John Bratby

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Until 17th April, 2016
Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

The past is, as L. P. Hartley wrote, another country where they do things differently. In 1950s Britain evidence of the Second World War was still everywhere to be seen in the urban bomb sites, the clusters of, supposedly, temporary prefabs and the many gardens that had been turned into allotments. Military bases peppered the countryside and coastline. Young men were still called up for National Service, while Two-Way Family Favourites played over the airways on the Home Service to Our Boys serving in Germany, as the Bisto simmered on the Rayburn. There was a Cold War, poverty, rationing and no contraception pill. Nearly half the population lived in private rented accommodation – often dingy rooms or bedsits, with little privacy, comfort or warmth. Buildings were traditional. New high rise concrete blocks, the result of slum clearances, only began to make an appearance in the early 1960s. Britain was a cold, drab ‘make-do-and-mend’ place of strong tea and boiled cabbage, coal fires and damp washing. It is this world, depicted in John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, which gave rise to the concept of the Angry Young Man, a new breed of youth that felt an impatience with the status quo, an instinctive solidarity with the working class, and a sense of inchoate antagonism towards all things establishment.

The quality of life for the British working classes was, in the 1950s, poor. It is this pre-consumerist, post-war world that is captured by the English painter John Bratby.  Along with playwrights such as Osborne and Sheila Delaney, of Taste of Honey fame, and novelists like Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and John Braine, (Room at the Top), Bratby and other realist artists – including Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith, who became known as the Beaux Arts Quartet – documented the everyday life of ordinary people.

The term ‘kitchen sink’ was originally used as the title of an article by the critic David Sylvester in the December 1954 issue of the journal Encounter in which he wrote that these artists’ work ‘takes us back from the studio to the kitchen’. Their subject was, he claimed: ‘An inventory which includes every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.’ Sylvester emphasised that these kitchens were those ‘in which ordinary people cooked ordinary food and doubtless lived their ordinary lives’. In contrast to the prevailing neo-Romantic fantasies of painters like John Piper, Eric Ravilious, and David Jones, this raw work implied a new social, if not political, commentary.

John Bratby was born on July 19th, 1928 to a lower middle-class family who lived in Wimbledon. After attending Tiffins Grammer School in Kingston and Kingston School of Art, he would end up, in 1951, at the Royal College of Art. Having also been accepted by the Slade, which he saw as too cultured and intellectual, he chose the Royal College, which James Hyman describes in his book, The Battle for Realism, as being “passionate, earthy and crude”. It was there that Bratby became interested in the work of Carel Weight and the introverted gay painter, John Minton. In 1953 he married fellow student Jean Cooke and camped out in the attic of the V&A, where the RCA was then based, to be easily detected in his eerie by the cooking smells that emanated from a Valour heater. There he drew a good deal. A number of these works are on display in The Artist’s Room at the Jerwood Gallery.

