Sunday, 12 April 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its old and best blind artist, Sargy Mann

Sargy, an artist whose work with sight and in blindness featured both landscapes and portraiture and whose life provides an inspiring example of human resilience and ingenuity, has died at the age of seventy-seven.

What you possibly didn't know about Sargy, that he :

* was born as Martin, son of Maisie and Stanley, in Hythe, Kent in 1937 and at the age of 13 was packed off  to Dartington Hall School, Devon, a 'progressive', co-educational boarding school opened in 1926, based on the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, without corporal punishment and uniforms, with an emphasis on student self-government and where he broke up his wooden bed with the axe bought for his 8th birthday and mastered the art of playing chess in blindfold.

* developed a keen interest in maths, physics and sports and adopted the stage name 'Sargy' when "there were some older boys in the school in the school and our music master who were very much into jazz. They didn't have a drummer so I started playing, unbelievably badly, but it became a big passion for me."

* later recalled : "Growing up, my sister was the artistic one. My great passion was sport and I wanted to be a professional footballer or cricketer. The school we went to was very liberal – the kind of place where you didn’t have to go to lessons – and I barely spent any time in the art room. Though I remember once wanting to draw a man chopping down a tree: I stood in front of my mother’s full-length mirror and swung a walking stick so I could get the action right. It was the first time I’d ever drawn directly from nature, and tried to understand something by really looking hard."

* left school at 16 in 1953 and was taken on as an engineering apprentice at Morris Radiators in Oxford where, after his "somewhat unworldly childhood, the world of the factory was totally mysterious to me. I was a terribly self-conscious boy and rather scared of people. But I began to develop a bit of an arty personality" and furthered his music by playing drums at the University Jazz Club, on occasion in a trio with pianist Dudley Moore, himself studying music as an undergraduate at Magdalen College and occasionally sketched the musicians and dancers.

* at the age of 21 in 1958 enrolled at Hammersmith Polytechnic to study for 'A' levels as entrance qualifications for a university maths degree, but instead of attending lectures went to the Natural History Museum to draw, met an art student who saw his work and said "I ought to be at art school and, in that instant, I realised that was what I wanted, more than anything else in the world, I’d just never admitted it to myself."

* in 1960, together with an old school friend, Colin Howard, did up a house in Maida Vale and met his 37 year old sister, the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard and in the same year prepared a portfolio, got into Camberwell College of Art and once at study "had some wonderfully inspiring teachers there – Frank Auerbach (left), Euan Uglow, Dick Lee and Anthony Eyton – who very much believed that, right from the first day, you weren’t learning the craft of art, you were already doing the real thing."

* graduated in 1963 and had his painting 'Karen I', featured in the annual show of the newly formed 'Contemporary Portrait Society' on Bond Street, but found commercial success slow, returned to Camberwell in 1967 to become the first post-graduate student in their Painting School and stayed on as a tutor with lessons focused on the transformative powers of light and colour and later recalled : "the idea that you’d leave art school and find a gallery was laughable. You had to earn your crust somehow and I was lucky enough to do it by teaching at Camberwell and the Camden Arts Centre."

* moved to Tottenham Court Road in 1964, where he lived with a number of 'creative individuals' and in 1965 with his artistic interest in perception, experimented with LSD and obsessed with ways of seeing, felt that the eye was an entirely passive collector of visual stimuli and 'seeing' was a learned activity that went on in different, discrete parts of the brain
an imaginative exercise which collated form, colour and light into an understandable picture of the world and one constantly made up as you went along.

* in 1967 at the age of 30, as a result of his friendship with Elizabeth Jane Howard, became house guest at 'Lemmons', the Georgian House in Barnet she shared with her husband, the author, Kingsley Amis and spent all of his free time painting in their garden and more importantly found they "knew lots of interesting people. So from fairly early on, my paintings were being bought by people like John Betjeman and Iris Murdoch."

* in 1972 found himself under the same roof as the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis and his 15 year old son, Daniel, when home from attendance at Bedales School, who would later become a collector of his work with its "supreme mastery of structure, light and colour" and later recalled : "I remember well Sargy's vigour and sense of purpose as he set out for a day of painting. Box and boards, a long stride, eyes aglitter. And I looked forward to the fisherman's return, which was never empty-handed."

