Memories of Sven and Julia Berlin

Sven and Julia Berlin , a pair of bohemians from anothert age.

By Jeremy Miles

A sad letter arrived the other day telling us that Julia Berlin, the lovely widow of my old friend the artist and writer Sven Berlin, died last summer. It came from a firm of solicitors in Penzance who had found our last Christmas card to her while preparing to wrap up the Berlin estate. 

I felt guilty and shocked that we had no idea that Julia was no longer with us but I suppose that was the nature of our relationship. Since Sven’s death in 1999 we exchanged annual Christmas cards with her and occasionally visited the little cottage outside Wimborne that they had shared but we would often go months without making contact. 

Lockdown and the covid restrictions made things more difficult and when there was no card from Julia last Christmas it seemed like just one of those things. We now of course know that there will be no more fascinating and fun chats over tea but we will always treasure memories of their friendship.

Sven and Julia really were an extraordinary couple, a pair of bohemians from another age. She was his third wife and 33 years his junior. They turned heads with their unconventional lifestyle, colourful clothes and free-living attitudes.

By the time they arrived in Wimborne in the mid-1970s, Sven was already both famous and controversial as a writer, painter and sculptor. A leading and sometimes mercurial figure in the immediate pre and post-war art world of St Ives in Cornwall, he made many friends but also rather too many enemies, There were clashes with some big egos, not least those artistic king-pins of the era, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.

Sven Berlin

Years later he would speak with enormous fondness of his time in St Ives and his friendship with painters like Bryan Wynter and John Wells. But he also expressed sadness and anger about his clashes with small-town busy-bodies and the powerful and controlling presence of Nicholson and Hepworth. 

These irritants and Sven’s uncompromising and stubborn nature would eventually lead to a devastating fall from grace when he decided to vent his spleen in a book. The Dark Monarch 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. It 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, The Dark Monarch 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 refused to make even minor changes. It cost him a small fortune. He was left, in his own inimitable words: “bleeding from every pocket”.  

Ironically The Dark Monarch would, with the passage of time, also be the focus of the major exhibition at  Tate St Ives in 2010 that finally, a decade after his death, showed that Sven Berlin would always be regarded as a key figure in the history of the famous Cornish art colony.

With all the main litigants dead and special permission from Julia, they even republished the book complete with Sven’s original secret key to exactly who was who.

Huge new gallery marks GIANT leap for art in the ‘cultural desert’ that is Bournemouth

Just one part of GIANT – the new 15,000 square foot gallery in the centre of Bournemouth

It is no coincidence that the opening exhibition at Bournemouth’s huge new contemporary art gallery is called Big Medicine. The town centre is ailing and badly needs a shot in its metaphorical arm.

The 15,000 square foot privately-funded gallery, called appropriately enough GIANT, covers the entirety of the second floor of the old Debenham’s building in The Square. It  is part of a much needed plan to inject some life, creativity and culture back into the badly run-down shopping centre. 

Big Medicine, which opened last night, does the job admirably. Curated by Bournemouth artist Stuart Semple, the exhibition and the GIANT gallery space is part of the first phase of a project that will see the old building reborn as Bobby’s which was for many years a much-loved and historic retail landmark in the town

One of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s suicide vests

The free show features the work of major international artists like Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jim Lambie, Gavin Turk, Gary Card, Nicky Carvell, Paola Ciarska, Eva Cremers, Chad Person, Anthony Rodinone and Paul Trefry. 

Not only are the works truly thought-provoking, like the Chapman brothers suicide vests cast in bronze and sometimes loaded with art materials but the whole exhibition is world-class. How wonderful that it has been brought to Bournemouth a town that has so much going for it but in recent years has been branded “a cultural desert”.

 Meanwhile the GIANT gallery also has a dedicated Project Space which is featuring Why We Shout – the Art of Protest.  Curated by Lee Cavaliere, director of VOMA, the world’s first virtual museum in association with Greenpeace, it examines ways in which contemporary artists respond and contribute to protest and activism.

With works by Banksy, US feminist Martha Rosler, Turner-Prize winner Jeremy Deller, Hong Kong activist-artist Kacey Wong, trans photographer Bex Wade and others it covers climate change, environmental struggles, the illegal rave scene of the 90s, LGBTQ + issues and much more.

