Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 16 seconds
Renske Mann: “This self-portrait drawing was done by Cyril in 1956, the year he moved into his flat in Bevin Court, Cruikshank Street, WC1. Today it is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (to see it you need to arrange a viewing ‘on request’).”
“I moved into Bevin Court with Cyril in 1960. We married on September 1, 1960, when Cyril was 48 – I’d just had my 21st birthday. One of the two rooms in the flat (which was under 500 sq ft) was used to store Cyril’s unsold paintings and sculpture. We lived, worked and slept in the other room. Cyril gradually turned our flat into something of an “art factory”. He was not just a painter and sculptor, but also taught pottery at evening classes. He would pick up big chunks of London clay, which he then washed and stored in our bath for weeks on end. It meant having to use the communal baths in Ironmonger’s Row.”
“We were desperately poor, but never felt ‘deprived’. I persuaded Cyril to give up art teaching at Kingsway Day College, run by London County Council, in order to concentrate on painting. It meant I had to support him. Jobs were easy to find those days. As a multi-lingual secretary (Renske has Dutch-Indoneisan heritage and only moved to London In July 1959, aged 19), I was well paid comparatively. Whenever we ran out of money, I went out temping. We lived frugally buying bargains on Chapel Street market, such as broken biscuits, mushroom stalks and bacon offcuts.”
“There were no mod-cons, such as a washing machine or TV. We barely listened to the radio and sometimes didn’t leave the flat for days on end.”
“We were completely ‘wrapped up’ and dedicated to Cyril’s art. He never previously had a willing model over such a long period. We were the only people we knew at the time who had completely missed JFK’s assassination, as we had so little contact with the outside world.”
When I was modelling for Renske in a Green Jumper and Seated Nude in our flat in Bevin Court (see pic above), I had no idea that half a century later, Cyril would be honoured with a commemorative plaque on the council block. Cyril follows in the footsteps of Water Sickert, an earlier Islington artist, who was similarly honoured in a previous year with a green plaque, in Islington’s People’s Plaque competition, held annually. The plaque was a wonderful thing for me as it gave Cyril proper official recognition. Many of his best paintings were done in Islington.
From the Islington People’s Plaque nomination form (2012):
Flooded with light, Bevin Court allowed Mann to explore the dynamic effects of sunlight and shadows in a different way from previous artists. He was fascinated – to the point of obsession – by fierce, dazzling sunlight bouncing off surfaces in constant movement.
You can watch a short film of the plaque being unveiled at http://vimeo.com/user14388890/review/86888364/25a8ee7418
“Bevin Court was designed by the modernist Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin. It was built on the site of the bomb-destroyed Holford Square and completed in 1954. Cyril moved there in 1956. Bevin Court was ‘listed’ by English Heritage in 1998 for its architectural interest. Its famous staircase is widely visited and admired by architectural students and historians.”
“Bevin Court was to have been named Lenin Court. Exiled from Russia, Lenin lived in Holford Square around 1902. When Communism (and Lenin) lost respectability during the Cold War, the authorities decided to name the building in honour of Ernest Bevin, post-war Labour politician and Foreign Secretary.”
“Berthold Lubetkin, the Russian Modernist architect who designed Bevin Court, is perhaps best-known for what was the ‘Penguin Enclosure’ at London Zoo (now demolished I believe).”
“For Cyril, the tiny one-bedroom council flat was the height of luxury. For the first time in his life – he was in his mid-40s by then – he had a bathroom, hot water on tap, and communal central heating. From an artistic viewpoint, the flat on the seventh floor was flooded with daylight. His previous flat in Paul Street, allocated to him as a returning soldier after the war, had been above a gold-bullion storage. For security reasons, it had all its windows barred, depriving Cyril of daylight.”
From the Islington People’s Plaque nomination form
Cyril and Renske left Bevin Court in 1964, moving to Walthamstow and then Leyton in East London. Throughout the 1960s, and into the following decade, the artist presented his work in a series of successful exhibitions and one-man shows. Suffering severe health problems in the late-1970s, Cyril Mann died in 1980 in his 69th year.
“I lived with Cyril in Bevin Court, off Cruikshank Street, from 1959 to 1964. When we met, he had been living and working in the block since 1956. Prior to that, he lived in Paul Street, in another Islington council flat near today’s Barbican. After the war, Cyril painted many Islington scenes showing the areas bomb damage, which you can also see on the website.”
“Cyril’s paintings were little appreciated shortly after the war, when his most favourite subject matter was bombsites. People were not interested in buying pictures of London’s bomb damage, so soon after the blitz.”
“We worked, ate and slept in one room at Bevin Court. One morning, as I got out of bed, Cyril said: “stop right there”! He called this picture Modern Venus, as the scene reminded him, with me emerging from the bed sheets, of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting. Note the sunlight streaming on the wall and a round table with a blue alarm clock, seen by Cyril as a streak of blue light as the sun strikes it.”
“This is a large painting, almost life size. By this time, Cyril would paint direct and no longer from sketches. These pictures are highly emotional and inspired by the moment. Because they are so swiftly done and observed, they are ‘alive, far more so than a finely finished nude could have been. Cyril was now truly a ‘painter of sunlight’, and Bevin Court gave him the scope.”
“I was 28 years younger than my husband, which explains why I am here, half a century later, to tell the tale.”
“I’d like more people to see Cyril’s work – a lot will be from the Islington period. And I’d like people to realise that there’s a great deal of art about. When photography came about it wasn’t the end of painting. There will be figurative artists, like Cyril, quietly revitalising what is a very old art form – Cyril called it ‘putting new wine into an old bottle‘.”
- Self-portrait of Cyril Mann can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery. It is not currently on display – to see it you need to make an appointment on request.
- There is a selection of drawings by Cyril Mann in the British Museum department of prints and drawings, which can be seen on request (no need to give prior notice. Just turn up and ask).
- Go to the Cyril Man website to find out more about his work http://www.cyrilmann.co.uk/
- A fascinating book, The Sun is God: the life and work of Cyril Mann, written by The Times Art Critic John Russell Taylor (2000) is on sale on Amazon here.
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.