Sax Berlin: the ‘master’ artist who paints from his Cornish studio

Barnebys: Sax Berlin
In camera: the painter can normally be found in his Cornwall studio or caravan retreat

The ‘dream-like’, vibrantly contemporary work of Sax Berlin – a culmination of his varied and exciting life – is taking the art world by storm

Ten years ago, a little-known artist put one of his paintings up for auction. A gesture born more of necessity than a desire for recognition, he simply hoped it might raise some money – and this it did, when online gallery White Court Art snapped it up. Now, Sax Berlin has collectors clamouring and well-known buyers eagerly awaiting new additions to his portfolio.

Berlin is one of the UK’s most exciting best-kept-secrets, and is gaining increasing traction within the industry for the wide spectrum of his influences, his innovative use of material and his experimental techniques.

His students and collectors have dubbed him The Master. Even now that he’s receiving offers from top London galleries, Berlin produces the majority of his paintings in his Cornish studio

Classic style: Berlin is inspired by influences from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance

The piece purchased by Richard Veal, White Court’s director, was a combination of oil and gold leaf. “It was just beautiful. Sax mixes and grinds his own oils from nothing, something that lends his work certain qualities others simply don’t have,” says Mr Veal.

“They have a very textural quality: he’ll use anything from crushed marble to volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvius. But I’d never heard of him before that auction – selling has always been secondary to him.”

Rejecting tradition

Inspired by influences from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance, Berlin is currently exploring a neo-expressionist phase, and has moved – for the time being – to acrylic, a departure from his usual method of hand-ground pigments.

Most years he’ll travel to Nepal, trips that have in the past inspired a series of Buddha pieces, and he has experimented with gold and silver leaf; some of his most rare works take a more geometric, abstract approach.

By rejecting the traditional schools of painting, he has single-handedly established never-before-seen styles in saturated, dream-like colours.

Born in Manchester in the mid-1950s, Berlin later lived and painted in Greece, emigrated to New York and was a contemporary of Andy Warhol, Basquiat and Keith Haring; he crafted many of his earlier works in the narrow hallway of his apartment, cycling the length and breadth of the city as a bicycle courier to make ends meet.

Spiritual: Berlin's Nepal trips have in the past inspired a series of Buddha pieces

White Court Art acquired its first Sax Berlin on his return to the UK: “He wasn’t selling anything – he was focused on bringing up his daughter,” Mr Veal says, “but we soon realised just how vast his back catalogue was, and started putting him on the market.”

‘Eccentricity and variety’

Day-to-day life now finds Berlin in Cornwall in his studio, or his caravan retreat – usually in a dressing gown – or cycling through its surrounding country lanes. He’s a keen saxophonist who’s as happy painting to opera as the music he makes himself.

Mr Veal recalls once visiting him at his studio to find one of Sax’s own recordings playing. “He’d made a tape of Chinatown in 1980s New York,” he says. “It was a slice of history, the sound of cars and people yelling, coffee being poured.”

This eccentricity and variety, the sounds of life, imbues the portfolio and is in part what makes modern collectors so excited; indeed, according to Mr Veal: “Most people who buy a Sax Berlin will come back to buy a second.”