In 1954, fresh from the RCA, the legendary dealer, Helen Lessore offered Bratby a show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, a converted mews (then unfashionable) in Bruton Place, where she slept above the shop. Among the other artists she championed were Bacon, Auerbach and Kossof. In the first week of Bratby’s show she sold ten out of his twenty-five paintings. This period was to prove, in retrospect, the high point of his painterly career. As John Berger wrote in 1954: “To enter The Beaux Arts Gallery is to enter Bratby’s home. This is partly because his subjects are his wife, his sister-in-law, his kitchen table, his dogs, his groceries, but far more profoundly because you are compelled to share his most profound emotions… he paints a packet of cornflakes as though it were part of the last supper.” In Jean with Dog, where am apparently disconsolate Jean sits in a cardigan, undies and red wellies patting the dog, the table is littered with domestic detritus: empty milk bottles, packets of Daz, Rice Crispies and Corn Flakes.  “I used the same table every time, and eating equipment from the kitchen of the house”.  Bratby claimed, when they were living at Jean’s parent’s house in Greenwich. “The works were, therefore, absolutely contrived and artificially set up.” His Three Lambrettas and Two Portraits of Jean, painted in his Dartmouth Row studio in 1958 at the height of his fame, presents the new Italian scooters as the epitome of cool and freedom. For the young, especially those from an impoverished working class, a lambretta promised a degree of previously unknown autonomy, mobility and potential sexual freedom. Bratby’s palette of dingy browns, creams and greys is in contrast to the iconic maroon machines sitting amid the clutter and chaos of the studio, while the large canvas suggests a desire to move from a domestic scale to experiment with complex pattern-making that a smaller picture surface would not afford. All Bratby’s paintings of Jean have an authenticity and rawness. Yet despite the thickness of the paint there is something chiselled and sculptural about his Reclining Nude, 1963 that lacks the sensual fleshiness of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Patricia.  One of the most potent works in the show is Rain in June, 1961, also known as Sunlight in Abandoned Bathroom.  Here Bratby depicts his grandmother’s bathroom: the shabby white tiles, the dirty sink and wooden towel rail, the floor the colour of damp green mould, which conjures a Proustian sense of cold childhood mornings and the dash to the freezing bathroom for a quick lick and promise.

By the 1960s Bratby had become well known. The angry young man had bought a house, a car, a snooker table and appeared on Desert Island Discs. Money always mattered (perhaps having been brought up with very little) as did celebrity. He got into the habit of writing to the glitterati and literati of his day and asking them to pose for him. Many agreed and the results are mostly depressing: the mannered painting of Paul McCartney, the awful portraits of Michael Palin, Malcom Bradbury, the late agony Aunt Clare Rayner and comedian Arthur Askey, which all lack psychological insight and emotional finesse. For despite Bratby’s claims to be concerned with the loss of ‘individualism’ in contemporary society, all are moribund clichés of contemporary painting of the time. The politician Ian Mikado refused his invitation, calling Bratby’s letter “a monumental piece of flatulent Neanderthal nonsense”.  

Whether this falling away of authenticity was due, as his biographer Maurice Yacowar suggests, to the affair with Diane Hills, one of Jean’s pupils from the RCA, there seemed to be a new pretentiousness artificiality to his work. This archness is demonstrated in his self-consciously Fauvist painting, Diane with Sunhat (1974). Like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, it seems that Bratby ended up selling his artistic soul for a mess of celebratory pottage. Though in 1963 he was still capable of painting an intense and poignant portrait of his young son, David.

In 1974 he placed an advertisement in Time Out Lonely hearts: Very famous artist, 45, divorce pending, wishes to meet artistic girl under 30 to love. Patti Prime, a Canadian actress, 5 years his junior replied. Their relationship was tempestuous from the start and fuelled by alcohol.  In the final gallery at the Jerwood there’s a collaged collection of photos of a distinctly middle-aged Patti dressed in tacky black PV trousers and shiny red jackets, baring her breasts in a variety of matronly soft-porn poses.

Extremely short sighted Bratby painted close up to the canvas with unmediated colour straight from the tube, which may explain the strong patterning and thick impasto of much of his work.  By the late 80s the hard drinking had taken its toll and his appearance, with his cloud of white hair and beard, was a cross between Alan Ginsberg and Moses. He enjoyed the fruits of the money he’d made, travelling to Venice, buying Patti outrageous clothes, playing the part of the successful artist. But the work did not continue to develop. Like his contemporary John Osborne, who became a right-wing literary shadow of his younger self, Bratby never really grew as an artist. Yet there was a moment, during the1950s, when he produced a clutch of paintings in which we can almost smell and touch the bohemian austerity of that decade; and it is for these that he will be remembered.

Gilleman, Luc (2008). “From Coward and Rattigan to Osborne: Or the Enduring Importance of Look Back in Anger.” Modern Drama: Vol. 51, No. 1: 104-124. 104


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