A new retrospective of John Bratby’s work recently opened at Jerwood Hastings. Last year a ‘Bring your Bratby’ event at Jerwood flushed out several hundred privately held works by the artist, from which a panel of experts assembled this show. It’s hardly surprising to learn Bratby’s oeuvre was so scattered – he was a frustrating, quixotic painter, whose frenzied forty year career produced thousands of canvases. He saturated the market with his works. Most of his output now rests in private hands.
Yet the crowd-sourced element makes this show feel rather exciting and pioneering, too, for it is both a labour of love and an act of salvage and rediscovery. Some of the paint surfaces seem slightly grubby. Some of the frames are scuffed and dented. These pictures have been hung in domestic living rooms and hallways for decades, respectfully yet without the white-gloved reverence often afforded to High Art. Perhaps the artist would be happy to know that so much of his work ended up out there in the real world – not mothballed in a gallery storage warehouse, but loved on a daily basis.
The main rooms of this exhibition are packed with paintings from the 1950s and 60s. This was a time when Bratby was immensely successful, and his work sat at the cutting edge of the contemporary scene. Only two years after graduating from the RCA, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. In a landmark article for Encounter Magazine in 1954, David Sylvester coined the phrase ‘Kitchen Sink’ to describe the school of painters who had turned their attention toward dark, gritty realist pictures of domestic interiors. John Bratby was their leading figure, an immensely confident painter never entirely happy with an art world label which he felt to be basically untrue. He had, he claimed, never actually painted a kitchen sink.
Late in the 50s, Bratby became a household name when his work featured in ‘The Horse’s Mouth’, a successful comic film about a painter, starring Alec Guinness. The subject of the film, irascible grey-haired Gulley Jimson, is a kind of prototype Banksy, painting enormous pictures on walls without permission. Bratby’s bold, unhesitating and brutal style fits Guinness’s characterization perfectly.
Strolling through the show, I get the sense of an artist positively bristling with life and energy during this early part of his career. The pictures are painted with extreme gusto, the oil paint laid on so thickly that it seems in some cases almost sculptural. ‘Three Lambrettas’ from 1957 is a good example. This enormous wall sized canvas contains sections where the colours are squeezed, like toothpaste, direct onto the surface – not mixed or worked in, just left to dry as they are, like giant worm casts. Bratby also seems to have attempted to paint one of the faces with an actual 3-D profile, slapping paint onto the nose so it protrudes stalagmite-style from the image. It’s immediately clear that these paintings are meant to be experienced direct and not just looked at in a catalogue – they are raw physical objects which almost create their own shadows, capturing the light differently from every angle.
The optimism of Bratby’s strident youthful mark making seems at odds with the colour scheme of these pictures which are, to put it mildly, very… well, ‘postwar’. Yet their sludgy brownness is a defining feature, the visual window into a very different world. Rationing was just ending, and England like the rest of Europe was limping forward into its uncertain future. Bratby himself sums this up particularly well – ‘The painting of my decade was an expression of its Zeitgeist – introvert, grim, khaki in colour… opposed to prettiness and dedicated to portraying a stark, ugly reality… The war had forced people to leave the sweet, protected, comfortable life and it rubbed their noses in the brutal truth. After the war this barren view of life continued, and was even popular… Painters never do deliberately express their age. It is in their work despite their painting intention.’ He’s hit the nail on the head, of course. These pictures feel like a living embodiment of the 50s.
‘Jean Tired and Desk’ is a deliciously angsty piece from this mid-50s period. The desk is blocked in relatively thinly, but Jean’s face is encrusted in thick paint, as if worries are physically exploding onto her dark, troubled brow. As a view of his wife, it’s hardly flattering – but as a portrait of marital ennui it hums with dense emotion.
As the ‘60s begin, some of Bratby’s paintings start to hint at the changes ahead. ‘Holyland’ is a simple still life of items we nowadays get all year round in our local Tescos. Yet in 1961, when he painted this, these fruits were expensive, exotic and directly symbolic of the return of luxury, sweetness and colour to our shores.
