Last of the great bohemians

Sven talking to me in his studio - Version 2

Sven Berlin in his garden studio near Wimborne in Dorset in the early 1990's.                        Picture Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

One of the last of the great British bohemians, the artist and writer Sven Berlin, spent the final 25 years of his life living and working deep in the Dorset countryside.

He was an imposing figure -  a big, bearded man who had once been an adagio dancer working the music hall circuit with the likes of Max Miller and Bud Flanagan. He had piercing blue eyes, always dressed in colourful work clothes and wore a fisherman’s cap; he was fiercely intelligent, a classical scholar with a deep understanding of myth and mythology and, best of all, he loved to talk.

I met Sven when I was sent to interview him for a newspaper in the early 1990s. He remained a good and wise friend until his death some six years later.

Holding court in the studio he had built a few yards from the door of his Dorset home outside Wimborne, he would regale friends and visitors with stories of a rich and creative life, often providing a valuable insight into the politics and personalities of a crucial period in British art history.

However, despite being charismatic, hugely talented and great company, Sven saw himself as a perpetual outsider -  “a victim to take the penalities for the others”  – as he once so pointedly put it.

I know that he would be amazed and delighted that,10 years after his death at the age of 88, he is finally being warmly welcomed back by an art world that he felt rejected him more than half a century ago.

Suddenly, after years in apparent exile, Sven Berlin is once again becoming widely recognised as an essential figure in the history of 20th century British art.

His paintings, sculptures and writings are attracting new interest while exhibitions of his work are pulling in record numbers of visitors.

Most importantly perhaps,The Dark Monarch -  the current critically acclaimed show at the Tate Gallery in St Ives  - actually takes its name from the controversial novel that was seen as instrumental in his devastating fall from grace.

The book was a barely fictionalised account of the reasons why, after establishing himself as one of the town’s leading lights back in the 1940s, he was finally driven away by those he viewed as small-minded and mean-spirited foes.

The Dark Monarch reinvented St Ives as Cuckoo Town, where no one could live without “being gutted like a herring and spread out in the sun...for all to see.”

Originally published in 1962, it was withdrawn from circulation within weeks of publication amid a hail of writs. Little had been done to disguise the identity of the characters. For instance the poet Arthur Caddick was presented as Eldred Haddock.

Several of those involved were so outraged by their portrayal that they took legal action.

Sven, stubborn, mercurial and uncompromising, refused to make even minor changes. It cost him a small fortune. He was left, in his own inimitable words:  “bleeding from every pocket” 

Now, with all the main litigants dead and with special permission from his widow Julia,  the book has been republished complete with Sven’s key to who exactly is who.

That Sven was both shocked and deeply hurt by the violent repercussions that followed the original publication of The Dark Monarch has long been clear to anyone who met him during his Dorset years.

Sitting in his studio, he would talk with enormous fondness of his time in St Ives and his friendship with painters like Bryan Winter and John Wells.

But he  also spoke with sadness and anger about his clashes with small town busy-bodies and the powerful and controlling presence of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. The golden couple of 1940s and 50s St Ives, Nicholson and Hepworth are portrayed in The Dark Monarch as the calculating and manipulative Sir Stanislav Robinson and Diana Coracle..

Though deeply respectful of Hepworth’s art in particular, Sven was outraged by their attempts to turn the Penwith Society, of which he was a founder member, into a solely abstract group.

With a lot of people taking sides and, as ever, going with the money and the fame, he felt abandoned, rejected and branded a troublemaker. He left in high dudgeon, loading his second  wife  Juanita and their family into a horse drawn caravan and heading east across the south coast. First they settled among the gypsies of the New Forest but, after 10 years of soul-searching, he decided to lay a few ghosts  by writing The Dark Monarch. He opened a Pandora’s box.

Recently divorced, he met and married Julia. He was 54, she was 18.  She was also his salvation.  Penniless but happy, the couple struggled and eventually found their Dorset retreat, an ancient gamekeeper’s cottage well off the beaten track.

It would be Sven’s home for the last 25 years of his life - a touchstone for his creativity; a haven where he could work in peace. His studio was cluttered with colourful canvases, paintings in progress, pen and ink sketches, books, research papers, files, letters and his carefully annotated writings.

Outside there were sculptures - powerful works often of great delicacy but cut from solid rock.

I only knew Sven in his final years but it was a privilege to be in his company. Already in his eighties when I first arrived on his doorstep, this man who had once hewn sculptures from solid granite, remained a powerful physical presence until the end.

He worked constantly and when he wasn’t painting or carving, he was writing. It was in Dorset studio that he penned his richly descriptive 'autosvenographies': The Coat Of Many Colours (1994) and Virgo in Exile (1996). A third volume The Other Man was published posthumously in 2006.

Almost as much as his art itself, his writings reinforce his unwavering belief in the mystical and magical forces that drive our destiny.

It is this that that feeds through to the Tate St Ives exhibition which explores the tension between progressive modernity and romantic knowledge in British art and its relationship to landscape, mythology and legend.

Works by Sven Berlin are shown together with those of Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, John Piper, Derek Jarman and many more including Damien Hirst.

Hirst is exhibiting The Child’s Dream - a unicorn constructed from a foal complete with a  golden horn preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. It has never been seen in the UK before.

The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art runs at Tate St Ives

Until Sunday 10 January 2010.

Sven Berlin’s 1962 book The Dark Monarch: A Portrait From Within has just been republished by Finishing Publications Ltd. Available on-line at £22.50 including post and packing. Contact

© Jeremy Miles 2022