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Berenice Sydney (British 1944-1983)

Berenice Sydney (1944–1983), born Berenice Frieze, was professionally known as ‘Berenice’, she was a prolific British artist who produced a substantial body of work from 1964 until her death in 1983. Her oeuvre consists of paintings on canvas and paper, drawings, prints, children’s books, costume design, and performance.

Berenice Sydney was born in Esher, Surrey in 1944 and educated from the age of six at the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London. From her early years, she studied ballet with Marie Rambert and classical guitar with Adele Kramer. As an adult, she balanced a busy work schedule in her studio by training at the Dance Centre in Covent Garden and attending flamenco dance studios in Hampstead and New York City. Berenice was married to the Italian photographer Romano Cagnoni from 1970 until they divorced in February 1983.

In addition to reading the classics and studying mythology, she was fluent in five languages. She was enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design but left formal art education to set up a studio in Chelsea where she started experimenting with figurative painting and printmaking techniques. Berenice soon realised that figures were not needed as a starting point because colour could provide everything she required. From that point on, she was fascinated with the exploration of colour and perpetual movement. She always limited herself to a palette of six colours when working on canvas and described this as her ‘magic number’. She enjoyed exploring the relationship between colours and found that each had their own personalities, ‘some colours are nasty, some friendly and some have little character’. Berenice was precise in her working and would spend at least one month on every canvas using two flat brushes, one large and one small, to apply the colours as if neighbours beside one another. She always started painting her large canvasses from the middle from where she could build the journey of ‘contained colour’ in every direction and radiating outwards.

She was mesmerised by the way colour imbued her work with movement, drama and space but most importantly, humour. Berenice strove to construct a world of visual humour by creating joy and laughter through her works. She stated ‘I would like to feel that the humour in my work will not be overlooked, that sometimes witty interaction between shaped colours on the canvas will be observed and that the fun in some of my prints occasionally indicated by the title will be enjoyed’.

She participated in over 40 exhibitions before her death of an asthma attack at the age of 39. She is buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery. Her father, the documentary filmmaker Joseph Sydney Frieze, died a few months later and is buried with her. Lord McAlpine gave the eulogy at her funeral which was also attended by Dr. David Brown then the Assistant Keeper in Modern Collections at the Tate Gallery.