Great Works: Table Top, 1955, by John Bratby

Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Let's admit it, a table top can be a nasty and unruly place. In fact, it can be all over the place – as it is here. It is where objects wash up and refuse to budge. We do not necessarily want them like that, but we do not stop them being what and where they are. This painting, composed as it is of multiple elements of what might, in the hands of a Cézanne or a Braque or a Morandi, have been a harmoniously composed still-life painting, seems to be some kind of a jokey travesty of, or irreverent commentary upon, the same.

Cézanne's still lifes seem to be distillations of thinking, all caution and quiet, set-apart consideration. We wonder about the nature of perception, the essence of appleness. This is nothing of the kind. It is an almighty clash of cymbals. It is utterly of this world in which we all think, move and breathe.

It is a roughly hewn-off segment of reality upon which we all happen to have stumbled, like it or not. And we don't like it, not very much, because it utterly fails to flatter or to idealise reality. Where Cézanne distils, this sprawls – into the telling of an everyday story. Life could be other than it is, but it just happens to be this, because this is how things are. It gives the lie to the idea that a bunch of bottles might be indicative of profound inner harmonies or still points in a turning world or moments of revery.

It is not so much a smooth coming together as a dissonant clashing together of elements, which is saying to us: all this is human detritus after all. Why pretend otherwise? It is what you all boil down to in the end. It is what is left behind after the scoffing and the swilling is over. This is what the human engagement with bottles and jugs and jars and plates and cups really means: once they have fulfilled their usefulness, we leave them behind as a messy clutter. They are our autobiography, the embarrassing part, like the dirt beneath our finger nails.

That is why the reader of the newspaper in the chair we can see top left has her back turned to the scene, quite pointedly so. She – is it a she? – is pretending that she lives in a world of cerebral concerns, that reading and thinking seriously about what she has just read are her game. The opposite may be the truth. It is what is at her back – and directly in front of us, the onlookers – which is what she amounts to, and this includes a significant element of mess and squalor. Everything seems to work together to emphasise the fact that things are falling apart. There is gawkiness, odd over-extensions – why, for example, is that chair at bottom right of the painting so much taller than its companion just to the left of it?

The viewpoint is rather unusual too; the way we look down on this scene. We feel slightly vertiginous as we work our way across it. We feel as if we might stumble and fall into its messy centre. The scene seems to yawn and spread and stretch away from us, like spilled liquid from a knocked-over jug. It is difficult to get the measure of the shape of this table. Is it squarish with rounded corners (it seems so when looked at from the end closest to the bottom edge of the canvas) or not?

Yet when our eyes examine other parts of it, we become less sure. Is that chequered table cloth half hanging off, and if so, why? Is this the aftermath of an almighty booze up or the general detritus of a multiplicity of meals, including breakfast (see Quaker Oats), a bibulous lunch (see wine bottles) and tea (see mug with the blue and white stripes)? Is that the remnant of a kipper or the discarded skin of a banana that I see before my eyes at bottom right? It is difficult to fathom where all this quite begins and ends. The table, no matter what shape it really is, can barely contain all this squalor.

Well, it was always said that Bratby lived a racy and dangerous life, so this is probably just a snippet of it.

About the artist: John Bratby (1928-1992)

In the 1950s, John Bratby was regarded as a tough-minded British realist, on the kitchen-sink side of art's table. Later on, his work became more delicate and his colours brighter. He ditched his earlier austerity for a style which seemed to be ready to make its compromises with the variousness of the world, and even to delight in such things as flowers. He was also a novelist and able art critic.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?