Obituary: Sven Berlin

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The Independent Culture
THE SCULPTOR, painter and writer Sven Berlin was one of the last surviving members of the "St Ives School", whose chief protagonists, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, established the essential language of that movement as being an abstract and constructivist one. The breadth of Berlin's creative talents, rather than making him a "Renaissance man", did not in fact sit easily within a growing colony of Modernist artists where specialisation and an astringent abstraction from nature in general and from the irresistible Cornish landscape in particular were the order of the day.

The son of a Swedish timber merchant from Sydenham, south-east London, Berlin never went to art college. Before embarking on his career as a mainly self-taught artist, Berlin toured the music halls during the 1930s, where his adagio dancing act brought him into contact with many leading music-hall characters like Nervo and Knox and Bud Flanagan.

When he eventually abandoned the stage and turned his versatile talents to the less strenuous world of the plastic arts, he used the knowledge of posture and athletic movement gained from his dancing years to good effect in figurative sculptures. These were, of course, as much a product of the hard Cornish stones he painstakingly carved as of the theme of elastic bodily movement.

Berlin alighted upon Cornwall in 1938. Shortly before the Second World War he received some tuition in watercolour painting from Arthur Hambly in Redruth. In the impecunious circumstances of the late 1930s, Berlin did not have the money, nor the inclination, to pursue academic art courses and took several labouring and agricultural jobs, one of which brought him into direct contact with the all-important Hepworth-Nicholson coterie in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. Berlin became gardener at "Little Park Owles", the large house overlooking St Ives Bay which was then home to the influential art writer Adrian Stokes and his wife, the painter Margaret Mellis.

As recently as last month Mellis recalled to me how Berlin preferred to talk than to dig, but his time there was a victory for his successful absorption into the burgeoning Modern movement in Cornwall. Through the Stokes family Berlin met Hepworth, Nicholson, Gabo, the potter Bernard Leach and his future colleagues on the post-war Crypt Group venture, Peter Lanyon and W. Barns-Graham.

In common with two other later Crypt Group collaborators, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron, Berlin started the war as a conscientious objector but he changed back after seeing some distressing naval bombing in the Channel. He subsequently served in the Army and letters sent back from France to Adrian Stokes were later used for a diary-like novel about wartime experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin also spent the war writing the first, and as yet unsurpassed, biography on the St Ives primitive painter Alfred Wallis, who had died in the Madron workhouse in 1942.

The semi-literate former mariner, who was discovered by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928, was portrayed in Berlin's 1948 book Alfred Wallis, Primitive as an exploited genius, a verdict that enraged Nicholson. Further dissension with the ruling Nicholson faction occurred over the future direction of the Penwith Society of Arts, founded in 1949 as a sequel to the Crypt exhibitions that had introduced greater modernity into a St Ives art scene until then dominated by the inter-war impressionism of the St Ives Society of Artists. With Peter Lanyon, Berlin resigned over the perceived bias of the Penwith towards Nicholson-sponsored abstraction.

Berlin's work avoided the academicism of both modern and traditional practice. Visually, the strength of his work was based on confident bold outlines, and drawings of animals in the vein of a similarly romantic figure, Gaudier-Brzeska, went hand in hand with his work as a book illustrator to enable Berlin to carve an authentic niche as one of the finest romantic draughtsmen of the period. His subjects were "folky", focusing on harbour life, on the fishermen and on labourers. Such motifs were no more mundane than they were polemical or political: a flamboyant, expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of almost mythological intensity.

The dream-like quality of Berlin's work put it in the orbit of neo- romantic poetry and among Berlin's closest friends in Cornwall were the so-called Zennor Moors poets, among them W.S. Graham, John Heath-Stubbs and Arthur Caddick. Berlin's own facility with the pen ensured a lifelong connection with poets and writers.

Disillusioned with the abstract formalism of modern St Ives art, Berlin left Cornwall in 1953 and, encouraged by Augustus John, whom he had got to know in Mousehole pubs, moved to the New Forest in order to pursue an interest in the gypsies of that region. His knowledge of the gypsy counter-culture surfaced in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), in the same way that his abiding interest in fishing informed another novel, Jonah's Dream: a meditation on fishing (1964), a volume full of his own accomplished and sensitive vignettes of fish and fishermen.

During the early 1960s Berlin ran a zoo in the forest with his second wife Helga. Despite newfound domestic comfort the security of that period was undermined when his barely fictionalised account of the St Ives years, The Park Monarch (1962), was withdrawn after four successful libel actions by members of the extended St Ives family. The motive of the book was to vent personal anger over the hypocrisies of an over-close and competitive art colony.

In the 1970s Berlin lived with his third wife, Julie, the daughter of a Devon huntsman, on the Isle of Wight, where Sven saw the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival with the eyes of kinship. His painting responded to the shipping, mainly oil tankers, ploughing across the Solent, and such pictures, by using colour and texture in a direct and tactile way, have more than a hint of Alfred Wallis in them.

The final 20 years were spent quietly in a gamekeeper's cottage outside Wimborne in Dorset. He benefited from the general hoisting of the reputation of St Ives art, of which he was so unforgettable a member, and he continued his writing. An autobiography, A Coat of Many Colours, was published in 1994 followed, in 1996, by a second volume, Virgo in Exile. The title indicts Berlin's awareness of his life in exile, for it is his role within the inimitable legend of the St Ives movement during the 1940s upon which his historical importance is assuredly based.

Sven Berlin, sculptor, painter and writer: born London 14 September 1911; three times married (two sons, one daughter); died Wimborne, Dorset 14 December 1999.