The strange world of sculptor and self-styled ‘rebellious old sod’ Geoffrey Dashwood

Two huge Harris Hawks outside sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood’s Hampshire home

Here’s another one I did earlier. Well several years back actually. Probably around 2012. It was written for the now long-gone Compass Magazine and offered an intriguing insight into the curious world of New Forest sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood. Thought it was worth revisiting.


By Jeremy Miles

Internationally renowned wildlife sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood is an anomaly in an art world full of pretensions and psycho-babble. His works – stunning sculptures of birds – sell across the world, often for tens of thousands of pounds, yet he would rather have teeth pulled than have to play the gallery game. He prefers to work remotely at his home deep in the Hampshire countryside outside Ringwood. Perched on the edge of an escarpment with views for 30 miles across Hampshire and Dorset, it’s an otherworldly place.

Surrounded by monumental bronze sculptures – a one-and-half ton,12 foot tall Peregrine falcon dominates the entrance – the Dashwood home is a marvel to behold.  As you walk across the lawn there are are two huge Harris hawks, a barn owl, a tern, a great crested grebe and a frog. A massive Mandarin drake sits on a plinth in the middle of a pond: “We built the pond for the sculpture rather than the other way around,” says the 66-year-old artist matter-of-factly.

Nestling amidst ancient forest, the natural setting of this house is astonishing too. He points to a huge gnarled old oak which is believed to be 700 years old. “Incredible to think that that was an acorn in about 1300,” he says. 

The site is even believed to have been used for beacons warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada.  Dashwood has lived there with his wife Val and three sons Leo, Max and James for 17 years. He says he really can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Despite his international reputation  and prices that range from £2,000 to £250,000, he eschews most private views and even tries to avoid discussing works with potential buyers. “I’m a rebellious old sod,”he told me as we looked around the huge studio and home gallery that he has built in a barn just yards from his front door. Sucking on a liquorice paper roll-up and swearing like a proverbial trooper, he warmed to his theme. “I don’t do commissions because to be honest I am too awkward and bloody-minded. They all too often end in tears because the person commissioning the piece and the artist have a different idea about the end result. So it’s very, very simple. I just do exactly what I want to do and then offer the work for sale.”

Chippy and uncompromising he may be but Geoffrey Dashwood’s prickly exterior clearly masks a sensitive soul who deeply cares that his work is an honest response to the natural world that he loves. Hampshire born and bred, he has a rare affinity with the New Forest and in his youth worked there as a keeper.  Although he won a scholarship to art school in Southampton when he was just 15-years-old, he dropped out within weeks. “I hated it,” he says. The Forestry Commission provided the only job he could hang onto. “Basically I‘m absolutely unemployable,” he explains. 

Doing artwork for forestry brochures provided some personal satisfaction. He seized the moment and left to go freelance. Amazingly Dashwood didn’t turn to sculpture until he was in his mid 30s. He modelled a tiny English partridge and loved the whole process. With a £5,000 loan from the kind of bank manager that doesn’t exist anymore he made a series of bronze castings and touted his work around upmarket outlets in London – Harrods, Aspreys, Garrards and the galleries of Cork Street. 

Thinking about it now he says he’s amazed that he had the nerve to walk into such elitist emporiums and demand to see the bronze buyer. Somehow it paid off. He was on his way. Initially he concentrated on miniatures but then moved on to life-size and monumental sculptures. The one-man shows and international reputation soon followed.

He has successfully experimented with abstracting the fine detail of the birds down to studies of pure sculptural form. He has also explored the effects that can be achieved with multi-coloured patinas. He recalls eyebrows being raised when he asked at the foundry that he used what would happen if he splattered a mixture of all three commonly used chemicals –  liver sulphate, ferric nitrate and cupric nitrate – on his bronzes.

“They were horrified. They said ‘You can’t do that’ and I just said ‘Oh yeah, and where’s the book that says I can’t?’ We went ahead and it was brilliant. It’s incredible that no one had ever done that before, but that’s the conservatism of the art world for you.”

He knows he’s been lucky, gaining a rare reputation and enjoying success despite a stubborn refusal to bend to the whims of either clients or art professionals. 

“I’ve had a very self-indulgent life,” says Dashwood. “The extraordinary thing is that logically choosing to do this kind of sculpture should have involved a compromise between what I want to do and what the market price demands. I discovered that the more self-indulgent I became the more the market would rise to it.”

From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground

Artist Bob Cosford photographs by Hattie Miles .

