Bevin Court has been home to many remarkable people. One of its most famous past residents was the artist Cyril Mann. In 2013 an Islington People’s Plaque was erected to commemorate Cyril’s time at Bevin Court. His Widow Renske Mann has been kind enough to share some of her memories about the time they lived at Bevin Court.
In his biography, Times art critic John Russell Taylor describes how Bevin Court led Cyril Mann to paint some of his finest works during the 1960s and beyond, in very difficult circumstances.
When Cyril moved to Bevin Court in 1956, he could barely believe his luck, says his widow, Renske Mann “Cyril had previously lived in a gloomy flat in Paul Street, near the present-day Barbican,” Renske explains. “As it had all its windows barred, there was almost no daylight, forcing him to paint in electric light for several years,”
In contrast, flat 108 on the seventh floor was flooded in daylight. It had uninterrupted views of the city. For the first time, Cyril – by then in his mid-forties – enjoyed a bathroom with hot and cold water on tap. In the kitchen was a BabyBelling cooker and a formica-topped table, but no fridge or washing machine.
At around 475sq ft, the flat was small. Half the space – the bedroom – stored unsold pictures and the tools of the trade: brushes, paints, easels, art books and a large Victorian mahogany chest, which Cyril had kept since attending the Royal Academy before the War.
Renske moved into the flat with Cyril in 1960 when he was 48 and she had just turned 20, arriving from Holland a year earlier. Renske remembers how she and her husband lived, worked and slept on a single bed in the living room. Often they didn’t leave the flat for days. “We were totally immersed in his art,” she says. “There was no TV or radio.”
“Cyril never had the luxury of a model before and and took full advantage. He painted in a frenzy, day and night, often driving me to despair with exhaustion. Our flat was like a factory. Smells of oils, varnish and animal size (a glue used for sealing canvases) melting on the cooker, permeated everything.”
“Our bathroom was often out of bounds, too. Cyril brought back buckets of London earth for use in pottery, which he taught at evening classes. This soil had to be ‘washed’, which he did in the bath over several days. This meant using the communal baths in Ironmonger’s Row.”
Cyril was in poor health, mentally and physically, suffering from stomach ulcers and depression. Renske persuaded him to give up teaching and concentrate full time on painting. She earned a fair wage as a bi-lingual English/Dutch secretary, but Bevin Court’s rent took almost half. “Like most people those days, we smoked, but sacrificed eating for cigarettes if we ran out of money.”
“We scoured Chapel Street market for cheap veg and foods, like bacon offcuts, misshapen eggs, broken biscuits and mushroom stalks. Yet, we never felt deprived or insecure. ‘If God looks after the sparrows, He’ll look after me,’ Cyril assured me. I hoped God would look after me, too”
They were friendly with their neighbours next door at Bevin Court, Mr and Mrs Neville, and their little daughter, who must be in her sixties by now. Mrs Neville worked for the local ‘fleapit’ in Upper Street and sneaked them free cinema tickets.
This was all long before Islington became fashionable. Camden Passage had no antique shops or galleries. A framer, called Mr Peyton, then started a bric-a-brac market, which was the start of the present antique shops and galleries.
While it had not been built long, Bevin Court was starting to look shabby. There were no trees or landscaping around the building. The entrance was open, without a front door and windswept. “You walked from one side to the other, right through the building. None of the floors had security doors,” Renske recalls.
Inside the entrance hall was a bronze bust of Ernest Bevin, the politician. On the other side was the typically 1950s mural by Peter Yates, softening the ‘brutalist’ interior and providing a splash of colour.
Cyril admired the Lubetkin architecture and famous staircase. “He made me look upwards, exclaiming how beautiful it was. He regretted the flats were not named for Lenin, as originally intended.”
Cyril and Renske moved out of Bevin Court in 1964. They bought a small house in Walthamstow, a poor and unfashionable part of East London. A gift from his art patron, Erica Marx, helped them to pay the deposit. Their daughter, Amanda, was born there in 1968.
Cyril died on January 7, 1980, aged 68, after years of ill health and spells in mental hospitals and following an art career that had spanned over half a century.
His work is represented in major private and public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Guildhall Museum and Art Gallery and the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow.
For more information on Cyril Mann please visit Piano Noblle website where you can also buy “The Sun is God, The Life and Work of Cyril Mann” by John Russell Taylor.