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.
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Originally published in 1962, The Dark Monarch was withdrawn from circulation within weeks of publication amid a hail of writs.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.