Cyril and Renske Mann: remembering Bevin Court

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.

Cyril Mann self portrait

Cyril Mann – Self portrait

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.

75 St Pauls by Cyril Mann

Cyril Mann – 75 St Pauls

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.  

Cyrill Mann Interior with red chair

Cyrill Mann – Interior with red chair

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.”

Cyril Mann Studio Corner

Cyril Mann – Studio Corner

“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”

Cyril Mann View from Bevin Court (North), 1960

Cyril Mann – North View from Bevin Court

 

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.

Cyril Mann View from Bevin Court (South), 1961

Cyril Mann – South View from Bevin Court

 

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. 

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Tom Organ and Day and Night Winged Bulls

The evening of August 27 2015 saw Conservator Tom Organ from Arte Conservation team visit Islington Museum. Tom joined us to talk to the community about the mural at Bevin Court: Day and Night Winged Bulls by Peter Yates. Watch the video below to find out more about how he and his team will be conserving and restoring the mural.

The Lenin in Bevin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin might not be the first name that pops into your head when you think about the area now home to Bevin Court, but in fact Lenin made this area his base on two of his visits to London during the early 1900s. This page can not tell the full story of these visits, but we’ve got some interesting articles, so click through and  explore the links between Lenin and Bevin Court.

Iskra or 'The Spark'In 1902 and 1903 Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya, lived in 30 Holford Square.  They had left Germany due to police hostility and, being exiled from Russia, came to London.

With them moved the editing and printing of Iskra, translated as ‘The Spark’, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin found a base for printing Iskra with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and their printing press, the Twentieth Century Press, located on Clerkenwell Green (now the Marx Memorial Library).

Harry Queltch, editor of the SDF’s journal Justice, shared his first floor office with Lenin so that he could work on Iskra. The tiny office accommodated both men and it was said to be a squeeze by Queltch. Visit the Marx Memorial Library and you can see the office in which they worked, it is a tiny space! In 1903 Iskra was moved for publishing to Geneva and Lenin moved with it.

Lenin was to return to this area during his third visit to London for the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1905. During this visit the couple stayed around the corner from Holford Square in 16 Percy Circus. Later Krupskaya reminisced of their time in the capital: “Ilyich studied living London. He liked taking long rides through the town on top of the bus. He liked the busy traffic of that vast commercial city. There were other places too – mean little streets tenanted by London’s work people, with clothes lines stretched across the road and anaemic children playing on the doorsteps… Ilyich would mutter in English through clenched teeth: ‘Two nations!”

Lenin’s British Museum reader’s card, under his nom-de-plume Jacob Richter.

Although the New River development, of which Percy Circus and Holford Square were a part, had in the past century enjoyed a high status and been a desirable area to live by the time Lenin visited many of the houses were multi occupancy and the character has a slightly less polished veneer. However, it was by no means the mean little streets that Krupshaya mentions, though you would not have to walk far to reach these slum areas.

During all his 6 visits to London he stayed in and on the borders of the Bloomsbury area. The main reason for this would appear to be his commitment to visiting the reading room at the British Museum. One of the first things that Lenin did upon arriving in London on his 1902-3 trip was to be issued with a reading ticket under the name Dr Jacob Richter, to avoid arousing suspicion. He visited most days, arriving shortly after opening time and working calmly until lunch.

You can read about the history of both Percy Circus and Holford Square by clicking through to the links. Both of the sites that Lenin lived in around Bevin Court have inspired memorials. There is the intriguing story of the two plaques to Lenin on the site of 16 Percy Circus and the two memorials to Lenin in Holford Square. For more about Clerkenwell’s radical roots take a look at Islington Heritage’s Radical Clerkenwell.

3D printing Bevin

There are lots of stories about Bevin Court and its environs and as part of our Bevin Court Restoration Project we are reproducing a bust of Ernest Bevin. The Building used to house a bronze bust of Bevin housed in the aperture across from Yates’ mural.

John McCann / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

John McCann / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Like most of the stories concerning Bevin Court and busts, the how, why and when of the disappearance of Bevin’s bust is not clear cut. Residents remember that the bust went some time in the 90s, but stories of Bevin’s bust become intertwined with the happenings of the bust of Lenin and the two tales often intertwine (if any one has any other info on Bevin’s bust then do get in contact).

Bevin in 3D lime green

Mini Bevin!

As part of the Bevin Court Community Restoration project we are reproducing a bust of Bevin to go into the space left by the old bust. iMakr, a 3D printing company in Clerkenwell, are working with us to create an exact replica of the bust owned by the Unite union. Why have we chosen this bust to copy? We will be publishing a blog on just this topic very soon!

This lime green version is a mini Bevin produced for us by iMakr to demonstrate the level of detail captured during the scan. We will be organising a visit to the studio at iMakr during the production of the full size bust, if you’d like to join us on this visit then drop alex.smith@islignton.gov.uk an email.

