The Family at Lyndhurst Grove, 1990 - 55 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas.
Warwick Gardens, 1989 - 55 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas
Joe’s Mill, 1990 - 55 x 80 inches, oil on canvas
Frances Painting in the Playroom, 1987 - 57 x 70 inches. Oil, Oil stick and Graphite on canvas
Upstairs at 58 Lyndhurst Grove, 1988 - 55 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas
Grove Court, 1989 - 55 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas
Lyndhurst Grove late 1980’s - 1987 to 1990
Below is an extract from the book Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham, where he describes making some of these paintings.
One day in the winter of 1987, Jane Howard’s son in law, Elliott Starks, who came to my Camden Art Centre life class, presented me with my first white stick which he and Jane had decided I was in need of. It was done with the utmost tact and I knew that they were right. Later it struck me as wonderfully ridiculous and funny that I was turning up to teach a painting class with a white stick. I had got oedema in my cornea which meant that my eye became waterlogged and swollen so that I was seeing very badly even by my standards. At one of my regular check-ups at Moorfield’s Hospital I asked the registrar who was seeing me whether there was anything I could do that would, at least temporarily reduce the oedema so that I could do a bit of constructive looking, painting, even. He said ‘Well you could try drying your eye out with a hairdryer. Be careful not to burn it though’. I did try and it worked pretty well so, that I got about a half an hour of functioning sight before it all completely clouded up again. I remember going to exhibitions at the Tate, the Hayward and the National Gallery with my hairdryer in a bag and asking the attendants whether there was a socket where I could plug it in in order to dry out my eye. They were all very matter of fact about it and very helpful…. My sight had deteriorated a lot since the previous summer and I was now registered blind, although I did still have a very little, blurry, peripheral vision in my left eye… I was having trouble painting from direct observation and in finding subjects that I wanted to paint. I decided that I would try to paint a French or Italian subject from memory and after searching for a vivid sense of place, I settled on a subject in Seillans that I had made a gouache of in 1986. I knew that if I was going to get anywhere, it would have to be big and I stuck the largest piece of primed canvas that would fit on the end wall of our living room. I was buying rolls of primed canvas which were seven feet wide which was just about the width of the flat central portion of the end wall. Allowing canvas for stretching at each end this gave me a picture width of six feet seven inches and when I had settled on the proportion of rectangle for my subject, I cut off the appropriate height and stuck the canvas to the wall with tape, rather as Bonnard had pinned primed canvas to his studio wall at Villa Le Bosquet and elsewhere….
During 1989 I made eight more large paintings on the living room wall; the first was a version of Diana and Acteon set on the Viale in Casole, two were of the whole room as seen with my back to the painting, two were about standing on
the little first floor landing, looking upstairs and downstairs at the same time, very wide-angle views, one was of standing at the end of a neighbour’s garden looking at the back of their house with the sun on it past a sumac tree with blazing red and orange leaves and their three year old daughter in a red dress standing very near under the sumac, and two were of near urban landscapes. I finished the last of these, Grove Court in December1989, it had been very difficult and I had done a lot of line drawing on the paint with black and white oil pastel.…
My life had changed a lot in the last couple of years. I stopped all my teaching in the summer of 1988 so that for the first time in my life I was a full-time painter keeping my family by the sale of paintings alone. In spring 1989, I had my second one-man show of the two summers of Italian paintings, which again went extremely well, a tremendous relief as I no longer had any other income. So here I was, a successful full-time painter who was very nearly totally blind – certainly so to my consultants at Moorfield’s who could not imagine how I could make any use at all of what sight I had left let alone paint with it.
…I wanted to paint a big picture that was more to do with direct observation, another view of my living room in fact. Having done two looking down the room with my back to the canvas on the wall, I thought that this time I would paint the room from the other end, looking towards my canvas. The other two had had only my wife in them and I wanted this one to have the children in as well.
