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The British painter Sargy Mann was diagnosed with cataracts at 36, and went on to lose his sight completely. But in his mind's eye his vision did not fade. Mann found new ways to keep working and today his paintings, collected by Daniel Day-Lewis among others, are more acclaimed than ever.
Even before he lost his sight, Sargy Mann was obsessed with ways of seeing. As a young painter he was tutored by singular realists – Frank Auerbach, Euan Uglow – who insisted that an individual artist must be exactly true to what he saw. For much of his working life Mann taught students at Camberwell School of Art all he knew about representing light and colour on canvas, with particular reference to Bonnard and Matisse, and he put all of that complex understanding into practice in his own, often gloriously sun-drenched landscapes and interiors. Like all painters, he suggests, he felt he knew instinctively what science was then in the process of discovering: that the eye was an entirely passive collector of visual stimuli, and that "seeing" was a learned activity that went on in different, discrete parts of the brain – the imaginative piecework of collating form, and colour, and light into an understandable vision of the world, one you constantly made up as you went along.
Before Sargy Mann married he lived for eight years as the house guest of his friends Kingsley Amis and his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, in their Georgian home, Lemmons, in Hertfordshire. His habit was to go out into the garden and country and paint whenever he could. In 1972 the Amises and Mann were joined by the poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, dying from cancer, and his family. Daniel Day-Lewis, then a child and now a passionate collector of Mann's painting, recalls him at that time with a mixture of intrigue and delight, a welcome life force: "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…"
Mann's distinctive vision, born of generously attentive looking, began to be tinged that same year by the growth of cataracts in both of his eyes. He was only 36 and for months went undiagnosed. The change in his sight he greeted with artistic curiosity: "my world had become greyer and hotter," he recalls. "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…" He'd read about Monet's cataract operations before he had his own and what he 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 Impressionist at Giverny. Would he, like Monet, see the world saturated in blue again after the operation? To his joy he did, and his painting for a while reflected this new cobalt dazzle.
Mann's eye problems were only just beginning, however. By the time he gave up teaching in 1988, and began working full time as a painter – by now with a wife, his former student Frances Carey and their young family to support in south London – retinal detachments and corneal ulcerations had diminished his detailed sight to almost nothing. He pieced together bits of the world with his one pretty hopeless eye by looking through a specially modified telescope, and when he went painting often took with him a white stick. On one occasion he heard his son's friend suggest that "your dad is probably the best blind painter in Peckham". The phrase became the title of a recent memoir that details a heroically good-humoured struggle against the dying of the light, one that continues day by day.
Mann is recalling some of this history for me beside a log fire in the sitting room of his low-beamed riverside house in Bungay, near the Suffolk coast, to which the family moved in 1990. He is a spirited talker, quick to digress, his attention wandering now over the jazz trio in which he used to play as a drummer with Dudley Moore on piano, (when he was an engineering apprentice in Oxford at 17 or 18), now on his use of LSD in 1965, which brought him further insight into the complexities of perception, and now on the axe which he had as a prized birthday present aged eight, and which he employed to chop up his boarding school bed at Dartington, in Devon. All this comes as background to the singularity of vision and blindness and the means by which he has continued to paint.
The day before driving up here I had met Sargy at his latest one-man exhibition at the Cadogan Contemporary gallery in Chelsea. It is a strange thing to stand in front of a canvas with a painter who can only imagine his work, a little like being granted sudden access to another man's mind's eye, but though I was leading him by his arm to his pictures before he could describe them, he seemed to "see" each painting just as vividly as I could. The paintings in this recent London show – large, sun-filled, slightly dislocating, alive with colour and selling for healthy four and five-figure sums – were rooted in a trip Mann had made to Cadaqués in northern Spain with his son, Peter, a film-maker, in April 2005. The trip, its light and atmosphere, held a special significance for Mann, because it was the last time he saw anything at all. The seaside village had been chosen for its vertiginous streetscape ("blind people above all hate flatness, they have no way of understanding it"), its startling white buildings and the sharp contrasts of light and shade that Mann could still just about decipher. He and his son walked the streets waiting for inspiration. If Sargy got interested in a particular place, a sudden sense of white or blue or orange, he would move about tapping surfaces with his stick, measuring lengths between walls and objects trying to work out some visual coordinates to be filed away. He became obsessed with some bar scenes and had Peter take a mosaic of photographs from his particular vantage that could later be described.
Mann planned to paint these scenes as soon as he got home. Father and son returned to England the day before Sargy's 68th birthday, and the family – Frances and their four children – got together to celebrate. It was, he says, a perfect day. The next morning he woke up with a strong pain in his left eye. When he asked Frances to have a look she said "Oh my god, it's bleeding." Mann was certain that it was what he had been dreading for a long time: the ulcer on his cornea had perforated causing the eye to collapse; it was the start of total blindness.
After some days in hospital Mann returned home, sightless, and wondering what he would do with the rest of his life. He had never been much interested in sculpture, though that was a possibility. He felt his way to his studio by the river, and there the subjects that had most recently been on his mind became insistent: the light and space of Cadaques that he had been planning to paint. "Well, I thought," he recalls, "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?" It was a sunny day, so he put the canvas up 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: one of the bar scenes he had painstakingly mapped out.
"After a bit I thought: 'Well here goes,' and loaded a brush with ultramarine," he recalls. "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 colours…"
He didn't look back. "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." It was, he thought, a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head.
