Born in Sydenham, South-East London, Sven Berlin was a prominent, yet often controversial, figure in the world of 20th C British art. Among his forbears, as he would .note, was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. Sven Berlin’s education and career path was as unorthodox as the man himself. Forced by financial circumstances to leave school at the age of twelve, he began adult life as an adagio dancer, an art form now more or less extinct, as are the Music Halls where they mainly performed. In this metier, he partnered Helga, an experienced dancer and dance teacher who became his first wife. He maintained that the physical skills thus developed, as well as the opportunity to study the human form in motion and at rest, were to stand him in good stead throughout his life.
In due course, he and Helga moved to Penwith, in Cornwall. Here he came under the influence of Dr Frank Turk, a much-respected adult educationalist, working under the auspices of Exeter University, attending courses and lectures in subjects such as philosophy, the ancient cultures and the arts. Thus nurtured, Sven Berlin’s artistic skills began to flourish. On the outbreak of war in 1939, his beliefs as a pacifist forced him to register as a conscientious objector, a painful and humiliating procedure. Rather than enlisting in the armed forces, he was assigned to various jobs such as working as a boilerman or an agricultural labourer. Some of his earliest paintings show broccoli pickers in a Cornish field. In due course, however, he underwent a change of heart and renouncing his pacifism, he enlisted in the infantry, seeing active service in the Normandy landings and the drive towards Germany. His experiences in the field are recorded in his deeply moving book - asserted by some to be his best written work – I am Lazarus. He returned to “civvy street” in St Ives, much traumatised by his combat experiences, and an extended healing process was necessary. Even then, it seems that the traumas of war were never erased, only submerged. His wife Julie recounts how, 40-50 years later, he would suffer recurrent nightmares as the hideousness of trench warfare returned to haunt him. His absence at the Front, as in so many other cases, contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Helga, not long after his return from the war.