home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects | gazetteer | linksarchive | forum

Sven Berlin

Anselm Kuhn



Sven Berlin was an artist profoundly caught up in the tension between the figurative and abstract artists of the post-war St Ives art colony. As Anselm Kuhn explains, many of the conflicts and rivalries were depicted in his book 'The Dark Monarch' of 1962.

Born in Sydenham, South-East London, Sven Berlin’s education and career path was as unorthodox as the man himself. Forced by financial circumstances to leave school at the age of twelve, he began adult life as an adagio dancer, an art form now more or less extinct as are the music halls where it was mainly performed.

Berlin partnered Helga, an experienced dancer and dance teacher who became his first wife. He maintained that the physical skills thus developed, as well as the opportunity to study the human form in motion and at rest, were to stand him in good stead throughout his life.

In due course, he and Helga moved to Penwith, in Cornwall. Here he came under the influence of Dr Frank Turk, a much-respected adult educationalist, working under the auspices of Exeter University, attending courses and lectures in subjects such as philosophy, the ancient cultures and the arts. Thus nurtured, Sven Berlin’s artistic skills began to flourish. On the outbreak of war in 1939, his beliefs as a pacifist forced him to register as a conscientious objector: a painful and humiliating procedure. Rather than enlisting in the armed forces, he was assigned to various jobs such as working as a boilerman or an agricultural labourer. Some of his earliest paintings show broccoli pickers in a Cornish field. In due course, however, he underwent a change of heart and renouncing his pacifism, he enlisted in the infantry, seeing active service in the Normandy landings and the drive towards Germany. His experiences in the field are recorded in his deeply moving book - asserted by some to be his best written work – I am Lazarus.

He returned to “civvy street” in St Ives, much traumatised by his combat experiences, and an extended healing process was necessary. Even then, it seems that the traumas of war were never erased, only submerged. His wife Julie recounts how, 40-50 years later, he would suffer recurrent nightmares as the hideousness of trench warfare returned to haunt him. His absence at the Front, as in so many other cases, contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Helga, not long after his return from the war.

Sven Berlin was now an accepted member of the fabled “St Ives Art Colony”, writing, drawing, painting, but mainly sculpting in stone, and relaxing in the evenings with the painters, potters and poets, so many of whom were drawn to St Ives. Here he and others “discovered” the primitive painter Alfred Wallis, but unlike his peers, he translated that interest into a book: "Alfred Wallis – Primitive" which remains in print to this day and was or perhaps is, the definitive treatment of this eccentric retired seaman.

Following the break-up with Helga, Sven Berlin met a local girl, Jackie Moran and, thanks to the kindness of Mabel Lethbridge (whose daughter later married the painter Bryan Wynter), Sven and Jackie moved into a tiny cottage at the foot of Skidden Hill. Their happiness was not to last, for Jackie had tuberculosis, and tragically, she died in his arms. Jackie Moran is “Lilith” in the Dark Monarch. Thus it was that Sven Berlin met the woman who was to become his second wife, Juanita, who claimed to be of Romany descent. Their often tempestuous marriage has been described elsewhere.

The artistic community of St Ives was in a state of turmoil. The abstractionists were pitted against the more traditional figurative painters. As is so often the case, what should have remained a conceptual debate, degenerated into personal acrimony. The “colonists” polarised around this issue and bodies such as the St Ives Society of Artists fractured, dividing between the newer and older ways of painting and depicting what they saw. Sven Berlin felt deeply about this issue and was much involved in the “politics”.