Mann has developed strategies to construct his intense spatial landscapes on the canvas. His horizons have become closer at hand. Putting himself inside a space accurately has became more and more crucial to his work, to getting his bearings. At his house in Bungay he reconstructed some stairs to bring "Bonnard's light" on to the landing. This space has become a kind of mind map for him. In the dark, he talks me through how he understands it, feeling deftly for edges and corners with his fingers and cane. Once established, the space can become whatever he wants it to be, flooded with the remembered sunshine of the Mediterranean, which he then recreates on canvas, guided by a movable grid of Blu-Tack blobs, and an internalised rush of colour.
Over the years in which his sight has become progressively worse, Sargy Mann has been in contact many times with Professor Semir Zeki, of University College London. Zeki is the pioneer the field of "neuroaesthetics", a name he coined, and the world's leading authority on the science of how the mind, and in particular how the artist's mind, understands the world. In 2007 Zeki was granted more than £1m by the Wellcome Trust to explore the ways in which beauty and art are functions of the physiology of the brain.
All great artists, Zeki believes, are instinctive neuroscientists; they have an innate understanding of how the brain "sees" the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language. Zeki pioneered, as long ago as the 1970s, the accepted understanding of the particular way in which the brain projects its concepts of colour on to the world almost from birth. For Zeki, seeing is never a passive process. When we look at a painting, as his sensitive MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalised information at slightly different rates; colour is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Having been taken apart, as it were, a painting that we love is never simply put back together again in our heads; rather it "exists" dynamically in the interplay between responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses can create a puzzling, powerful and lasting engagement with the image, an emotional response.
Artists, Zeki suggests, subconsciously play with these dynamics. A Monet floods the colour centres of the brain, and the areas that understand light, with all sorts of conflicting stimulation, before form ever gets a look in; Cézanne, meanwhile, found a way to make the brain perceive form in tone and texture rather than in the trick of perspective.
If an artist discovers such a "new" language of seeing, Zeki argues, then the receptors in the brains of his or her audience can't get enough of it. "The brain demands knowledge," Zeki tells me. "It is constantly on the lookout for organising concepts." Art directly feeds that demand with new ways of looking.
Zeki is of course intrigued by Sargy Mann's condition, as well as being a longstanding admirer of his work. He has for a while been planning a series of experiments in which he connects the artist's brain to a scanner and ask him to imagine colour alongside people who are seeing it more conventionally, in order to compare the response in the colour centre of the brain, known as V4. "This would bear on a more general question, in which I'm also looking at whether mathematicians use a mathematical part of the brain, or literary people have a more developed literary area," he tells me. "In Sargy's case it is possible that the increased activity may be elsewhere and not in the colour area, that the brain has found a different way of doing it."
In some senses he believes that Sargy's blindness, following from an intimate understanding of colour, is a kind of release. "I've been talking with him for many years now and one thing is that since he has become completely blind he doesn't always give a damn exactly what colour he makes an object. In the process he has come up with brilliant colours. Normally we associate different objects more or less with different colours. A lemon immediately invokes yellow, say. But with him it doesn't matter so much." As a result, he suggests, the "sighted viewer is intrigued by unaccustomed colour juxtapositions and aesthetically mesmerised by them."
Memory of colour is what we all use, all the time, to fill in the world between the lines of form; artists have always sought to liberate themselves from those conventions and look again. "I have always argued that the worst thing that can happen to the artistic brain is self censorship," Zeki says. "As soon as your brain starts telling you that you can't have a tree that is blue then you stop being able to paint trees. Picasso, of course, was always dreaming of something like the same thing, of forgetting how to look at the world. He said it was easy to paint like an adult but much more difficult to paint like a child. In some ways, certainly in terms of colour, in response to his blindness, Sargy has approached that freedom."
Though a great admirer of Zeki's science, Mann himself is a little wary of trying to reduce his vision to neural pathways. As a result the pair have been dancing around each other for a while. "Zeki has been threatening to do experiments with me for years," he says, laughing. "What he wanted me to do with my head in his MRI machine was very simple. But in order to isolate one variable you have to set up something so completely at odds with how we actually perceive things that I fear it can give you slightly puzzling results." In some ways Sargy is happy for these processes to remain a mystery. Painting is for him an emotional event as much as a scientific one. He likes to adapt a quote by Philip Larkin about poetry to describe what he does: "Painting is a visual device for preserving an experience from oblivion," he says. "For me that means making the world look more like itself. Now that is obviously nonsense, because I can no longer see. But I don't really feel that I have had to abandon any of these thoughts."
This emotional reclamation has come to rest, since he lost his sight, on what Mann can touch. Though he had rarely painted the human figure before he lost his sight, his first series of paintings after he went blind focused on Frances.
"Because I couldn't see people any more it became more important to paint them," he says. "And Frances in particular, of course. It became terribly important. I suppose you always paint the things you most want to see."
Does he ever mourn that possibility?
"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."
I wonder if he thinks things would have been different if his sight had gone suddenly, rather than over decades?
"I was saying to someone at the private view," he says, "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."
Does he think that painting as he does it nowadays can be anything like a substitute for looking, a reminder of how it felt?
"Well," he says, after a long pause. "The reality of doing it is mundane. Today I went back to a painting I have been thinking about. To start to get back into it I started to measure and check where the Blu-Tack was and move it a bit, my crazy bits of 3D. And then I thought I would whack some more paint on. I got some neat orange on a brush and it felt really good. 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."
Sargy Mann (29 May 1937 – 5 April
2015) : the blind painter of Peckham