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Finding hope in a kipper

by
26 October 2011

Nicholas Cranfield on a little-known artist with Canadian links

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PIANO NOBILE, a little gallery in North Kensington, handles the estate of the late Cyril Mann (1911-80). It continues to champion this somewhat quixotic artist who lacked formal recognition in his lifetime, possibly because he was by all accounts argumentative. He was never appointed as an official war artist although he served as a Gunner in the Royal Artillery and was not engaged in the Recording Britain project (1946-49). Unlike David Bomberg, say, he has no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Growing up in Nottingham, he left a clerical job for Canada at the age of 16, called to be a missionary. That never happened, and he gave up on formal religion almost as soon as he arrived, although, at his return to London, it was the Revd Oliver Fielding Clarke who, with a lady called Erica Marx, sponsored his going to the other RA, the Royal Academy school (1935).

At his death, aged 68, after years of mental instability, his last self-portrait was Ecce Homo (“Behold the Mann”). The three self-portraits seen side by side here (and I think I glimpsed a fourth above the director’s desk), dating c.1937, 1956, and 1972, are more conventional but otherwise unremarkable.

But it was while he was in Van­couver at the end of the ’20s that he was much influenced by Arthur Lis­mer (1885-1969), one of the Group of Seven. The Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has a comprehen­sive exhibition of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, which strikingly shows how these artists changed the way in which Upper Canada saw itself and how it was seen.

Red in tooth and claw, Canada was untameable, but what these extraordinary artists captured was the sense of space, of silence and of light. Sunlight, or the lack of it for so much of the year, profoundly affected Mann and he played with its effects for the rest of his life. Throughout the 1950s, he even painted in an unlit flat without natural lighting.

Lismer and another member of the Group of Seven after 1920 (F. H. Varley) both trained in Sheffield School of Arts before emigrating before the First World War. In the Midlands, the young Lismer probably recognised a soulmate, since Mann had been the youngest student ever awarded a scholarship to the Nottingham School of Art.

He advised him to return to England with his paintbrushes, but something of Lismer’s colours and sense of movement in light stayed with Mann; although he worked briefly in Paris after the RA, it is Lismer and not Osip Zadkine or the Scots colourist J. D. Ferguson whose colours he has observed.

It is the palette of Lismer’s 1926/28 Evening Silhouette that makes sense of Mann’s flower studies like his 1964 Daffodils in Brass Jug or the later 1973 Tulips and Mimosa.

From the mid-1950s comes a series of highly coloured staged works, of which I particularly liked Kippers on Striped Table Cloth and Dahlias in Blue Vase. Patrick Caulfield later came to do such things rather better, but these are a bid for life in a lifeless Britain still overshadowed by rationing. They are also much earlier than Caulfield, and adumbrate the power of poster art in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many works are reminiscent of the English neo-Romantic tradition (the likes of Edward Ardizzone came to mind), but Mann struggled to find an authentic voice, and this small centenary retrospective exhibition strives to make up for that.

It is best when surveying the extra­ordinary scenes of post-war London, a cityscape of ordinariness trans­formed by the force of light hitting the subject. Paul Street, painted around 1950, with a bomb­site on the street corner, opens out with a radi­ant clash of light on a neighbouring building, while Christ Church, Spitalfields, is caught six years later in a hazy grey. Wherein lies hope?

The most arresting image, not least as it offers a glimpse of a London that disappeared under the Barbican in the 1970s and 1980s, is his St Paul’s from Moor Lane. Painted in 1948 for an exhibition at Wilden­stein’s, this catches the bleak empti­ness of a City struggling to regain its own confidence. A single taxi has drawn up at the kerbside as five figures make their way to work. Only the sentinel-like city steeples and the dome of St Paul’s mark out a ravaged field of abandoned buildings beyond a low wall. Above is a blaze of sun­light. Maybe the sun is god after all.

“Cyril Mann (1911-1980): Tribute Exhibition” is at Piano Nobile, 129 Portland Road, London W11, until 5 November (Tues. to Sat., 11 to 6 p.m. or by appointment: phone 020 7229 1099). www.pianonobile.com

www.cyrilmann.co.uk

“Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 8 January. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

“Cyril Mann (1911-1980): Tribute Exhibition” is at Piano Nobile, 129 Portland Road, London W11, until 5 November (Tues. to Sat., 11 to 6 p.m. or by appointment: phone 020 7229 1099). www.pianonobile.com

www.cyrilmann.co.uk

“Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 8 January. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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