Sven Berlin – The Dark Monarch, 1962

Svrn Berlin The Dark Monarch 1962 cover

The Tower

 Sir Stanislas shook hands with me, looking steadily into my mind with his grey-blue eyes. Here was an integrated man who had almost invented the Nouveaux Arts; in all he did there was a surgical precision and exactness; because of his abstract world he was a very fine artist, probably at times even a great artist, though completely ruthless as a man. He could create in colour and form a set of relationships which, in the experience of it, may well have been the equivalent to a Bach suite. For me this was reason enough to treat him with respect, even though as a creative person I was at the other end of the stick.
 ‘An arm on a hip is a circle!’ he said.
 ‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘The circle is the space around which exists an arm on a hip. The difference between you and me, Stanislas, is that I start from the arm and may well finish up as a circle: you start from a circle but never discover it is surrounded. by an arm!’
 ‘The thought is the circle,’ he insisted, ‘not that by which it is surrounded!’
 ‘Exactly. But I never think when I am working,’ I replied.’
 ‘That, dear Sven, is the difference between you and me!’
 Miss Chimes became emotionally exhausted as she went on listening to Quoit tell of their treachery. ffirth-fforth smoked a cigarette from a long ivory holder and blew out a ring of smoke in disgust, Mark Abbey was too honest to admit the deception, Albert Mantis too innocent to see it, Annabella too flattered by being among famous people to care anyway. Poor Edward Brown, trusting as an English gentleman must, had not even thought of being bamboozled.
 The initial meeting, which this was, was followed by many more of insidious and intricate intent, usually held at St Elmo’s Hotel, with sumptuous refreshment served free by the White Rabbit: going on till 2 a.m. I had not before been involved in the administrative side of the art world not knew of the diabolical cunning with which laws were formed, individuals were expurgated, groups run to control the ideas of a few and direct them towards financial success. It was really more horrifying than the battlefield: on the battlefield we killed and that was straightforward enough: this was destruction of the individual within society by poisoning, strangulation, friendship or any other deception you cared to use. I had not the sort of mind to deal with the maddening detail, the elaborate and wasteful discussion of unimportant things, such as discussing how many pictures could be hung on a wall before we had the wall on which to hang them.
 Before many weeks I found the laws to be arranged in such a way that a machinery was set up which would eliminate all the members who did not work non-figuratively and all those who were not anyway of the Inner Circle of Art. The fulcrum of this was that all work had to be marked either ‘ALPHA’ or ‘OMEGA’, which isolated and condemned the work even before it was seen. Having had a certain number of works rejected you automatically lost your membership: as the selection committee consisted of a preponderance of ‘ALPHAS’ as against a few ‘OMEGAS’, the result was simple to control. It was a ruthless method which did not exist for the selection of good art but for a certain kind of art done by a particular kind of person.
 Seeing through this facade from the start by a natural clairvoyance I inherited from my mother, I fought against it rigorously, believing in the natural honesty of human beings and the need for truthfulness.
 Quoit was the first to fight back, saying he would not care to remain in a society that contained such a trouble-maker as myself. I all but threw him out of the hotel window on to the sands below; to stay myself I nearly broke his hand by shaking it.
 Mantis said he respected me for my self-control, but could not see why I was so difficult. Stanislas Robinson stated categorically that since we were an Inner Circle of artists we must build a fortress against the uninitiated and devise a method by which we could expel the troublesome and unworthy. I knew by this that since they knew I was not unworthy as an artist nor as a person, they intended to dub me a maker of trouble by tying a tin to my tail. We must create a liaison officer to protect us against the free press, and no one should air an opinion publicly without consulting him first: only he must be allowed to make a statement. Robinson then proposed Quoit, who was seconded by Coracle, and finally the vote was carried.
 I resigned my place as first founder member and secretary, but my resignation was refused.
When a hall had finally been rented after endless subterfuge, intrigue, deceit and back-biting, we saw the set of laws go into operation for the first time. They worked with uncanny precision: most of the representational people were out and the non-figurative people were all in. I only managed to keep my membership by the acceptance of one drawing. My carving was not represented, leaving the Coracle as the only sculptor exhibiting. Nor was my painting shown. I renewed my resignation and, with that peculiar obstinacy that has carried me through starvation and death, I hung on to it this time, even though, over the course of the next three or four weeks, a number of delegations were sent to me asking me to recant; on one occasion I was even offered a bribe if I would return, inasmuch as a ‘Kneeling Figure’ of mine would be purchased.
 This insight into the uncanny machinery of the art world was a shock. I was too emotional, too wild, forthright, untamable to wish to be involved. I could not understand the minds of the people who perpetrated it, nor could I see why good friends and honest men became like vipers under this influence. It was a negation of all one I held to be true, a destruction of life, a betrayal of the spirit of man from which source only great art could evolve. If the forces of evil worked through reason then this was a pattern of the way in which it happened.
 There are the first forces of life which in themselves are pristine and inexorable: it would seem also that it is according to whether a man is set towards the sun or towards the shadow that these forces become good or evil: and yet so often man is cast into the shadow or emerges into the light in obedience to these forces. In a highly organized society, controlled by reason, the forces of life and of the deeper mind are concreted down, become an underground torrent, and man feels he is guiding his own destiny‘ until they break through, either by the agency of magic, immorality, or weakness: such a break-through results in war, rape, murder, arson, sabotage and so on. For a creative person the sluice gates are kept open all the time: he must be tenacious to control the flood: madness else. I did not feel I wanted to use my energy and my talents towards forming a small social organism that would control the fashion and form of art. This was not for me but for those who would gain power and emulation of the ego, insteadiof mastery of the spirit.
 When Dai almost filled the door of my Tower talking about this, I was standing at my bench inside the tiny sculpture room, and no longer angry. We had become good friends, and every year he helped me to decorate my place so that it shone white in the sun and the rooms were clean. But in this difference we were split.
 ‘They want you back, mun,’ he said. ‘You are foolish. Return and they will vote you in right away!’
 ‘That is only because I am making them look fools. I am more of a danger outside. If I go back they would have me out just as soon as the society was strong enough to stand such basic criticism. But I am not standing out to harm them. I want to be left alone: that is all. I’Ve always worked alone. Groups are weakness: they form to gather more strength. But in the final quest a man must go on alone.’
 ‘You may be right. There’s nothin’ to stop you paintin’ and carvin’ alone is there?’ Dai’s slow good-humoured voice emerged from his great face like a sound out of a cave; a cave that was blocked up. ‘But – and this is what you’ve got to remember – the Council of Visual Arts is comin’, the English Council of Paintin’ and Carvin’, the Modern Society of Arts and the Eisenheimer Trust: they will all buy and show our work. If you are not in it you will be passed by.’
 I felt the hot blade sink down my throat and had to talk past it.
 ‘You are asking me to do this. ‘Will the society change the law? Will they open themselves honestly to all forms of Visual expression? Will they judge the work only by its quality and standard? Will they allow us free speech in the press? None of these things will they do. They will not and I will not be of them, because I think they are false.