The first time I had worked on the living room wall was back in 1983 when I made a large charcoal drawing of the family in that room. This drawing was exhibited in the Hayward Annual in 1984. Then I made another large, mixed media drawing of the family at breakfast which was exhibited in the South Bank Centre touring Exhibition, Past and Present. As is well known, a painter’s wife has much to put up with and this is yet another way in which I was absurdly lucky to be married to Frances – when I was making these large compressed charcoal drawings, there was permanently a thick layer of black dust on all horizontal surfaces, even two floors up!
One reason why the children had not been in the earlier paintings was that during the morning and middle of the day when the light in the room was most exciting, they were at school so I planned this painting at the weekend. At this time we had our dining table, a pine table, six feet by two foot eight inches, running down the centre of the room. I positioned myself with my back to the piano looking down the table to the far wall on which was my beautiful large, glowing, white, much whiter than the dirty white wall, canvas….
In retrospect I can see that this subject contained almost all of my concerns. When figures, usually my family, became important in my paintings, I liked their psychological significance to be held in place and contrasted with the perceptual excitement of light and space elsewhere and this became more the case as I got blinder. I needed bright light and deep space with strong contrasts in order to have a compelling visual experience whereas people, my family, were close but largely invisible, so being in the shadow with my family near to but looking past and beyond them to brilliant light which I could see was a perfect metaphor for my life.
I had always liked being in foreground shadow looking out into sun and there is a very good painting reason for liking this. The rule of aerial perspective, which is a fact of life, is that distance reduces contrast so that, other things being equal, the biggest contrasts of tone and colour will be close to, just as with linear perspective the largest shapes will be to do with the nearest things – for distant shapes to be big they have to be of very large things like the sky. If you have figures close to with the sun on them and their often strongly coloured clothes, you will need to use almost all of your range of tone and colour to paint the light and shade on them and you will have precious little left for what is going on further away. But I think that there is more to this preference for foreground shadow in my case as I can remember feeling like this as a child and I think it has got something to do with hiding, with seeing but not being seen and the sort of comforting security this gives.
When my father came back after the war when I was eight, we did not get on. We neither of us understood the other and were each wanting a different person from who we were. The new presence of my father spoilt my life and I used to hide from him so that my imaginary games in the garden and orchards Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, cowboys and Indians etc. which involved a fair amount of hiding anyway, became even more secretive and reality and fantasy became even more mixed.
We moved to Suffolk before I had finished The Family at Lyndhurst Grove. I took with me the started canvas, stretched it, and carried on with it in our new garden while our builder and his son, were modifying and customising my studio. The painting had all the challenges that I most enjoyed.
In addition to that of how to get as much light and colour into the shadowed space of the room while maintaining the bright sunlight outside, there was the equally exciting and demanding problem of painting a very wide angle view, vertically as well as horizontally, without the pattern going ‘fish eye’, which I found unacceptable and without the vertical foreshortening, notably through the standing figure of my, very near, wife resulting in an unattractive shape which did not communicate my experience of seeing a slim standing figure near to. Everything about this painting changed continually; the individual colours and the overall colour key, as my attention moved from sun to shade, the main divisions of the rectangle as I tried to realise the surrounding space. On one occasion I ragged down the whole painting and drew with white oil pastel a sort of rectangular key pattern right across the canvas in response to the march of rectangular openings and forms as I took in the whole sweep from left to right. The figures moved round the room and changed their clothes and smaller forms, items of furniture like boxes or shelves gained more or less significance as my focus changed or I remembered them, and the direction of the sun moved a little this way and that and clouds came and went.
I think of it as a very coloured painting although compared to my later paintings the colour is not very saturated. At this time I was painting using only cobalt blue, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, cadmium lemon, ivory black and flake white. I like this painting very much and think that it is one of the best I have made, possibly the best. I believe the light and the space and it feels very like being in that room. The presence of my family also feels true and by and large it is a happy painting.
Sargy Mann, 2008