Cyril Mann, British figurative painter (1911-1980)


CYRIL MANN (1911-1980)

Throughout a painting career spanning over half a century, from the 1920s onwards, the London artist Cyril Mann rejected the fashion for abstraction and dreamt of revitalising figurative art. Like JMW Turner and the Impressionists, he was fascinated by the interplay of light and shadow, but in a very different way. Mann sought to portray the dazzling effects of sunlight and its enhancing and disintegrating force on surfaces.


Born in London in 1911, Mann spent most of his childhood in Nottingham, where aged 12, he was the youngest boy ever to win a scholarship to the Nottingham School of Art.

At only 15 he left the city and his family, travelling to Canada, intent on becoming a missionary. Finding it hard to make a living and turning his hand to being a salesman, logger and miner, he took up painting again in British Columbia, inspired by the Group of Seven. He met Arthur Lismer, a Sheffield painter and member of this now famous Post-Impressionist art movement. Lismer advised Mann to return to England, in order to continue his art studies.


Arriving back in London in 1932, hardship followed during the Depression years before Mann met wealthy art patron Erica Marx. She was so impressed by his talent that she established a trust, enabling him to study at the Royal Academy Schools (1934-1937). He continued his art studies in Paris under Scottish Colourist J D Ferguson, until the war forced him to return to London.


Assessing his early years, John Russell Taylor, art critic for the Times newspaper, and Mann’s biographer wrote: “Mann was never totally uninterested in the objective world, but he was more interested in conveying his transfigured vision of it.

His mind was as ever on more abstract considerations: the primacy of the sun, the dreamlike quality of everything beneath compared with this ultimate, vibrant reality.”

In his earliest Paris and London paintings, the artist often faces the sun. Extreme tonal contrasts make some works appear nocturnal. An example is Pont Neuf, 1938, which Mann considered his first masterpiece.

St Paul’s from Moor Lane, was first shown in the Wildenstein Artists of Fame and Promise exhibition in 1948. Here Mann portrayed London’s iconic landmark dome, silhouetted against the sun, surrounded by bombsites. Barbican flats and office blocks blot out this view today.

The 1950s saw a sea-change in the artist?s approach. Painting in artificial light in a flat without daylight, he explored still-life objects casting three-dimensional shadows. The designs are formalized, with a strong line and intensified colour. Mann called this his solid shadow period (1953-1957).


He married Renske van Slooten in 1960. At 48 he was 28 years older than his Dutch-Indonesian bride. Depressed and frustrated by lack of recognition, he was tormented by stomach ulcers and had virtually given up all artistic ambitions. Following a serious nervous breakdown he was diagnosed with manic depression.

His health and mental condition gradually improved, as Renske brought some financial security. He gave up teaching to concentrate full time on painting.

From the early 1960s onwards, Mann’s oeuvre comprised mostly of interiors, nudes, portraits and still-life paintings. He worked wherever the mood took him, never using a studio or joining an art movement. In 1964, the couple moved from their small council flat to a house in unfashionable Walthamstow. He continued to be fascinated by the dynamic effects of sunlight bouncing off surfaces, but he now painted without preliminary sketches at great speed.

“A sense of liberation is perceptible,” wrote Russell Taylor, “even in the way the pictures are painted, as though for once ratiocination can be bypassed and the artistic instinct allowed to speak uncensored for itself.

It is difficult not to see these celebratory paintings, with their heady sense of liberation, as the peak of Mann’s achievement, Russell Taylor continues. “In them at last it all comes together. He can afford to forget or disregard all the rules that have been drummed into him (at the Royal Academy Schools), only because he knows them so well they have become second nature. If the painting at last looks easy, it is because at last it is easy. For Mann at this stage, as it should ideally be for all artists, the tree so carefully planted in youth and strictly nurtured through the years has finally burst into blossom. The world at last can take care of itself and all the artist needs to do is go with the flow.”


Mann died, after several spells of mental illness, on January 7, 1980, aged 68.

For further information contact: Dr Robert Travers
Piano Nobile Gallery, London
Cyril Mann
Sept 9, 2015

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