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Cyril Mann, Painter

June 16, 2017
by the gentle author

In the fourth of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present the apocalyptic paintings of Cyril Mann. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall, Petticoat Lane, c. 1950

After serving as a Gunner in the Royal Artillery in World War II, Cyril Mann returned to live in a tiny flat in Paul St with his wife Mary and small daughter Sylvia in 1946. Close to where the Barbican stands today, this area at the boundary of the City of London had suffered drastic bomb damage and much of it remained a wasteland for decades. Roving around these desolate streets as far east as Spitalfields, Cyril Mann discovered the subject matter for a body of works which became the focus of a major exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery in 1948.

Losing his hair in his thirties, Cyril Mann had the look of a man older than his years. Through the Depression he had been unemployed and close to starvation, yet thanks to a trust fund set up by Erica Marx he entered the Royal Academy Schools at twenty years old in 1931. For one so young, he had already seen a great deal of life. At twelve, he had been the youngest boy ever to win a scholarship to Nottingham College of Art, before leaving at fifteen to be a missionary in Canada. Quickly abandoning this ambition, he became a logger, a miner and a printer, until returning to London to renew his pursuit of a career as an artist. Ever restless, he moved to Paris after three years at the Royal Academy and there he met his first wife Mary Jervis Read.

Forced to leave his wife and baby when he was called up in 194o, Cyril Mann did not paint at all for the duration of the war. Back in London and battling ill-health, he set out to make up for lost time. The fragmented urban landscape of bombsites that was familiar to Londoners was new to him and, turning his gaze directly into the sun, he sought to paint it transfigured by light. Channelling his turbulent emotion into these works, Cyril Mann strove to discover an equilibrium in the disparate broken elements he saw before him, and many of these paintings are almost monochromatic, as if the light is dissolving the forms into a mirage.

During these years, Cyril Mann’s life underwent dramatic change. He obtained a teaching job at the Central School of Art in 1947 and exhibited at the prestigious Wildenstein Galery, showing his new works in 1948. Yet at the same time, his marriage broke down and he found himself alone, painting in the tiny flat in Paul St. Whilst critically acclaimed, his exhibition was a commercial failure because, in post-war London, nobody wanted to see images of bombsites and consequently these important works became forgotten.

Yet, through his struggle, Cyril Mann’s work as an artist had acquired a new momentum and, after 1950, a bold use of colour returned to his painting. In 1956, he was offered a flat in the newly-built modernist Bevin Court built by Tecton in Islington, where today a plaque commemorates him. In 1964, he moved east to Leyton and then Walthamstow,where he died in 1980.

At a time when all other artists turned away from painting the London streets, Cyril Mann made it his subject. While these pictures may not have suited the taste of the post-war capital, they comprise a unique body of work that witnesses the spirit and topography of these threadbare years. As his second wife, Renske who met Cyril Mann in 1959, assured me, “I believe he is the most significant London painter of the nineteen-forties, post-war.”

Cyril Mann preparing for his exhibition at Wildenstein Gallery in 1948

St Paul’s from Moor Lane, 1948

Cyril in his crowded flat in Paul St, c. 1950

Christ Church Spitalfields seen across bombsites from Scrutton St

Christ Church Spitalfields seen over bombsites from Redchurch St

Bomb site in Paul St with cat, c. 1950

Christ Church Spitalfields seen from Shoreditch

Bomb sites around Paul St, c. 1950

Christ Church Spitalfields from Worship St, c. 1948

Streetscape with red pillar box

East End shop

Trolley bus in Finsbury Sq, c. 1949

Finsbury Sq, c. 1949

Finsbury Sq, c. 1949

Red lamp post, Old St

Bombsite at Old St

Cock & Magpie, Wilson St, Shoreditch

St Michael, Shoreditch, c. 1948

St Michael and St Leonard’s Shoreditch from Leonard St, c. 1950

Angel Islington from City Rd, 1950

St James Church, Pentonville Rd, Islington, 1950

Cyril Mann (1911-1980)

Images copyright © Estate of Cyril Mann

Paintings by Cyril Mann can be seen at Piano Nobile Gallery

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    June 16, 2017

    Poetry on canvas. I especially love the eel stall and the Old St bomb site.

  2. June 16, 2017

    Wow! These are quite amazing: the broken down world suffused with light. Such a clear vision. There is a really spiritual quality evident even looking at these little images on my phone. It all shines through.

    More than a painter: an artist.

  3. Gary Horton permalink
    June 16, 2017

    I’m very impressed by the these amazingly evocative paintings. The artist has created the true atmosphere of a London long gone now. I’m reminded of impressionistic style as I experience these wonderful artworks. Thanks for publishing these here.

  4. June 16, 2017

    Cyril Mann is a artist brought back to life again by GA. He was a army gunner, printer & teacher. Judging by his work shown Cyril became a main stream artist I liked his broad brush attack work & sometimes futuristic approach. To obtain full cred in the art world there has to be a grim determination to succeed he did. There are so many good things to say about Cyril. Nice study pic – shows him preparing for his exhibition in 1948 69 years ago. He is wearing a natty pinstripe suit with a big trouser turn up, defiantly a suave man about London town ? did he own the trilby hat & walking cane showing in pic – he could have. Poet John PS – if any family members view this be proud of him. Any pic residue left sell-off cheaply rather than keep them lock up in a dark room, in that way they could loved by people – just a suggestion

  5. June 16, 2017

    I love his atmospheric paintings, they take me back to the London of my childhood, which has all but disappeared. Valerie

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    June 16, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful paintings of London post-war – depressing but always with light and church steeples to suggest hope in my view.

    His “Cyril in his crowded flat in Paul St, c 1950” shows his talent with depicting interiors, various angles, and great still life rendering of the blossoms. Love the last self portrait too.

    Thanks so much …

  7. June 16, 2017

    This blog is a daily visit to “The Lost and Found Department of Wonderfulness”.
    So many new-to-me discoveries, stories, revelations, and insights.
    And glowing optimism, on a daily basis.
    This work, by Cyril Mann, is thrilling. The intensity of the final image (self portrait)
    hit me like a bolt of lightning. Cyril abides!
    Many thanks.

  8. June 16, 2017

    Thank you for your lovely remarks about Cyril’s paintings. As his widow, I hope you feel ‘the pain’ as well as the beauty in his vision. Will his art form – smallish pictures that require contemplation – survive in centuries to come, or is it destined for oblivion? Reading your remarks, Cyril would have been very happy.
    I can’t wait to see the gentle author’s book and thank the author, too, for being our voice in the wilderness

  9. Richard permalink
    June 17, 2017

    Wonderful pictures. Cyril’s forehead looks like one of his skies!

  10. Graham White permalink
    June 17, 2017

    Simply stunning visual impacts making the ordinary extraordinary

  11. June 18, 2017

    “I believe he is the most significant London painter of the nineteen-forties, post-war.” Difficult to argue with that …..

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