An exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, 30th January to 17th April, 2016


By Julian Hartnoll

Julian Hartnoll/Jerwood Gallery. £4.50

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Walking through the Jerwood Gallery, surrounded by John Bratby’s paintings, it occurred to me that he was a quintessentially English artist. And one who was almost totally a product of the 1940s and 1950s. This isn’t to say that he didn’t look anywhere else for inspiration and influences. But, for me, there is something in his work as a whole that still carries the mood or feeling of those years, even when he was painting portraits of pop stars and personalities in later decades. Some of the portraits weren’t successful, while others may have succeeded in a way the sitters didn’t care for. The world of the 1960s and 1970s demanded that people put on new clothes to fit in with the supposed liberalism of the times, but Bratby may have seen that the faces hadn’t really changed. Nor the basic attitudes of the people he portrayed.

But I admit to a prejudice in that I see myself as essentially having been shaped by the pre-1960 years referred to. And that may be the reason why, when I first saw some Bratby paintings in the 1950s, I at once recognised the world the world he was portraying. Along with a few other artists (Jack Smith, Edward Middleditch, Derrick Greaves, Peter Coker) he was described as belonging to a “Kitchen Sink” school of painting. It was a derogatory term, coined by the art critic David Sylvester, who said that the paintings, and I suspect he was referred to Bratby’s in particular, contained nothing to suggest “that the man about the house is an artist or anything but an ordinary man.”  Well, one thing you can say about Bratby is that he certainly wasn’t “an ordinary man,” whatever else he was.

I’m not intending this review to be anything other than a personal response to Bratby. It seems to me that much of his work is so autobiographical that responding to it personally is a perfectly valid way to look at it. Art critics may think otherwise and insist that it’s still necessary to consider the paintings in a detached manner and in terms of their use of paint, possibly their subject-matter, and their relationship to art history. Perhaps. But it takes a lot of fun out of the experience of seeing an exhibition by someone like Bratby if too much emphasis is placed on a purely critical response. Bratby was a messy painter, in many ways, and had a generally hit-and-miss technique. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. He plastered paint on the canvas, used colours that could sometimes only  be described as “gaudy”, and wasn’t afraid to distort shapes, perspectives, and appearances to get an effect. Julian Hartnoll said: “If it is true, as I believe, that out of ten Bratby paintings eight are indifferent, one is good and the tenth is a masterpiece then the ratio in his drawings is reversed.” The drawings in the Jerwood may have been somewhat overwhelmed by the paintings, but they were technically skilful and eye-catching.

He was certainly a popular painter, at least for a time in terms of achieving recognition on a wider scale than many other artists ever know. He was occasionally placed alongside Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer, though he wasn’t as imaginative as either of them. And he courted publicity and knew how to exploit the details of his personal life, including matters like a divorce, to get the attention of journalists. They weren’t particularly covered in the Jerwood exhibition, but he produced four published novels and many short stories and articles, as well as the paintings and drawings.

The novels were essentially autobiographical, though Bratby liked to deny that they were. But anyone reading his best ones, such as Breakdown and Brake-Pedal Down, can’t help but see similarities to the characters and events in Bratby’s own life. Inevitably, he was also often linked to the artist, Gulley Jimson, in Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth. This wasn’t because Cary had based his artist on Bratby (his novel had originally been published in 1944) but because Bratby had provided the paintings that Jimson, as portrayed by Alec Guinness, was seen working on in the 1958 film of Cary’s book. The connection certainly didn’t do Bratby’s reputation any harm. There was an irony in the fact that the finale of the film demanded that a large mural that Bratby painted on a wall had to be destroyed. He often claimed that it had been some of his best work, which may or may not have been true. But it made a good story.

It was certainly true that Bratby produced far too much, too fast, for all of his canvases to be top-class, or even good. There were quite a few in the Jerwood Gallery that I only paused to briefly consider before I moved on to something more interesting. Estimates of the number of paintings he turned out in his lifetime go as high as three thousand. Bratby liked money and knocked out paintings as fast as he could sell them. His reputation had faded somewhat after all the attention (chosen as one of the artists to represent Britain at the 1956 Venice Biennale, among many other things) he’d received in the 1950s. Critics were focusing more on the St Ives artists, the American abstract expressionists, and Pop Art. Bratby has sometimes been identified as, if not a Pop artist, then at least one of their precursors, but I’ve never thought of him in that way. His best work is less contrived than much Pop Art, and the almost-sleazy scenes he created (untidy kitchens, grubby bathrooms, houses in need of improvement) were very much the opposite of the slick images that so many Pop painters wanted to create to fit in with the supposed idea of the Swinging Sixties. The women in Bratby’s paintings were unlike the glamour girls that Pop Art portrayed.

Bratby never stopped painting, even if the critics mostly ignored him. He was a reluctant traveller, and in the early 1950s had won a scholarship to spend time in Italy, but Julian Hartnoll says that “he neither enjoyed the food nor appreciated the country.” Much later, he did visit the USA and other places after being persuaded by his second wife, Patti. She seems to have been able to deal with his chaotic personality and indulged him by posing for what most people might categorise as near-pornographic photos, many of which were pinned on the walls of the house they’d bought in Hastings. She also acted as a model for his paintings, much in the way that his first wife, Jean, had been required to do. Jean rarely looks happy in Bratby’s 1950s pictures and that may have been because, if later divorce papers are anything to go by, she had to suffer a great deal of abuse, of one kind or another. She was a talented artist in her own right, but Bratby appears to have deliberately limited her opportunities to practise her painting. Patti, I’d guess, was a much tougher individual, liked sex as much as he did, and knew how to assert herself.

