“Everything started in a shoebox”, remembers Lennie Lee, when we meet at his multi-coloured, rainbow of a house in Dalston. The building is home, not just to him, but to an art collection of more than 5,000 pieces.
Lee, now 56, began drawing, painting and collecting underground, counterculture art almost 40 years ago. The original shoebox filled up so rapidly that he soon had to swap it for a large wooden trunk and began throwing everything in there: posters, paintings, drawings, you name it, all without a specific order. “It was better than throwing them away”, explains Lee. “I collected them with no thoughts about the purpose of it.”
“People throw their work away for a lot of reasons,” he says. “It’s healthy to get rid of things and I know that I’m doing the opposite, but someone has to do it. We need to preserve the story of counterculture.”
An aptly unconventional life-journey brought him to this house of art. Born to Jewish parents in South Africa, Lee came to London as an infant and was schooled at the prestigious Dulwich College – “A traditional, rather militaristic school which I disliked intensely. The children were rather anti-Semitic as well” – then studied at Oxford, and made his way back to London, via an Israeli kibbutz, where he spent a few months, and a spell fumbling around the streets of Europe, sleeping rough by night and hanging around museums by day.
“I was close to a nervous breakdown,” Lee remembers of this period in Europe. “I felt I needed to do something to express myself.” Finally, after months of intense struggle abroad, he returned to London in 1985, finding himself in Dalston.“I found this house empty with no roof, no water, no heating. But I bought it,” says Lee, “I was 27 years old.”
By chance, Lee had landed right in the centre of a vibrant creative scene. Dalston in the 198os was a maze of empty buildings and artists were busy taking them over, turning them into squats and make-shift studios. “This was my true education as an artist,” he remembers. “I was in a rubbish dump and had this idea that I was a kind of ‘urban-primitive’, and I tried to think about what a primitive artist living in London would do: decorate his car and his house, make art out of trash, go to Halloween parties, do ritualistic performances about things that were taboo, collect objects and fetishes.”
“So now, my fetish is collecting art from the margins. Art from the outside: what I call counterculture. I was a ‘gatherer’, a collector of what others may consider garbage, but for me, it was actually art.”
During each one these parties, artists would paint murals on the walls of the house. After it was finished they would be painted all white again. During that time, the building acted as a free gallery; Lee refused to charge a commission fee, and because of this, the artists appreciated him and started giving him their art, without any conditions.
“People would come all dressed up and play roles. The parties were usually based on themes that were taboo, for example: riots in hell, gay dress-up parties, ‘Ministry of the Silly Weddings’ – because at the time everyone was getting married for passports or Visas,” Lee laughs. These parties became so infamous that, in the 1990s, a documentary was made about them for Channel 4: The Wonderful World of Lennie Lee.
Standing in the middle of a room completely packed with well-folded paintings inside plastic bags and boxes with dozens of folios with codes and letters, everything catalogued and divided, with detailed descriptions about the what, where and who, it is clear to see that things have changed since those chaotic party days.
The house itself is a work of art: its windows and doors are painted different colours and inside there is not one centimetre of white wall, staircase, spoon or handle. Each corner is stuffed full of art, paintings, posters, objects; and everything has a story behind it. A handwritten manifesto on one of the walls, from Berlin artist Ulli Ertl, boldly demands: “Enough! Too much counterculture is allowed to rot, or thrown in the bins, or used as napkins on the kitchen table: pick it out of the bin, evict it from under the bed and collect it all together.”
In 2009, Lee underwent an operation for a serious heart defect and was warned he might not live much longer. “The idea of going to work and then retiring at 65 didn’t exist for me because I thought I would be dead before that,” he says. “I thought: ‘If I survive, I’m going to start to build the collection for the Museum of Underground Culture.’ Then I changed the name to Counterculture, because I thought it was more inclusive.”
Since 2009, Lee’s collection has increased from 2,000 art pieces – most of them unsigned – to 5,000. Now, instead of 300 signed, he has more than 2,000: “The signature is very important, because that’s what will preserve the value of its existence. Some artists don’t like signatures, because they think their work speaks for themselves.”
Far from being an art snob however, he says: “I collect art as people collect pebbles. I like them all. In the street, I am given material by artists, or sometimes I find pieces literally in empty spaces. Sometimes they are very famous artists, sometimes completely unknown.”
“I have work from a person who is convicted for murder, works from alternative artists, hopeful young artists, street artists, there are no rules of how I built up my collection except one: I don’t buy art from galleries for large amounts of money, and I’m not a predator. ‘Give me what you would like to give me’ is what I say to them. I would like to re-write history in favour of the ‘little people”
Some of the pieces he has collected are now worth thousands of pounds: “If there was a certificate of authenticity, I could actually know the price of the paintings because I know how much their original paintings cost nowadays,” he says, showing the work of artists including Martin Maloney and David Burrows. Lee has also exhibited his own work in a number of UK institutions including the Barbican Art Centre, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Tate Gallery: the outsider accepted into the mainstream.
“My dream is that I would have assembled a wonderful collection of art that would be made by the generosity of the artist that contributed to it. I’ll be proud to have been the instigator of it. I hope that at some point it will find a home where it can be exhibited, preserved and remembered,” Lee says. “For the sake of the story of art.”
All pictures: Jimena Marseillan