By the mid 60s, celebrity is also becoming a factor in Bratby’s work. His fame has granted him access to the homes and social calendars of the leading lights of the worlds of arts and letters. Two large scale portraits of Paul McCartney flank a picture of Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim. Their likenesses are indeed captured but, as with many of the portraits in this show, I feel some lack of direct connection and empathy between artist and sitter. Bratby himself once said ‘I do not love people. In fact, I may lean to misanthropy.’ He also once said that the portraits of his children were simply ‘someone to paint’. It’s not hard to see this in the pictures. People interest him, but he finds it tough to connect.
Celebrity portraits eventually came to fascinate Bratby, and he began a lifelong series of paintings of well known people. At his peak he was sending out more than two hundred personal requests each year for willing sitters – and his reputation ensured that a majority said yes. The list of sitters is impressive. Michael Palin, Richard Briers, Cyril Smith, Arthur Lowe. Even perennial panto favourite Bobby Crush had his moment. The sitters were busy people and Bratby worked fast – four hours tops. Lucian Freud insisted his sitters stay in uncomfortable poses for hundreds of hours, but Bratby’s pile-‘em-in, paint-‘em’quick approach was clearly very different. Was he really interested in capturing something unique about these people, or was he using his reputation as leverage to meet famous names – creating some sort of giant, glorified visitors book? One large portrait in this show, a 1967 painting of comedian Arthur Askey, contains a very telling feature – the sitter’s name, written indecently large in green paint. The famous name is the same size as the famous face. Bratby doesn’t want us to forget who it is.
In another room of this exhibition is a fascinating wall of ephemera, which gives further insight into the portrait series. A sample letter to Rik Mayall is pinned up, inviting him to come and sit for a painting. It’s a standard photocopied page, with name and signature added hastily in ballpoint. We aren’t told how Mayall responded, but some of the refusal letters are also presented here. Former Labour Party chairman Ian Mikardo angrily demurs, writing that ‘the second paragraph of your letter is a monumental piece of flatulent, Neanderthal nonsense.’ Playwright Edward Bond is kinder, confessing himself a fan but turning down the opportunity to join Bratby’s roll call of ‘individuals’, whom Bond dismisses as ‘the most banal, egocentric, grabbing and opportunistic of rabble’.
By his own admission, Bratby’s career suffered when art world fashions moved on from kitchen sink realism to Pop Art- despite the fact his pictures of corn flake packets seemed to pre-figure Hockney and Blake. The picture selection in this Jerwood retrospective also, however, advances the view that Bratby’s fall from grace was more than as a mere result of changing trends. Most of the pictures here are from the 50s and 60s. There are a handful from the 70s. There are a few from the 80s and 90s – and in these the drop in quality is absolutely impossible to ignore. The colour palette grows lighter, for sure, but Bratby does nothing else in the second half of his career to innovate or reinvent his style.
In these later years, Bratby lived in Hastings with his second wife Patti in a large house they called ‘The Cupola and Tower of the Winds.’ Though never poverty stricken, their secluded life hardly sounds idyllic. Aside from portrait sitters, no-one was allowed inside, not even builders. ‘If a window was broken, it would stay broken. If a tap came off in your hand, it stayed off’ Patti later remembered. The house had no central heating, and Patti was forced to wear her overcoat to bed. Bratby’s diaries, some of which are included in this display, conjure tragicomic scenes – such as a surreal 1984 juxtaposition of sexual frustration and gardening. ‘I sure needed the Flymo. My nerves are now steady. My genitals feel fine… Am trying to be nice to P but it gets difficult at times. Have not felt electric today and have not masturbated.’
The main factor in Bratby’s artistic decline seems to have been alcohol. In the late period, his DTs were so severe that he could no longer legibly write his name. ‘I can’t understand myself’ he writes plaintively in his 1981 diary, ‘I have everything but am miserable… An awful lot of the time I despise myself.’ As I contemplate this exhibition, I end up feeling an equal mixture of sadness and inspiration. I’m sad that such a truly gifted painter didn’t manage to find some love for himself, and that his later life seemed so isolated and hamstrung. Yet I love this show for being the honest portrait of a whole, messy life in art. The diaries, photos and letters make for an intriguing portrait of a man for whom painting was a lifelong rod and staff. Fashion and trends be damned, Bratby was a workhorse – come rain or shine he painted on, seemingly without any lapse in enthusiasm towards his vocation. It’s a remarkable, inspiring thing.
‘John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink’ is at Jerwood Hastings til April 17th 2016. Admission £9