The little-known painter Cyril Mann (1911-80) saw a lot from his council-flat window. Beyond the parks and trees and red-brick houses was St Paul’s, rising triumphantly through the haze. Mann, who grew up in Nottingham and trained at the Royal Academy in the 1930s, had painted the bombsites around Spitalfields and the streets of postwar London when he finally turned his hand in 1961 to the view from his Finsbury tenement block.
The resulting painting was exceptional. He captured the cathedral in the distance with such a swift brush that it seems almost to dance on the horizon. The optimism Mann clearly found in the city skyline reflected his own change in circumstances as much as those of Britain. Financially unstable, he had spent much of the previous decade cooped up in an apartment over a bullion shop with barred windows and no natural light. His so-called ‘solid shadow paintings’ — graphic, hard-edged still lifes which foreshadow both Patrick Caulfield’s work and the rise of digital — were produced under harsh electric lighting. They can look dull and empty by comparison with the works Mann created after moving to Finsbury’s Bevin Court in 1956.
For the first time in years the light poured in, illuminating the bodies of the women who posed for him on crumpled sheets and bed linen. ‘Reclining Nude I’ (1963) hangs in the second and brighter of the two rooms of this small retrospective at Woking’s Lightbox and is luminous in the daylight. Mann has retained his interest in shadow, working heavy oils into the shade beneath the model’s leg, but the painting is really a celebration of the fall of light on her torso.
Released from the restrictions of painting by lamplight, Mann became altogether looser, ‘Studio Corner’ (1961) and ‘Brushes and Palette Knives’ (1966) revealing his sensitivity to tonality. The former is among the works for sale at the exhibition through Piano Nobile, the gallery that handles Mann’s estate. The exhibition also features several of Mann’s heavy impasto paintings of flowers from a similar date.
If Mann’s works are rather hit or miss then it is mainly because he changed direction so many times. He was unafraid to try something new before retreating to more familiar ground. There is also the fact that one or two of the paintings in this exhibition were completed when he was just 14 years old and studying as the youngest ever scholarship student at Nottingham School of Art. Viewed in this light they are quite remarkable.
Mann’s phases of experimentation ultimately enabled him to refine his style and return to what he did best, which was the view-from-the-window type scene. From as early as 1936 he was exploring the possibilities of combining nature and domesticity from the perspective of a casual onlooker. His ‘Nottingham Houses’ are seen through shrubbery which partially conceals a female gardener. Thirty years later, having left Islington for Walthamstow with his second wife, Mann painted a similar picture, this time of the local allotments. ‘Railway Bridge over the Culvert, Walthamstow’ (1969), completed while he was still at Bevin Court, is beautifully composed.
Displayed at the centre of the exhibition is a letter in which Mann pronounces himself a conscientious objector following the second world war on the grounds that he has been undergoing treatment for stomach trouble and, more importantly, does not believe ‘that Russia and China are a menace to the rest of the world’. He describes himself as an idealist. His art indeed reveals such optimism for the postwar world that it is sad to learn that he was plagued by faltering mental health in his final years. Like his father before him, who ended his days in a hospital after suffering shell shock from the first world war, Mann found himself in and out of institutions until his death in 1980 at the age of 69. His name may not be familiar today but the romantic cityscapes of many of his pictures are. The best of them glow with the promise of a brighter day.