Once the bust is printed it will go on display in Islington museum before being installed in Bevin court.

Cyril Mann gets an Islington People’s Plaque

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Cyril’s widow Renske on Bevin Courts famous stair case

On 28 September 2013 a very special Islington People’s Plaque was unveiled commemorating Cyril Mann

After serving in the Second World War as a gunner, Cyril and his first wife lived in a council flat in Paul Street, near City Road. The flat proved to be the worst possible base for an artist. It received no natural light, forcing Cyril to paint in artificial light. For three years he concentrated on shadow formations, doing small, formalized still-life paintings with a strong use of line and colour. During this period, he painted some iconic images of post-war Finsbury and Islington, including sunlight on Finsbury Square, trolley buses near the Angel, and a luminescent Chiswell Street, all providing rare sparks of colour in a grim world. After teaching at the LCC Central School of Art, Cyril was appointed lecturer at Kingsway Day College and Sir John Cass College, specialising in the ‘Technology of Painting’, in 1950.

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Cyril Mann’s widow Renske, his daughter Amanda and biographer John Russell Taylor in front of Bevin Court

In 1956, the artist moved to a small one-bedroom flat on the seventh floor of Bevin Court in Cruikshank Street, Finsbury (now Islington). Life took a turn for the better when he married Renske van Slooten in 1960 – she also became his model and muse. At this time, Mann gave up lecturing to concentrate on painting full time. 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.

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.

This video of the unveiling of the plaque is from the Piano Nobile Gallery where you can find out even more about Cyril Mann and his works.

 

Peter Yates

Peter Yates (1920-1982) was born in Wanstead, always artistic, he began studying architecture in 1938 at the Regent Street Polytechnic. In World War Two he was a fire watcher in the St Paul’s area and then went on to join the RAF on his 21st birthday.

In 1944 he travelled to Versailles with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces to establish a radar transmitting station. In early 1945 Yates was in Paris where he met, among many other artists and writers, Le Corbusier.  The two were both architects and painters, Le Corbusier noting on one occasion that ‘this boy can see things.’

Peter Yates had a long term friendship with Berthold Lubetkin who he worked with on the Peterlee scheme.

The mural painted at Bevin Court is named Day and Night, Winged BullsIt depicts the coat of arms of Finsbury in an abstract form. For more information about the mural take a look at our article Day and Night, Winged Bulls

For more information on Peter Yates visit www.peteryates.co.uk and on the Book Room Art Press

Day and Night, Winged Bulls by Peter Yates

The mural painted at Bevin Court is named ‘Day and Night, Winged Bulls’. It depicts the coat of arms of Finsbury in an abstract form. The bold colours and mesmerising patterns make this a mural that you can really look at again and again.

Finsbury, as a place, was an incredibly important construct to Lubetkin. As a borough, Finsbury had awarded Lubetkin some key contracts. Three crests of Finsbury were once located at the top of Bevin Court. Sadly, when Finsbury was joined to Islington in 1965 the crests were removed.

Finsbury Crest at the top of Bevin Court

RIBA Library Photographs Collection

The crest of Finsbury was awarded to the borough in 1931 from the College of Arms.

The following text comes from the Town Clerk Hugh Green in 1931. More can be read about the meaning and history of the Coat of Arms in our article on the Finsbury Crest and its meaning.

Arms: On a red ground a White Cross, in the centre running water, with four red circles. Two plain and two charged with white crescents, the upper part of the shield embattled and bearing two towers and a gateway on a gold ground.

Crest: on a red and white wreath a shortened forearm holding a small white shield bearing a red cross and four swords with gold handles.

Supporters: on the right side (left to the observer) a Winged Bull in white, with a decorated blue collar, and on the left side a green dolphin charged with a badge thereon engraved a Well.

Motto: ALTIORA PETIMUS: WE SEEK HIGHER THINGS

 

finsbury copy

Islington Local History Centre

If we deconstruct the crest and compare the constituent parts to Peter Yates’ mural we can clearly identify:

  • the winged bull of St. Luke
  • the dolphins representing St. James
  • a pool of water referring to the New River Head
  • the Clerks’ Well in the centre
  • the crescents and circles denote Charterhouse
  • the tower to the left is St Luke’s.
  • the city walls and gate referencing the Liberty of Glasshouse Yard
  • and the dome represents St Paul’s, it even has the same cross atop it

Although St Paul’s is not in the crest it is the church which dominates the southern skyline when looking from Bevin Court. Looking at some of Yates’ earlier studies this is an easy progression.

Take a look at Yates’ mural again and see if you can identify the parts of the  crest.

cropped-img_7252.jpgThe mural has recently undergone a fantastic restoration process. To find out more about the process you can read these articles.