Renske Mann (nee Van Slooten) was born in the Dutch East Indies in 1939. Her family’s prosperous lifestyle ended abruptly in 1942, when occupying Japanese forces took her father prisoner to work on the Burma Railway for three years. Dutch rule ended in 1949 when the colony was renamed Indonesia. This caused a second upheaval for the Van Slootens. Aged 10, Renske and her family were expelled by the first President, Dr Sukarno.
They travelled in troop ships to the ‘Mother Country,’ which few of the 350,000 Dutch-Indonesians had ever visited. Destitute, the refugees arrived faced a hostile reception in the Netherlands, where there were serious food, labour, and housing shortages after German occupation in WW2. Renske had missed vital years of education. She found it hard to settle in Holland. She left school at 15 with O-levels and a shorthand-typing certificate. Working in a typing pool, she longed to escape the repressive atmosphere.
Aged 20, Renske arrived in London to work as bilingual secretary for a Dutch company. A few months later she met Cyril Mann, a gifted but unsuccessful artist who at 48, was 28 years her senior. They married on September 1, 1959, a week after Renske’s 21st birthday, when she no longer needed her horrified parents’ consent. After sixty years, Renske still doesn’t know why she fell immediately in love, or what had attracted her to Cyril. When he showed her his paintings, she was convinced that ‘she had discovered the British Van Gogh’. With little art knowledge, Renske offered to be Cyril’s model, muse, and financial support. She would help him for the next 20 years.
She persuaded him to give up part-time teaching and concentrate full-time on painting, not realising that Cyril was physically and mentally ill. After a severe nervous breakdown, he was diagnosed as bi-polar. Renske knew that she had to work hard to make a success of a career that would provide not only for Cyril and herself, but their daughter Amanda, born in 1968, when he was 57. With his encouragement, she filled her educational gaps by passing A-levels and taking an Open University degree. Her career in PR went from strength to strength, as she was appointed a director of Scholl, the international footcare-to-footwear company.
Following Cyril’s death, Renske and her current partner, journalist Marion Mathews, converted a derelict dairy in the then not-so-smart Holland Park into an art gallery. Operating as a charity, she and Marion ran the Gallery on a charitable basis for 10 years, until 1993, helping unknown, but gifted artists like Cyril to achieve that first difficult step on the exhibition ladder.
Now aged 81, Renske continues to write articles and give talks on Cyril’s paintings, using skills learned in PR but this time on social media, attracting thousands of followers and admirers worldwide.