Perhaps for this reason, he decided to leave St Ives and did so, with Juanita and his little family, in a horse-drawn caravan, moving to the New Forest. From his new home, in 1962, he published one of the most contentious books of the time. The Dark Monarch was a roman a clef describing the somewhat zany atmosphere of St Ives, and the eccentric characters who peopled it. Mixing truth with fantasy, we read of the underwater painter (imagined), the man wont to stroll the streets of the town in a suit of armour (true), the “man-eater” and many other eccentrics. Unfortunately for its author, some of these were too easily identifiable and this, together with the defamatory attributes ascribed to them, led to a libel action, with poet Arthur Caddick the driving force behind this. The book was withdrawn only a few weeks after publication, and damages were paid by the author and his publishers. The episode, with writs tumbling through the letterbox, left lasting scars on Berlin himself and on Julie, his new bride.

In the New Forest, Sven Berlin re-built his artistic life, but now much less influenced by others around him, developing his own artistic path. It is clear that Sven Berlin felt greatly at home in and around the Forest. The prolific wildlife as well as the local gypsy community, intrigued him to the end of his days. Among the books in this stimulating environment were those focused on the gypsy community of the Forest, and an ode to fishing. All creatures including insects with their delicate structure, fascinated Sven Berlin, but arguably none more than fish, about whose submarine life there is always a remaining mystery. His Jonah’s Dream has been compared to Melville’s Moby Dick, appealing to anglers and non-anglers alike.

Sadly, though, things had not gone well between himself and Juanita, who had her own ambitions as authoress and artist. Nevertheless, it came as a fearful shock to him, when she eloped with his groom, Fergus. For this – treachery, as he saw it, he never forgave her. Fortune was with him, however, for he met and fell deeply in love with his third and last wife, Julie, to whom he remained happily married to the end of his life. Many years younger than him, and very much in her formative years, it is clear that Julie understood her husband-to-be much better than her predecessor, and appreciated the nature of the relationship that would make the marriage work - as indeed it did. There is little doubt that it is thanks to the nurturing environment created by Julie that, almost to the very end of his life, Sven’s prolific output of drawings, paintings, sculptures and writings – many of the latter lavishly illustrated by him, persisted. The intensity of Sven’s feelings for Julie is touchingly shown in the countless sketches, paintings and other depictions of her. She was a subject to which he returned again and again, right to the end.

A move to the Isle of Wight, though not far in miles, yet cut off from the mainland, proved not altogether successful and after a relatively short residence there, he and Julie returned to the mainland, ending his days in the deepest countryside he so loved, outside Wimborne, Dorset

A autobiographical trilogy, described by him as an “autosvenography”, chronicles Sven Berlin’s life, his thoughts and beliefs and the creative processes which underlay his prodigious output. These are (in chronological order): Coat of Many Colours; Virgo in Exile and The Other Man.

Sven Berlin was valued, as a man and a friend, by many other leading artists and creatives including Robert Graves, Augustus John and John Boorman, to name but a few. Arguably, in the often sycophantic world of the arts, he did himself no good, first by implicitly “renouncing” the Lotus-land of St Ives, and perhaps by pouring scorn, in his "Dark Monarch" on some of the leading figures in the artistic community there, people who are household names today and who had huge influence on State patronage, some of which Sven Berlin was awarded in his earlier days, but never again after publication of the Monarch.

Some artists do, and always have, worked alone. But against that, there are many “Schools” - the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the St Ives School, the Newlyn School, the Bloomsbury Group, the “Glasgow Colourists”, the Camden and Euston Schools. There is strength in numbers, even if there is a price to be paid in terms of a certain conformity. Sven Berlin was the ultimate “self-propelled” man, utterly sure in his own mind, as to what was the right thing to do. By refusing to bend the knee to the “powers that be”, it is clear he paid a price for retaining his autonomy. As artistic reputations are constantly re-assessed over the years, it could be said that Sven Berlin’s remains, to an extent, in “limbo” – the arbiters of taste have still to decide where this most individual of artists fits into the hierarchy.


Pictures courtesy of The Belgrave Gallery. 'The Dark Monarch' and other books are published by Finishing Publishing and available at www.svenberlin.com. Sven Berlin opens at the Belgrave Gallery on 8/10/09.