* in 1973, at the age of 36, successfully exhibited at the 'Salisbury Festival of Arts', organized by Elizabeth and Geraint Jones and  featured his 'Lemmons Bathroom' works and followed this with his 'Sketchbook Collection' but found his career placed in jeopardy when he developed cataracts in both eyes.

* having read about Monet's cataract operations, was most interested to discover was whether he had colourless cataracts or the yellowy-brown ones that had progressively informed the changing palette of the artist at Giverny and asked : 'would he, like Monet, see the world saturated in blue again after the operation?' and found, to his joy, he did, and his painting for a while reflected this new cobalt dazzle.

* greeted his altered vision with artistic curiosity: "my world had become greyer and hotter. I was a human spectroscope such that I could see that a sodium streetlamp was monochrome because it only had an orange halo whereas a car tail light of the same colour had a spectral halo", but was also left with one eye seeing differently to the other, forcing him to experiment with 'single eye' versus 'double eye' vision and finally, after retinal detachments and burst corneal ulcerations was left almost blind in one eye.

* in 1979 at the age of 39, left Lemmons when he married former student Frances Carey and continued to teach at Camberwell and Camden Arts Centre and through the 80's, to have eye operations after which he saw differently : "I had to keep rediscovering what the world looked like and how to engage with it. Actually, I liked this because the great thing for an artist is not to repeat yourself. I was always trying to use my art to see more deeply, to be more involved in the world."

* at the age of 50 in in 1987, recalled : "my really big break came when the dealer Christopher Burness (and gallery owner of the Cadogan Contemporary) saw some of my work and, amazingly, gave me a whole show. Suddenly, my paintings were selling at fantastically higher prices than I’d been charging and I was able to give up teaching, which, because of my deteriorating eyesight, was getting to be a bit ridiculous anyway. I once turned up late to a life drawing class and failed to spot the model standing nude about 12 feet in front of me."

* gave up teaching when officially 'registered blind' in 1988 and as a full-time painter, sought to support his young family with Frances in their South London home and pieced together bits of the world with his one 'good' eye by looking through a specially modified telescope and when he went painting, often took a white stick, which on one occasion prompted his son's friend to suggest that : "your dad is probably the best blind painter in Peckham".

* remained professionally active in the art world and served as co-curator for the 'Bonnard at le Bosquet' Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London and throughout the 1990s, as a visiting lecturer in Italy at the 'Verocchio Art Centre' and in Britain at the 'Royal Drawing School' and exhibited extensively at the Royal Academy, Royal College of Art and the Mall Galleries.

* in 2005 visited Cadaqués in Northern Spain with his son Peter, to make a documentary film, 'Sargy Mann' in the seaside village, chosen for its vertiginous streetscape since "blind people above all hate flatness, they have no way of understanding it" and its startling white buildings, sharp contrasts of light and shade which he could still just about decipher and would move about tapping surfaces with his stick, measuring lengths between walls and objects trying to work out visual coordinates to be filed away for future use.

* acknowledged Peter's reflection that :"The film I ended up making about my father was very different to the one I had in my head when I started it. I had wanted to make a film about visual perception, I thought that watching a 'blind' man talk so passionately about a visual experience that most people would imagine was a useless mess would be an interesting insight into fundamental ideas about what 'seeing' is. What complicated this was that he went completely blind before I had really started to make the film. In the end I made a film about a particular moment, that is, I think, in its own way quite an interesting story."

* planning to paint scenes as soon as he got home, returned the day before his 68th birthday, but woke up the next morning with a strong pain in his left eye, which when his wife, Frances, looked at it, said : "Oh my God, it's bleeding" and was faced with the certainty of what he had been dreading for a long time: the ulcer on his cornea had perforated causing the eye to collapse marking the start of his total blindness.

