The substantial biography of the sculptor, painter, writer and poet, Sven Berlin (1911-1999), records the whirlwind of a flamboyant, non-conformist, bohemian who upset the St Ives artistic community and paid a price for challenging their exploitative treatment of Alfred Wallis. Berlin was a self-taught artist and his erstwhile friends, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, used this against him. He was a key and integral part of the St Ives arts community, being particularly close to the critic and artist, Adrian Stokes, the poet, W.S. Graham, and painter, Terry Frost and sculptor Naum Gabo. He was a hard-living, Romantic figure more in the mould of Augustus John than some of his genteel contemporaries. His article on Wallis in Horizon magazine and subsequent book, Alfred Wallis: primitive, published by Poetry London in 1949, made him an outcast from the art establishment and he moved to live among the New Forest Gypsies, with his second wife, Juanita, who subsequently became a successful writer in her own right. His fantasy novel, The Dark Monarch (1962), based on caricatures of St Ives, exasperated matters and he retreated again to the Isle of Wight after it was banned. The novel received four libel actions, including one from his friend, the poet, Arthur Caddick. He finally moved near Wimborne Minster, with his third wife, where he found some degree of recognition in later life.
Aarons has amassed a considerable volume of information about Berlin’s diverse artwork and writings, his connections and fluctuating career in and out of the public eye. What emerges is a telling history of how a notable figure can be ostracised and fail to recover with the result that their many talents can be obscured by time. He only had one item in the 1984 Tate St Ives exhibition. He was exiled by the art world. Yet he was a significant figure during the Forties to both Adrian Stokes and W. S. Graham, with whom he was deeply connected. The exchange of letters between Graham and Berlin are featured in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters (Carcanet, 1999). Malcolm Mackintosh, a friend of the editors, Michael and Margaret Snow, produced a limited edition of Berlin’s poem ‘Jock Grim’ dedicated to Graham. Berlin’s wartime letters to Stokes were used for a diary-like novel about warfare experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin’s main artistic theme became an intuitive movement towards timelessness exploring the vagaries of creation and destruction with reference to diverse life forms and situations. His relief carving, The White Buck, (1958) captures the agonising moment when a stag is caught between life and death. His drawings and paintings focused upon harbour and forest life, fishermen, shipping, animals and labourers. His expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of mythological intensity, and was at some distance from art market requirements in the Eighties.
Aarons shows that even when his sculptures, drawings and writings were not selling sufficiently to make ends meet, he was still lauded in the media by the likes of John Arlott, John Boorman, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Graves, Adrian Stokes, Tambimuttu, Denys Val Baker and Philip Ziegler. Despite being ignored by the art world, he was a regular figure on local and national television featured in documentaries and current affair programmes. We effectively have a rebellious figure unable to find buyers for his sculptures being kicked out into the long grass where he continues to create and write whilst being part of the New Forest Gypsy community. His writings on fishing, Jonah’s Dream (1964) are well anthologized. He also wrote extensively on the New Forest, published three volumes of autobiography, collections of poetry, and Pride of the Peacock – The Evolution of an Artist (1972). His knowledge of gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), as was as in numerous film items.
Berlin’s exile in a way makes his art and writings more acute, more distinct in relation to the now world famous Nicholson and Hepworth. The Dark Monarch furore and split with the competitive St Ives art colony has rather obscured his fine sculptures, in particular the enigmatic, The Timeless Man, Madonna, Serene Head, as well his Creation pictures. He was close to Wallis, Stokes and W.S. Graham, and thus well worth discovering.
David Caddy 17th April 2016