Karel (Charles) Lek, MBE, RCA

Belgian artist whose “tubes of paint” described people in his adopted Wales


The popular Belgian-born artist, Karel Lek, who has died in Bangor, North Wales at the age of 90, fled Antwerp with his family in 1940 when the Nazis occupied Belgium. Relocated to Bangor, Karel, who said he “only ever wanted to be a painter” eventually joined the North Wales Group of Artists. 
This included Sir Kyffin Williams, Elis Gwyn, Tom Gerrard, Roy Ostle, Jonah Jones, Arthur Pritchard, Claudia Williams, Donald McIntyre, Helen Steinthal and Peter Chadwick. Karel also joined the circle of Jewish refugee artists that included Josef Herman and Heinz Koppel.

He exhibited widely across Wales as well as London, Amsterdam and Chicago. He became a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy in 1955 and was awarded an MBE for charitable services to the NHS in north Wales in 2003.

Karel Lek was born in Antwerp, Belgium, the son of Hendrik and Sophie Lek. Although Jewish, his family were Dutch Freethinkers so little religion was practised in their household. 

In 1940, when Karel was 11, he and his family were forced to flee to the United Kingdom when the Nazis invaded and occupied his native Belgium. 

By a quirk of fate, Hendrik held dual Belgian-British citizenship because Karel’s great-grandfather had spent six years in London cutting and polishing the diamonds for Queen Victoria’s new crown. Hendrik eventually discarded his Belgian passport. 

After leaving Ostend, the family were briefly interned. Because Henrik was a diamond cutter and polisher, the Leks were relocated to Bangor, north Wales because the UK diamond cutting industry, like the BBC, had been moved there to avoid German shelling. So many Dutch-speaking émigrés were employed there that Hendrik did not learn much English during the war. 

The family was billeted with other refugees in council houses. Karel described his parents as overprotective and frightened of antisemitism.Sophie, his mother, lost nearly all her family in the Holocaust.

Karel was educated at Friars Grammar School, Bangor and then the Liverpool College of Art. He moved to the East End of London, teaching in East Ham, while a resident of Toynbee Hall. He also painted and did social work. There he met Phyllis Pinness and they married in 1957 in Hampstead, north London. 

They immediately returned to north Wales, to join his father in Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey, where he opened an antiques shop across the road from one his father owned. Karel and Phyllis remained there for the rest of their lives. 

They had two children, Nicholas who was born in 1960, and Suzanne, born two years later.   
Karel’s love for art began when he was four years old, when his father took him to museums in Antwerp. He grew up idolising the works of Belgian artists such as Constant Permeke and James Ensor. Hendrik was an artist manqué, having been forced by his father to work in the family diamond cutting and polishing business. 

Karel and Hendrik often exhibited together.  And then Karel became a member of the North Wales Group of artists

Karel said of his work: “I paint continuously and mostly my subjects are my fellow men and women in whatever situations I find them, whether in urban or rural surroundings. I am certainly not insensitive to the beauty of the landscape which surrounds me, but it’s the changing moods of the seasons of autumn and winter which appeal to me most.

Painters express themselves visually, and my tubes of paint and bottles of ink contain my words. If, however, others were trying to sum up my work, I hope that somewhere the words compassion and honesty might appear.”

In February, 2018 Karel’s painting of Bangor City fans at the Farrar Road stadium in 1952, and a wood engraving of Liverpool fans walking into Anfield were purchased by the National Football Museum in Manchester. They have since become a permanent display there.

Karel was born in Belgium, but he died as an adopted Welshman, so it is perhaps fitting that he passed on St David’s Day. 

Karel was predeceased by Phyllis in 2009. 

He is survived by his children Nicholas and Suzanne and grandchildren Zoe, Tessa, and Reuben.  

A celebration of his life was  recently held in  Bangor.

Karel Lek: born June 7, 1929. 
Died March 1, 2020

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