Cyril Mann: painter & sculptor

9 Apr
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  Painter and sculptor Cyril Mann (1911-1980) battled for a much wider public recognition during his life. But now his name and sun-filled paintings are starting to become better known thanks to local people honouring him with an Islington People’s Plaque in his memory on a council block (his former studio and home) at Bevin Court. Here Cyril’s widow and muse, Renske Mann, talks about life with her “husband and unlikely hero” in that tiny Islington flat.  Interview with Nicola Baird
Cyril Mann Self Portrait 1956 (c, Renske Mann)

Cyril Mann Self Portrait 1956 (all pictures used on this blog post with kind permission from             Renske Mann, c. Cyril Mann Estate)

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.”

Cyril Mann and Renske in Bevin Court.

Cyril Mann and Renske in Bevin Court.

“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.”

Renske with plaque in front of two pictures of her done by Cyril Mann.

Renske with plaque in front of two pictures of her done by Cyril Mann – Renske in a Green Jumper and Seated Nude.

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


Bevin Court’s famous staircase. The council block in Finsbury, in the south of Islington, is designed by Berthold Lubetkin (who did the original penguin pool at London Zoo) was listed by English Heritage in 1998 (Grade 2*). According to legend, a memorial to Lenin (who lived at this spot when exiled in London editing Iskra ‘The Spark’) is buried under this staircase.

“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.


Trolley bus in Finsbury Square.

Trolley bus in Finsbury Square painted by Cyril Mann.

“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.”

Cyril Mann: Modern Venus

Cyril Mann: Modern Venus – referencing Botticelli.

“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.”

Cyril Mann gets an Islington People's Plaque on Bevin Court, Cruikshank Street, WC1.

Cyril Mann gets an Islington People’s Plaque on Bevin Court, Cruikshank Street, WC1. It is the first council block to have a people’s plaque.

Renske’s wish
“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
  •  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
Would you like to nominate someone to be interviewed? Or would you like to write a guest post for this blog? if the answer is yes for either please email

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola







6 Responses to “Cyril Mann: painter & sculptor”

  1. Nicolette April 9, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    What an interesting story. And the pictures.

    • nicola baird blogs April 9, 2014 at 9:16 am #

      Hi Nicolette, yes Cyril Mann’s work is amazing – but I found Renske’s details about being an artist’s muse fascinating. So lucky she contacted islingtonfacesblog and let me use these amazing pictures.

  2. The Unbelievable Mr X April 12, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Thanks for this Nicola – Had never heard of him (sadly) to be honest.
    Might not be the NPG or British Museum but, in the meantime, wouldn’t Islington Museum be interested? Any other Islington Museum?

    • nicola baird blogs April 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      Hello Mr X – Cyril Mann’s paintings are gorgeous and it would be good if he was better known. Good point about making sure Islington Museum know about him, although I hope they do. I’ll try a tweet in their direction! Loved your modern suffragettes post recently… Nicola


  1. Andy Parker: musician & painter | Islington Faces Blog - February 11, 2015

    […] PS: If you like Turner, have a look at Cyril Mann’s Islington art published on islington faces blog here. […]

  2. Cyril Mann explored | Bevin Court - November 24, 2015

    […] can also read more about him at the Cyril Mann website and in articles in Islington Faces blog and on Spitlefiled’s […]

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