I said earlier that I think of Bratby as quintessentially English, or more specifically, an Englishman of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking at some of his canvases, and thinking about him, I’m reminded of a couple of lines from a poem by Lawrence Durrell who, viewing England from abroad, wrote: “Take me back where sex is furtive/And the midnight copper roams.” The 1950s paintings seem to me to represent that repressed England in many ways, even when they don’t directly refer to sex. The repression in 1950s England wasn’t only sexual, of course, and expressed itself in many ways, including attitudes towards literature, music, and art.

Bratby himself was certainly interested in sex and when censorship loosened up he enjoyed writing short stories like “Oral Intercourse? Yes, please” for publications such as Knave. He also contributed to slick “men’s magazines” like Penthouse and King, but also to Woman’s Own and Woman’s Journal, the latter two hardly likely to entertain his sexual fantasies which were many and varied. I have to say that, in relation to sex, Bratby displayed some good old English hypocrisy when he condemned William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Francis Bacon’s paintings for their homosexual content. His journals show that he entertained homosexual fantasies himself, though there’s no evidence to indicate that he ever had homosexual experiences.

It does occur to me that the decline in Bratby’s critical reputation might well have had something to do with his penchant for not only painting so much, but also his enthusiasm for publishing novels, stories, and articles, producing a Coronation Street panorama for TV Times, and promoting himself whenever and wherever possible. The English don’t really like people who can do many things and are not shy about pointing it out. Modesty is proclaimed as a virtue. Professor Michael Stephens, commenting after Bratby’s death, said that he “had the misfortune to be born among the English…(who) expect their painters to use subdued colours, create works laboriously, and to be taciturn.” 

As I said at the beginning of this piece, it wasn’t meant to be a review of the Jerwood exhibition, though that’s what inspired it. Was Bratby a great painter? I don’t think so, but that hasn’t ever stopped me from enjoying much of his work. The colours alone are enough to make me feel cheerful. In a Daily Telegraph review of several paintings of Istanbul in the 1984 Royal Academy show it was said that he “should not be written off. They blaze out with a kind of Fauve vehemence of colour.” That seems to be a fair assessment of what Bratby often achieved.

It was interesting that, also in the Jerwood, there was an exhibition of John Piper’s work. Two completely different painters, but it was possible to see how Piper was always alert to what was happening, and didn’t seem afraid to change his style. I don’t think this was a case of jumping on the latest bandwagon, but rather an example of someone responding to a variety of challenges, being adventurous, and searching for the best way to express what he thought and felt. Bratby’s art, being so autobiographical much of the time, had its limitations because of that fact.

John Bratby died in 1992. He’d been out with Patti and they were walking back from the local fish and chip shop when he collapsed. She at first thought he was fooling around, but then realised something was wrong. A passing motorist stopped to help and an ambulance was called, but when it arrived one of the crew checked and then said to Patti, “Sorry love, your father is dead.” Bratby’s unhealthy life-style had made him look older than he was. He was an alcoholic with a liking for champagne and cider. Robin Simon, writing in the Daily Mail after Bratby’s death, referred to him as “the last of a line – the rumbustious, rollicking Bohemian breed of painters.” To satisfy readers of the paper who viewed Bohemians with suspicion, and didn’t like modern art generally, he then went on to say that Bratby was something of a charlatan. Someone else proffered a kinder view when they said: “Bratby was a fat man of a painter, full of gusto and pigment-loaded brushes. His surname suited his honest vulgarity, a ripe raspberry blown in the face of lace-curtained decorum.”

It perhaps needs to be noted that Bratby’s rejection of “lace-curtained decorum,” and his paintings of downbeat subjects such as kitchen-sinks, toilets, and table-tops cluttered with corn-flakes packets and other everyday objects, didn’t denote any affinity with socialism. As far as I know, he wasn’t a political animal in any way, and in fact he enjoyed having plenty of money and meeting the rich and famous, though that may have been because they had the means to commission portraits or buy other paintings. Solemn left-wingers were hardly likely to be found in his company. The critic John Berger spoke positively about Bratby’s paintings in the 1950s, but the artist thought him a bore and satirised him as Fred Bonkers in his unpublished novel, Break Down the Middle. In a 1984 letter to The Times in response to a review of that year’s The Forgotten Fifties exhibition by John Russell Taylor, Bratby said: “the English New Realists, or kitchen sink school of painters were strictly not concerned with social or political comment (though that was John Berger’s profound concern), but with painting randy, nearby images, and if they expressed the Zeitgeist that was unintentional. However, it was not a “middle class art,” but painting done by the sons of the proletariat.”  His “kitchen sink” colleague, Jack Smith, went further when he said: “I don’t identify with any class. The artist is classless and any identification of that kind is creative death. The artist must remain an outsider, resisting all attempts by society to enclose him.”   

The small book by Julian Hartnoll produced for the exhibition gives a brief outline of Bratby’s life and work. Peter Davies’s Bratby (Old Bakehouse Publications, 2002) offers a broader view, and Maurice Yacowar’s The Great Bratby  (Middlesex University Press, 2008) is a much longer and more-detailed account of Bratby’s activities. It’s also worth looking at the catalogue produced for The Forgotten Fifties exhibition by Sheffield City Council Arts Department, 1984. The exhibition was curated by Julian Spalding and is informative in the way it places Bratby in context. The book written by Martin Harrison for the exhibition, Transition: The London Art Scene in the Fifties (The Barbican, 2002) is also useful for placing Bratby alongside his contemporaries.