A tribute to Norfolk artist John Mann

PUBLISHED: 21:48 15 April 2020 | UPDATED: 21:48 15 April 2020

John Mann who was a much-loved Norwich artist who died 20 years ago. Picture: Archant Library

John Mann who was a much-loved Norwich artist who died 20 years ago. Picture: Archant Library


I’ll wager that some of you reading this will have a picture painted by S J Mann hanging on a wall…treasure it and remember the extraordinary and wonderful gentleman who created it.

It was 50 years ago when John retired from his sign-writing business and took up painting full-time and never stopped until his death at the age of 97 in 2001.

Works of art, large and small, emerged from his studio at his Norwich home and now his son Alan would like to know what happened to two of his large murals looking at places and people from the city..

“These were huge murals that we couldn’t find a home for and I think they went to an animal sanctuary who collected them I always felt they should be on permanent display but it would be lovely to know where they are,” he said.

It certainly would.

John Mann was one of the most popular painters of recent years and boy did he work hard. He held regular exhibitions, mainly at The Assembly House in Norwich, took on numerous commissions and painted local dignitaries including MP’s and Lord Mayor’s.

His paintings of Coxswain Henry Blogg was on display at Cromer Museum, Kenneth McKee, the orthopaedic surgeon, at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and Nurse Edith Cavell in the Bupa Hospital…and so many more.

He was especially proud of his painting of Princess Diana which he presented to her old school at Riddlesworth Hall.

John was a window on our world and such a huge character with a big smile, and a firm handshake. It was a joy to be in his company and listen to his stories.

I got to know him as a friend and he loved being called the People’s Painter, Van Dauber, the Peter Pan of Painting, Mr Paintbrush and the Master of Brush Strokes.

He never took himself or his work too seriously. He just loved painting and he was brilliant at it.

“Sometimes I work so fast my brushes start smoking,” he said.

So iust who was Salem John Mann?

Born in 1903, he was the sixth of eight children. His dad was a farm labourer at Shotesham who moved to Norwich with his family to set up a milk round.

John went to Avenue School in the city where his talent as a boy who could draw impressed his teachers. He won a scholarship to attend evening classes at Norwich School of Art.

Aged 11 he was one of the youngest to win a scholarship to Norwich School of Art and spent his evenings there spent hours and hours learning how to draw an eye, an ear and a nose.

But John was no sit in the corner quietly and paint kind of a chap…he was a rebel who lived life to the full.

Leaving school he set off searching for adventure.

He had several jobs and one of his first was being an undertaker’s assistant That came to an end when he and another lad put a coffin on a train at Thorpe Station…the wrong train.

“I never did find out where it ended up,” he said.

He then joined the army spending ten years with the Dragoon Guards and was part of one of the last mounted cavalry charges during riots in India.

Serving in the cavalry from 1919 to 1929 and described it later as “Ten Wasted Years.”

John hated it and got in all sorts of trouble.

“I was in the clink a few times during the worst 10 years of my life,” said John but he did pick up medals for boxing and running.

When he took off his uniform and returned to civvy life in Norwich he became a painter’s labourer, then a signwriter and gilder before setting up his own signwriting business with seven employees.

Come the Second World War he was far more “grown-up” and joined the military police and then restarted the business when peace came.

Then he “retired” in 1970…to become the S J Mann, full-time painter in oils..

He worked night and day and held more than 25 large exhibitions at The Assembly House, in Norwich among others.

Away from the canvas he was a keen golfer and the love of his life was his dear wife Ruth. They had been married for more than 65 years.

He died in 2001 but his memory lives on thanks to his paintings.

“He was a remarkable and fascinating man,” said his son Alan, a retired bank manager turned author.

Today the family comprises of Alan and Pam who have children Karen, Nicola, Richard and their nine children between them.

Alan’s brother Graham died in 2013 but has a widow Stella, and sons Richard and Adrian who have four children between them.

They can all be proud of Salem John Mann. And so can the rest of us.

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