I’m sitting in a suburban garden in Bournemouth talking to the man who created the Grange Hill flying sausage. The banger, which appeared in the comic book style title credits of the long- running TV school drama, has followed artist and illustrator Bob Cosford for more than 40 years.

He shrugs: “That title sequence will without a doubt be what I’m remembered for,” he tells me. And here we have the fundamental artist’s dilemma. Create anything that really captures the public’s imagination and it will stick. To this day you can buy a Grange Hill sausage mug, poster, even a t-shirt. But it was creating this iconic title sequences that set Bob on his professional path.

Joining the BBC straight from Art College in the early 1970s, Bob was soon on a path that would bring him a shed-load of awards and critical acclaim. He was nominated for a BAFTA, worked on TV dramas like Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and a raft of popular television series in the 1980s that included Nanny starring Wendy Craig, Bird of Prey with Richard Griffith, and Angels which was dubbed the Z-Cars of nursing.

He worked as a graphic designer and spent many years around Camden and Soho as a creative director for film and TV and ad agencies. It’s an impressive CV but that famous ‘flying sausage’ invariably comes up again and again. Bob is philosophical and recently told fan site Grange Hill Gold that he’s not only proud of the sausage but very flattered that his work has been so well received. “I’ve never actually seen an episode of Grange Hill,” he confesses to me. “The titles were for the first series ever made and the programme went out at 4.50pm, so I would have either been working or down the pub at that time.”

Continue reading “From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground”

A town transformed by art

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Richard Wood’s ‘harbourside’ Holiday Homes

We went back to the old home town for the 60th birthday party of a young friend at the weekend. There were lots of reminders of why I love Folkestone. I was born and brought up in the town, went to school there, met and married Hattie there and cut my journalistic teeth on the local newspaper. Though we’ve returned many times since we haven’t actually lived in Folkestone for more than 30 years. It is full of good memories though, particularly of the local arts scene.  Inevitably I suppose most of the writers, artists, musicians and actors I used to know have moved on but great to find the old place still full of character and artistic energy. Continue reading “A town transformed by art”

Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood

New Quay harbour
Picturesque New Quay the town where Dylan Thomas wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood

I am standing outside one of Dylan Thomas’s favourite pubs in a “cliff-perched toppling town” on the west coast of Wales. It is true that many a hostelry claims the notoriously thirsty Welsh poet as a regular. But this is New Quay, the picturesque fishing village on Cardigan Bay that Dylan often visited as a child. He and his wife Caitlin also made it their home and writing-base for a year during the Second World War.

The pub is the Black Lion where the infamous hell-raiser once got embroiled in a spat with a jealous husband who later attacked his £1-a-week “shack at the end of the cliff” with a machine-gun and hand-grenade. Continue reading “Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood”

Meeting Modernism at the Russell-Cotes


1Philip Leslie Moffat Ward A Dorset Landscape or Near Warbarrow Bay Dorset 1930.jpg
A Dorset Landscape  by Leslie Moffat Ward (1930)  All images: Russell-Cotes Gallery & Museum

By Jeremy Miles

When Victorian art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes bequeathed his lavish cliff-top home, East Cliff Hall, and its huge collection of paintings and sculptures to the people of Bournemouth he created an intriguing problem. He was a fearfully hard act to follow. The collection that he and his wife Annie had spent decades acquiring was idiosyncratic and wide-ranging. Magnificent paintings shared wall space with those that were considered minor and mediocre, but somehow it all worked. It was a collection that reflected Sir Merton’s flamboyant style and generosity of spirit.

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Arthur Bradbury’s 1935 painting Pamela

But it also highlighted the fact that he had been a man of his age, born into the era of Empire. By the time of his death in 1921 the contemporary art world had moved on. Post First World War sensibilities were open to radical change and though public taste, as ever, lagged a few years behind the artistic vanguard, eventually the inevitable happened and Victorian art fell seriously out of fashion.

However Bournemouth was sitting on what was effectively a priceless time-capsule and the Russell-Cotes Art  Gallery and Museum  collection is now recognised as one of the finest complete Victorian collections in the world. That it is housed in its original home is a major bonus. Unfortunately none of this helped answer the problem of how to add to and develop the collection. The answer is found in Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection which runs at the museum’s galleries until 24th April.

Continue reading “Meeting Modernism at the Russell-Cotes”

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