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Sven Berlin

(Sydenham, London 1911-1999 nr. Wimborne, Dorset) 

Peregrine Falcons, c.1960s

acrylic on board

32 x 22 cm. 

in a period frame


From the estate of Julia Berlin (1944 – 2021), 2022.

Sven Berlin is best known today as an outsider artist who ruffled the feathers of the St. Ives Art Colony of which he was a part for many years, when he published “The Dark Monarch – A Portrait from Within”, in 1962 – a lightly-disguised depiction of life in the 1950s heyday of St. Ives. The book was withdrawn within weeks of its publication after legal action for libel, and it ultimately bankrupted Berlin, who lived with the consequences till his death. 

He was not only a great raconteur, but a prolific sculptor and painter too. Born into an inauspicious middle class family in Sydenham in 1911, he left boarding school at twelve when his father’s business failed, and spent some weeks with Henry Carr at Beckenham School of art, before leaving home to become an adagio dancer in the circus in pursuit of a Bohemian life. 

Berlin had little formal art training, but honed his skills for observation sketching caricatures of fellow performers, on the road. By the late ‘30s he’d moved to Cornwall to work as a labourer, studying in the evenings at the Redruth and Camborne Art School. When war was declared in 1939 he registered as a conscientious objector, working on the market garden established by the art critic Adrian Stokes in Carbis Bay, outside St Ives. Here he met Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo. Berlin, however, remained resolutely humanist and romantic in his conception of art, and had no interest in pursuing abstraction. By 1942 he had changed his mind on the war and joined the army. His experiences, which he wrote about in I am Lazarus, published in 1961, affected him badly and he was invalided out of the army suffering from shell-shock. 

Later, Berlin drew a parallel between sculpting, dancing and form, “the laws of gravity, rhythm, colour tension, the spiral and the arabesque… Although my work on stage was a kind of bastard dance, I worked hard and with enough devotion over eight years to make me realise that to dance was to know the stress and strain of a steel constructed bridge, the law of moving water, and the behaviour of heavenly bodies.” (The Cornish Review, 1949).  

He was a founder member of the Crypt Group and instrumental in the eventual breakaway which became the Penwith Society in 1949, but soon left in opposition to attempts by Nicholson and Hepworth to turn it into a purely abstract affair, regarding himself as resolutely being outside the confines of Modernism. Berlin left Cornwall in 1953 in a horse-drawn wagon with his then-wife ‘Juanita’, settling in the New Forest, where, at first, they lived as gypsies. With the end of his marriage and his finances in tatters after the publication of The Dark Monarch in the ‘60s, Berlin moved to the Isle of Wight in 1970 with his third wife Julia, ultimately settling near Wimborne where he carved and painted prolifically. 


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