artist. As his neighbour for many years, I shared the beauty of his mountainside home overlooking Montego Bay, Jamaica, and was privileged to watch the creation of the masterful works which he produced during this period.
His early work in Poland was largely lost in the awful destruction of
Warsaw and other cities during World War II. Perhaps some was stolen or
commandeered and still exists. There is little trace at this time of the
work which he sold or otherwise disposed of during his years in England.
The work of his Jamaican period was mostly sold to U.S. collectors.
This illustrated biography features reproductions of a representative selection of his paintings located in many parts of the world. The biography is divided into four main sections dealing with Michael Lester's life in Poland, England, Kingston and finally Montego Bay, Jamaica.
The English Edition
The English language version of the biography of the late Michael Lester was launched at Montego Bay Yacht Club. The event was attended by art lovers, collectors and friends of the artist.
The Polish Edition
The author is grateful to Dr. Jerzy Litwin, director of the Polish Maritime Museum at Gdansk for publishing the Polish edition of the biography, the Curator of the museum Dr. Monika Jankiewicz-Brzostowska for her translation and her help with details, and Anna Cieminska of the administrative staff of the museum for her efficiency.
He was of aristocratic stock. His childhood was spent on his grandfather's estate and with his itinerant family in the turbulent eastern Poland of the beginning of the century where his father was a government official. He was taught to draw and paint by his mother, herself an accomplished artist. He attended the State Nautical College at Tczwe from which he graduated not only with a master's certificate, but with an abiding love of the sea after voyages under sail during training. When he went to sea as a merchant officer, his sketch pad and easel were constant companions and with them he was able to express his delight in the seafaring environment and sketched everything from the vastness of the sea and sky to the tiniest details of ship construction. He was the youngest pilot at the new port of Gdynia on the Baltic in the thirties but was fired because of his eccentricities and because his art often interfered with his duties. He went to study at the Cracow Academy of Art before going to sea again. In 1937 circumstances found him "on the beach" in London where he turned to his art and began to make a name for himself among London Galleries. At the outbreak of World War II he was again at sea, and was secretary of the Association of Polish Merchant Navy Officers. He issued the call to all Polish ships to set course for British ports and once more found himself in London, this time as a refugee.
During the early years of the war he carried on his work of liaison with Poles in Britain and then became skipper and part owner of a sailing vessel "The Garlandstone", in which he traded between Britain, Ireland and other North Atlantic coasts. "Garlandstone" was one of the last of a distinctive breed of West Country ketches and is now preserved by a Welsh museum. At the end of the war, he was commissioned by the Admiralty and spent several years in salvage work around Britain's coasts. He had permission to sketch and paint at any naval installation and during this period he produced a great deal of maritime art and was described as the finest maritime artist in England. He exhibited at London galleries, had a number of one-man shows, and had work accepted at the Royal Academy annual show.
He "discovered" Jamaica when he went to work for a steamship company involved in the Bauxite trade between Jamaica's north coast and the U.S.A. Still painting prolifically, he gave a one-man show at the Mobile, Ala. Museum of Fine Arts. The vivid tropical light and colours of Jamaica captivated him and, impulsively sending word to his English wife Peggy to sell their mortgaged house and take the next ship sailing for the West Indies, he set up a studio in Kingston and embarked on the precarious road to financial self sufficiency through his art.
After suffering hard times in Kingston, the Lesters moved to Montego Bay, the holiday paradise discovered and made famous by Noel Coward and other discerning celebrities. The Lester Art Gallery was opened in a humble wooden house on Market Street and the Lesters became celebrities themselves among the townspeople and among the wealthy and famous people who made up the "winter set". With Peggy presiding in the Gallery with her impeccable English voice and manner, and Michael painting as he had never done before, they began to put the times of financial struggle behind them. With money in the bank Michael selected a site on a remote mountainside at Belmont overlooking the bay and set about building his studio and residence in a landscaped setting of great beauty. He felt that he did his best work at Belmont and described his years there as "my private renaissance".