* wondering what he would do with the rest of his life and feeling his way to his studio by the river, reconsidered the light and space of Cadaques he'd been planning to paint and recalled : "Well, I thought. I have got a ready stretched canvas and all my paint and brushes that I had imagined giving away, so why not have a go?" and put the canvas on the windowsill outside his studio, carried out his painting trolley to the usual place and started to feel the canvas and imagine his subject: a bar scene already painstakingly mapped out.

* continued : "After a bit I thought: 'Well here goes,' and loaded a brush with ultramarine. What followed was one of the strangest sensations of my life: I 'saw' the canvas turn blue as I put the paint down. Next I put my Schminke magenta, and 'saw' it turn rose. The colour sensation didn't last, it was only there while I was putting the paint down, but it went on happening with different colour."

* invented new methods of working and "I mark certain points on the canvas with Blu-Tack, so I know where I am, but I’m still trying to capture the experience of the external world, and I can still move freely in it, through the imagination. Looking back, I don’t think I’d have liked the life of a professional sportsman, not nearly as much as I’ve liked being an artist" and having considered himself primarily a landscape painter, now became more oriented toward portraiture and the easier comprehension of depth in figures.

.* reflected that : "Once I had started painting blind, there was no stopping me. It just became the new way of doing it. It was difficult, but art had always been difficult, and having a new set of difficulties was no bad thing" and thought that it was a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head and in 2006 co-wrote with Peter 'Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham' to accompany the film which Peter had made.

* had played drums over the years in performance with distinguished jazz musicians Dave Holland and Don Rendell and in 2007 played with saxophonist Bobby Williams in at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay of whom he said : "We knew each other distantly in the 1960s and have played together occasionally since. I idolised him from afar" and "blindness is only a slight disadvantage when playing with others. Because of the way it is structured you can get people who have never played together and straight away, without ant rehearsal, you can put on a very good performance. My only terror is that like all very good jazz musicians he likes to play very fast and if he does, it is obviously a matter of hanging on for dear life !"

* had four solo shows at 'Cadogan Contemporary' :  in 2008, a series featuring his wife, 'Frances', who he saw through touch : "As I tried to understand her position and the chair in my totally blind state, by touch alone, I found that my brain was busy turning this three dimensional understanding into the view that I would have seen and the two dimensional pattern this would give” ; followed by 22 colourful, abstract 'Gouaches' in 2009;  17 'New Paintings' in 2010 with Daniel Day-Lewis, in the catalogue, describing his work a s 'gorgeously sensual' and 12 new portraits and landscapes in his 2013 collection.

* in 2014 featured on the BBC News 'Real Life' story as 'Blind painter Sargy Mann : Painting with inner vision' and had continued to practise on his drum kit in the studio he shared with his canvases and in January this year played with the 78 year-old Bobby Wellins for the last time in a special 'One for Sargy' gig at the Fisher Theatre, inspired by news of his illness and at which
he was strong enough to play two medium tempo numbers and said : “It was one of those rare occasions when everything comes together and everyone excels.”

* beyond his brushes provided Britain with a lasting and inspiring example of optimism and fortitude  :

"I was saying to someone at the private view how incredibly lucky I have been. I had about 25 years' apprenticeship for going blind. It was a bugger, but I kept working out how to paint over those 25 years, and my brain kept finding new ways to see the world, if you like."

"I played a bit of cricket as a boy and I've always likened picking up a brush to a cricketer picking up a cricket bat, just that act fills you with possibility of hitting it out of the middle. There is not so much of that for me now, but it's still more than enough to get me up in the mornings."

"I haven't really spent much time at all being miserable about my loss of sight. I haven't grieved for it. I have a moment every few days when I am painting, when I think 'Oh fuck, I wish I could see that'. And when my daughter has her baby, soon, I may have some moments of wishing I could see it, but I will hold it and smell it and that's the way my life works now, and it's a good life."


  1. Thank you for the tribute to such a wonderful creative soul

  2. Fascinating tribute - thank you! I was Librarian at Camberwell School of Art from 1968 till 1998, and knew Sargy well. He used the library a lot, and I used to help him find things and have discussions with him on - among others - Bonnard, whom he greatly admired. A lovely man - modest, gentle, friendly, always ready to laugh.