Sven Berlin, 1911-1999

The Dark Monarch, A Portrait from within, 1962. Published by Galley Press Ltd, London 1962. The book was withdrawn from sale within a few weeks of publication in Autumn 1962, due to libel actions, and not reprinted until 2009.

  The Dark Monarch is a roman à clef portrait of the St Ives artists colony in 1949 and 1950, but written retrospectively in 1960. St Ives is depicted as Cuckoo Town, peopled by artists including, Wilhelmena Barnes-Graham (ffrederika ffirth-fforth), Barbara Hepworth (Diana ‘Delphi’ Coracle), Patrick Heron (Nigel Bittern), Peter Lanyon (David Quoit), Bernard Leach (Albert Mantis), Isobel Heath (Annabella Moorland), Guido Morris (Lorenzo Smith) Ben Nicholson (Sir Stanislas Robinson), Harry Rowntree (Harry Gumtree), John Wells (Mark Abbey), and Bryan Wynter (Roger Moss). Ben Nicholson / Sir Stansilas Robinson with “A face cold and uncompromising, transparent as white alabaster”, is described “tapping his glass fingers on the arms of a fleshy chair. He was neatly dressed in six shades of morning-mistgrey with a scarlet tie, which betokened an aesthetic principle rather than a political one; he was looking Ptolemaic.” While Barbara Hepworth / Diana Coracle is “more active, with a head like an Archipenko in white Marble” and who is “spitefully called Delphi, because of her authority with stone and not because of her genius, looked today like a 1935 Henry Moore carving, full of holes and tensions.”
 It vividly describes the characters and aesthetic interests of professional artists working in their studios. It notably provides an insider’s eye-witness account of the malevolent machinations of the older visual artists, led by Hepworth and Nicholson, who represented a High Priesthood of Abstract Art, to control the Penwith Society of Arts (The Old Society), perceived as the Ancient Order of Dabblers. It follows the secession of the younger artists – Lanyon, Berlin,Wynter, Wells and Morris and Barnes-Graham to form the Crypt Group (The Cuckoo Group) within the St Ives Society of Arts.

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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