ECSTASY, 1963 Oil on canvas, 61 x 91.5cm (24 x 36in), Private Collection

Being the girl in the green jumper

Cyril Mann’s muse, Renske Mann, rescues the artist from forgotten obscurity

Artillery Row On Art

In 1980, Cyril Mann died a penniless and unrecognised artist. Suffering with untreated bipolar disorder in an era that scarcely understood mental health issues, the painter’s death was somewhat of a cliché — befitting any of his misunderstood heroes from William Blake to Vincent Van Gogh. 

The Girl in the Green Jumper: My Life with the Artist Cyril Mann is a confessional (and at times bleak) memoir by his wife, the Dutch-Indonesian Renske Mann (née Van Slooten). She aims, rightly, to resituate the overlooked painter in the cultural landscape of post-war Britain. The book tracks an unlikely love story in the late 1950s against the backdrop of a poverty-stricken London. Despite his talent, Cyril’s career endured one tragic hit after another.

Cyril’s difficult temperament prevented him from excelling professionally

Renske arrived in London in 1958: alone and not yet 20 years old. For a mixed-race immigrant who fled the Dutch East Indies after the Japanese invasion of Java during the Second World War, London was a frightening new world. The city was still pockmarked by bombsites, and she had little to eat other than “pallid meals” with “cabbage cooked to death”.

The Girl in the Green Jumper: My Life with Artist Cyril Mann, Renske Mann (Pimpernel Press Ltd, £30)

She met the 48-year-old Cyril by chance when she saw him teaching a class through a doorway in Kingsway Day College, Holborn. She decided to sit in and watch. Renske was immediately attracted to the artist, and boldly approached him after the class. On their first date, he invited her to see his paintings at his flat in Bevin Court, Islington. She “was convinced [she] had discovered the British van Gogh”.

Irascible and volatile, Cyril’s charisma and talent nevertheless attracted Renske. She devoted herself to him, becoming his life-long supporter and adopting a myriad of roles: pupil, lover, muse, daughter, wife, breadwinner and carer. Through Cyril she received a novel kind of education: “I was eager to learn, and my mind was like a sponge, not only readily absorbing what Cyril was trying to achieve in his art, but acquiring as much and as quickly as possible from his decades of learning as he led me around museums and art galleries.”

But as Renske’s story unfolds, it becomes clear that Cyril’s difficult temperament prevented him from excelling professionally. As Mark Hudson writes in the introduction, he “had an apparently unerring instinct for turning each moment of promise into bitter disappointment”. Although class and social barriers certainly contributed to his lack of better fortune (he is described as having a working-class chip on his shoulder), his ostracism from the British art establishment was practically self-imposed. 

Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, c.1952, Oil on canvas, 33 x 25cm (13 x 10in), Private Collection. Renske writes: “This self-portrait gives a good impression of how Cyril looked when we first met”

Renske recalls a particular incident involving a bust up with the influential painter and founder of “Pop Art” Richard Hamilton. The two men had been friends since the war and had a similar working-class background. Yet by 1960, their stylistic differences marred the friendship. Cyril declared Hamilton to be “a fraud, a conman, an opportunist”. While Cyril had once been the “better known of the two”, it was the likeable and sociable Hamilton who became remembered as one of Britain’s greatest post-war artists. “Difficult” Cyril lost a valuable connection and never became a household name. 

But many successful artists in history have been described as “difficult”. How did such a talented painter, a graduate of the Royal Academy, and well-connected bohemian lose his way in the world? The question of his reputation’s decline underpins Renske’s book. “I couldn’t understand why the world in general, and the art world in particular, didn’t appreciate Cyril’s work as much as I did,” she writes. “If I was so astonished and exhilarated by the beauty of his paintings, why weren’t others equally impressed?”

In an era of rapid social change reflected by artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism, Cyril’s allegiance to figurative painting ostensibly couldn’t keep up with the spirit of the new age, a point Renske notes adeptly in the book. Cyril was more concerned with everyday subjects and the formal qualities of light, colour and shadow. His “Kitchen-Sink” realism didn’t appeal to a modern audience with an appetite for novelty and abstraction, and Cyril himself was aware of his own limitations: “My art will always be grounded in realism, but my vision of light and shadow must be bolder and evolve into new dimensions.”

It was Cyril’s ego and latent mental health problems — left unchecked and unchallenged — that ultimately got the better of him. In 1978, after an exhibition at the Ogle Gallery in Eastbourne, he displayed severe symptoms which culminated in his being sectioned and admitted to Claybury Mental Hospital. This collapse coincided with the breakdown of the relationship between the couple. Cyril would die two years later, with Renske by his side after many months of estrangement. 

Beyond a story of artistic and romantic tragedy, Girl with the Green Jumper tells of a woman’s quest for liberation. Although centred on Cyril, the narrative is propelled by Renske’s desire for autonomy in an era that afforded women greater freedom than previous generations. 

Behind many of history’s male artists there was a muse, a partner or wife

By the mid-1960s, Renske desired to live without the gaze and control of a man. “For the first four years of our relationship, I had no life independent of Cyril, and nor did I want or seek any.” But by 1963, things had started to change. That year, Cyril captured Renske in his painting Girl with the Green Jumper — a portrait that reveals a self-possessing Renske who seems older than her years. “I’m perched on the narrow wooden armrest of our red chair, which makes sitting still difficult and painful.” She was still in love with Cyril, but confesses that Bevin Court often “felt like a prison”.

Although Cyril’s life was tarnished with tragedy, he never lost his artistic integrity — even if he was impervious to the commercial and creative demands of the era. He regarded himself as a misunderstood genius, once saying to Renske “when William Blake had conversations with God and the angels, his wife used to join in”. Renske received the remark as a reproach — a punishment for her desire to release herself from the relationship, or creative partnership.

Girl with the Green Jumper may not be the most glittering memoir, nor will it convince most readers that Cyril Mann was the unrecognised Blake or Van Gogh of post-war London. But the book does give him overdue and deserved recognition while offering a snapshot of everyday life in a time of drastic social change in Britain. It reminds readers that behind many of history’s male artists there was a muse, a partner or wife, many of whom suffered in silence as they denied their own needs.

Renske Mann will be in conversation with Mark Hudson and Robert Travers at Hatchards on April 12

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