Born in 1906 in Poland as Michal Antoni Leszcynski, Lester’s artistic skill was first nurtured by his mother, Eleanor Walter, a painter who had graduated from the St Petersburg Academy. He had been making a name for himself as a painter as early as 1924, when still a seventeen year old student in his first year at the Polish State Nautical College in Gdynia, when a series of his paintings were used by the student body as awards for prizes. After graduating in 1928 with his diploma in Marine Studies, he also spent two semesters at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. His naval career led him to the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy, in which he served with pride receiving the Atlantic Star medal, and he later became a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom. He had some early success as an artist in London,with a solo show at the Wertheim Gallery in 1938 and two more at the Dartford Museum and Egan Gallery the following year.
While on shore leave in the early years of World War II, he met, fell in love with, and married Gertrude Emily Davis, Peggy to her friends. He continued his maritime career after the war with several salvage operations around the British coast and in early 1952 he took a berth as a mate on a ship headed for Jamaica to transport bauxite ore. It was this journey that would ultimately define his life as he arrived in Kingston and was enchanted by the climate and beauty of the island. Having suffered with ill health from exposure to the North Sea winds, he decided to abandon his life at sea and make a living for himself as a full time artist in this island he would soon call home.
There was however no shortcut to a successful career as an artist in Jamaica at that time, after failed attempts in the realm of art education he decided to move to Montego Bay when his wife joined him in 1953. This movewould be a fortuitous one as Montego Bay proved to be more welcoming and in his own words became a “private renaissance.”
After anglicizing his name to Michael Lester and having several shows at north coast hotels, he established the Lester Art Gallery in 1955 in a small centrally located building at 20 Market Street. Peggy dedicated herself to becoming a professional art dealer leaving him to wander the town and its environs, recording its buildings and citizens in his paintings, water colours and drawings. His presence in the streets of the town and the growing fame of his gallery,which became a “must see” for visitors taking a tour of the tourist town, helped to solidify him as the archetype of the successful artist in Montego Bay.
The gallery also became a success financially, and his collaboration with Heinz Simonitsch the then managing director of the Half Moon resort also proved fruitful. Lester was commissioned to produce works for the cottages, rooms and public areas of the hotel which the wealthy guests of the luxury hotel could purchase with no commission being taken by the hotel. The paintings that sold would be replaced with works of a similar size and several works by Lester are currently in the collection of Half Moon.
The paintings currently on view document Montego Bay, its environs and its people as it was in the 1950’s and 60’s and seen through a rather idealized lens. The feelings of familiarity and nostalgia are no doubt part of the appeal that Lester’s work has to contemporary collectors.The city itself isrepresented from the hills of his Belmont home, from where he had a spectacular view, in the watercolour Montego Bay Jamaica (1955) and with more immediacy in the works Parish Council of St James Offices at the Old Courthouse (1965) (now the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, in which this exhibition is housed) and The Bay outside the Courthouse (1964).It is however the portraits of the people of Montego Bay and its environs that are most revealing of his unique perspective.
These paintings like Veronica (1972), and Boy with Plantains (nd)challenge the viewer to look beyond the surface of the faces of his subjects, despite the inherent exoticism, at realities that his tourist clientele might not even have considered. His portraits depict his Jamaican subjects as vendors, entertainers and servants, reflecting the social hierarchies of colonial Jamaica, but they also reflect a sense of nuance and personal empathy that are usually absent from tourist art. This was also evident in how Lester led his life. As documented in Kenneth Jones’ book, Lester openly challenged the colour bar by bringing his black models to the then exclusively white enclave of Doctor’s Cave Beach, which resulted in an incident with the management.It was this more progressive attitude that would have endeared him to Montegonians and also inspired a generation of local artists.
The works in this exhibition indeed serve as a mirror of Montego Bay, its people and its unique personality;reflecting the social and cultural contradictions of the city and the artist it embraced as one of its own. Michael Lester died in 1972 and he was honoured with several posthumous exhibitions. In his native Poland, a commemorative exhibition was held at the Historical Museum of Warsaw in 1979 under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Culture, as well as an exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Gdansk in 1980.In Jamaica a retrospective was staged at theTryall Great House in 1986, in 2006 Michael Lester: Picturing Paradise opened at the National Gallery of Jamaica marking the centenary of his birth and now the current exhibition Michael Lester: A Montego Bay Artist.