In memory of Manya Igel (1923-2017)

OBITUARY – Manya Igel (1923-2017)

Last year Manya Igel described herself as: “A bl**dy miracle considering the life I lead”. Life did indeed throw much sadness and drama her way but her fighting spirit always seemed to overcome the most traumatic events.

Born in Panevėžys, the fifth largest city in Lithuania, Manya and her devoted family moved to the Free City of Danzig. However, as war threatened Europe she decided she wanted to move to England. Her mother wrote to her Russian friends who were in London and asked them to take care of ‘Little Manya’. Despite none of them replying, Manya managed to escape to England on the last Kindertransport to leave Danzig. Meanwhile her older sister, Sara, had moved to Belgium but in 1943 was arrested and transported to Auschwitz. Her parents too did not survive the war. Arriving in London with no family or friends, Manya was taken to the vast and decaying Bloomsbury House on the corner of Gower Street and Bedford Avenue. Here, she joined the many other refugees who had to wait in line in the huge reception hall to discuss their situation with Civil Servants. She stayed with various foster-mothers but eventually a girl’s grammar school offered to ‘adopt’ her. The school was extremely good to her and she blossomed to become one of the top students.

Fiercely independent, she was determined to make her own way in life and initially worked at Simpson’s on the Strand, followed by a period at Birmingham Repertory as an actress, parts included Charley’s Aunt and Why Men Leave Home. This was followed by various business ventures one of which embraced the import of dolls from Romania. Then, somebody recommended buying art and she went to a Christie’s auction and bought her first painting which was sold for a profit. Manya was hooked! Initially, dealing in Victorian painting with a focus on animals, she started to visit shows by contemporary artists and soon built-up a long and highly successful relationship with many Royal Academicians such as Diana Armfield, Bernard Dunstan, Fred Cuming, Freddie Gore and Ken Howard. She befriended and helped numerous artists and unlike other commercial galleries who operate on a sale-or-return basis, Manya purchased every painting directly from the artists. For some striving painters this unique philosophy proved a lifesaver. She was a great devotee of the New English Art Club and at the Club’s annual exhibitions presented an award and paid for all the wine at the Club’s celebrated annual Critics’ Lunch. Away from the commercial side of the art market, she supported many charities, was a patron of the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London’s St. John’s Wood and sponsored Free Entry to all the Museum’s exhibitions. She loved a little flutter on the horses but strictly never more than a pound or two!

In the early 1980s she met Norwegian Bernard Prydal, who became her companion and business partner. When Gay Hutson and Angela Wynn launched the 20th Century British Art Fair in 1988 (in 2000 it became the 20/21 British Art Fair), Manya and Bernard were quick to see the possibilities the event could offer their business and duly took a stand. Held at the Cumberland Hotel, Marble Arch and opened by jazz singer and raconteur, George Melly, the couple loved the experience and, despite Bernard’s unexpected death in 2012, Manya exhibited every year apart from 2017 due to ill health. Always immaculately coiffed and exuding tremendous enthusiasm and wit, she become one of the most endearing exhibitors. Her ardour for meeting clients and chatting about her collection of paintings resulted in her becoming a regular exhibitor at other major fairs, including Olympia, 20/21 International Art Fair and the LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair.

Despite her significant accomplishments in the art market, she would have adored a career in the theatre but considered dealing was, in some respects, not dissimilar to being on the stage. Once at an auction, she was conversing with a lady next to her and explained: “I used to be on the stage”. A bitchy voice behind said: “Darling, have you ever left it?”   

Manya’s qualities were many – her kindness and generosity, her wonderful sense of humour, her integrity and tenacious determination dictated she had few equals.

Manya was a great friend of the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum and is sorely missed.