An appreciation of
the life and work of
artist, sculptor and writer Sven Berlin
Sven Paul Berlin
"Art is a greedy mistress & the Establishment a ruthless dragon…
It is as simple as the days when I worked in sackcloth - & as austere."
Sven Berlin to Bryn Hammond 1991
Every chapter of Sven Berlin’s colourful life has been captured in his art and writing. The discipline of any art movement was not for him.
‘I am Sven Berlin!’ he would say with bravado.
Berlin was a consummate personal archivist, recording key moments, changes in lifestyle and the many extraordinary characters who crossed his path.
There were artists and writers in Cornwall and the New Forest, music hall performers, soldiers and villagers in France and Belgium in World War II. Capturing the essence of all manner of creatures was a favourite occupation. All appear in his drawings, oils and watercolours, in his ten books and in his sculpture.
There were many and varied self portraits over the years, a compulsion to ‘catch myself out…if you turn quick enough you might catch yourself while you are not looking.’
1920s and 1930s
Berlin’s earliest work includes landscapes close to his childhood home in Sydenham, South London. Later, enchanted by life on the music hall stage as an adagio dancer, captured the character of the stars of the time and made posters to advertise his dramatic act The Storm God with his first wife Helga.
By 1938 Berlin had moved to Cornwall to pursue his artistic career. He preserved several hundred postcard size drawings from 1938-1939 from his time as a labourer on a smallholding between Portreath and Hells Mouth on the North Cliffs. His first solo exhibition, was held in 1939 in Camborne, while studying with Arthur Creed Hambly.
In St. Ives he was drawn to the work of Alfred Wallis and he began to write the first biography of the naive artist, eventually published in 1949 by Poetry London at Nicholson & Watson.
Berlin produced more than 50 pen and ink drawings during his WW2 service as a Forward Observer in Belgium, France and Holland. He had enlisted in 1942, having been a conscientious objector working in St. Ives in Adrian Stokes' market garden and teaching art at a local school.
On his return to St. Ives Berlin recorded charismatic images of the artists, writers and poets he came to know. Following the breakup of his marriage to Helga, he met his second wife, Juanita, also an artist and writer, while he lived and worked in his tiny studio overlooking Porthgwidden Beach, The Tower.
Berlin continued to show his work with the St. Ives Society of Artists, had his first London show at the Lefevre Gallery in 1946, and exhibited at Downing's Bookshop in Fore Street.
He was a founder member of the Crypt Group that year, which had developed with the help of ambitious Modernist artists including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Peter Lanyon, who would eventually breakaway further with the Penwith Society. This created a momentous rift which would signal the most important event in the story of 20th century British art.
By 1948, with Berlin increasingly outside the Modernist movement, and the studio under threat thanks to the building of conveniences in St. Ives, the Berlins moved to nearby Cripplesease and began to entertain thoughts of the New Forest.