Turning a fine art into salesmanship: As his reputation declined, so John Bratby's sales technique improved. His personal archive fetched pounds 10,000. John Windsor gained access to it

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The Independent Online
John Bratby's liaison with Diane Hills was a tempestuous affair. Bratby, the first artist to become a media star with his 'kitchen sink' paintings of the Fifties, revealed just before his death last week that he had tried to kill Miss Hills by crashing the Mercedes-Benz in which she was his passenger.

One side of the story of their affair is told in a collection of 270 love letters from Bratby, sent by Miss Hills for auction at Sotheby's this week. A dealer paid pounds 3,520 for them. Miss Hills, a fellow graduate of the Royal College of Art, was aged 25 at the time of the affair in 1972.

The other lies in the much more substantial Bratby archive, which the artist sold to Bob Simm, a London management consultant, for pounds 10,000 last autumn. It comprises 25 boxes of letters and 12 massive scrapbooks of personal memorabilia meticulously collected over 35 years; and it has not been made public until now.

The letters from Miss Hills, from Bratby's distraught first wife, Jean Cooke (also an artist), and from Hills's disapproving father reside in a cardboard shirt box. They indicate the allure of a younger woman to an artist whose career had gone into eclipse after a brilliant start. There are telegrams signed by Hills and sent to Bratby at his marital home in Blackheath, south London, proposing rendezvous. 'Meet me tonight 7pm if possible - Diane,' says one.

Bratby left his wife and lived with Hills in Hove, Sussex. Mrs Bratby, then married for 19 years and with four children, remained devoted. She wrote to Bratby: 'If you cut off my arms, I would not miss them as much as you.'

But she abhorred the couple's kitchen-sink morals. 'Dear Miss Hills,' she wrote, 'I understand from my husband (the man with whom you fornicate on the floor of your flat) that you do not wish to get married, nor do you wish to have children. You will therefore not know what marriage is all about.'

Mrs Bratby found an ally in Hills's father. He wrote to his daughter: 'All our lives we have spent bringing you up proper. It grieves us to hear that . . . you get a kick out of standing in the nude in front of dirty old painters.'

He continued:'Men get to 40 / And like to get naughty. / Women of 26 / Give away their knicks.' Bratby was 44 at the time.

Diane Hills eventually ended the relationship, giving as one reason that it was interfering with her own work as an artist. She wrote to Bratby: 'I've tried to break away from you for a long time and this is the cause of your anger.' And again: 'I cannot take any more. I'm too frightened of you and for you.'

Bratby, writing to her as the relationship began to falter, asked: 'And do you still love me as you did in Hove and before and want still to live for a long long time with John and to marry? . . . I can't seem to live without HOPE, darling . . . PLEASE, darling, tell me.'

He summed up the artistic influences of the three women in his life in a letter written to Bob Simm last November on his flamboyant notepaper, decorated with huge margin prints of corn on the cob. 'Miss Diane Hills,' Bratby wrote, 'prize-winning student at the Royal College of Art . . . seriously influenced his (Bratby's) work, turning him to the Symbolists and the fin de siecle Painters of the Imagination. The paintings made with Jean Cooke were of an earthier nature. Those with Patti Prime of a busier nature with tension.'

Divorced from Jean, his marriage to Patti in 1977, after meeting her through a lonely hearts agency, was one of the most celebrated in the art world. The couple were devoted. Patti delighted in posing erotically for Bratby wearing long-outmoded PVC clothing. Aged 64, Bratby died in true style, only 60 yards from his home - collapsing into the gutter after buying fish and chips with Patti. Cause of death was a blood clot on the lung.

The passion he invested in his art and his amours was invested with no less intensity in selling his pictures. His almost daily letters to Mr Simm, in handwriting made febrile both by drink and an eye injury, were usually a prelude to take-it- or-leave-it five-figure offers. Such as his sale of the archive: 'The terms of business - pounds 10,000 for everything plus one 4ft by 3ft oil of your choice. You can take it all away - scrapbooks and all, on 20 October (1991). But the offer is for one day only.'

The Bratby lifestyle required constant injections of cash - perhaps as much as pounds 200,000 a year. For four months of the year, he and Patti would be chauffeured in Rolls-Royces to and from the best hotels in Venice, Paris, Los Angeles. A single holiday would cost up to pounds 30,000.

Mr Simm - a white knight spearheading the current Bratby revival - began buying pictures from him six years ago. He paid him a total of pounds 120,000. On the first of his 60 or so visits to the Bratby residence, 'The Cupola and Tower of the Winds' in Hastings, Sussex, Mr Simm was confronted by Bratby with six 48in by 36in canvases for a spot price of pounds 5,000. He paid up.

At that time, Bratby's 20-room house, according to Mr Simm, was stuffed with thousands of paintings (only about 200 are left). The front door was fortified with an armoury of locks and chains.

Two years later, in his usual style, Bratby offered Mr Simm for pounds 10,000 the contents of a wooden chest - 500 drawings in pencil and crayon. He refused to allow him to make a telephone call, then left the room, saying he expected him to make a decision that morning. Mr Simm accepted the deal.

The last time Bratby employed this gun-to-the-head ploy was only six weeks ago when he sent a fax to Mr Simm offering 50 drawings done in Venice in March for pounds 4,000, sight unseen. The fax explained at length that Walter Sickert, the celebrated Camden Town realist artist, had used the same sales technique, turning his paintings to the wall and naming a price. Bratby would often acknowledge Sickert's strong influence on his work - he had invested Sickert's grubby realism with the bright, rich colour and passionate handling of Van Gogh - but had not previously given him credit for his commercial training.

When face to face with Bratby, Mr Simm could tell when an offer was about to materialise because he would begin his 'ritual dance. He'd shuffle around in his carpet slippers, tugging at his long white beard, looking extremely pensive.

'Then he would say: 'This is very embarrassing. I'm going to put a deal to you which you don't have to accept. There is no obligation. It's up to you.' '

Mr Simm added: 'Whenever his little dance started, I knew I wouldn't be able to get out of there without buying something. But I have never regretted a single purchase.'

On other occasions, Bratby would greet him upon arrival at 'The Cupola' with a well-pondered, handwritten offer and give him 20 minutes to make up his mind. Such wily tactics, often prompted by Dutch courage, were hardly characteristic of an international artist - although he did claim to Mr Simm that he had been selling to 'Americans who knock on my door'.

Although he loathed the Fifties kitchen-sink tag that dogged him, nothing he ever did helped him to throw it off. He was no Hockney. He never ventured into the internationally appealing abstract Impressionism or pop art of the Sixties and Seventies (although the brand names in his paintings presaged pop). Only the hotels he stayed in were truly international.

Mr Simm says he has always felt tempted to classify Bratby as one of those brash Northerners who made it in London in the Fifties and Sixties - until reminding himself that Bratby was born in Wimbledon, the son of a wine taster. He recalls that Bratby was deeply offended when an over-familiar waiter complimented him on being a 'good salesman'.

But Mr Simm was no dupe. He had done his homework, concluding that kitchen sink is Britain's most underexposed school of painting and that Bratby is underpriced. 'If you are looking for the visual symbolism of the Fifties,' he says, 'then Bratby must be the first port of call. He dominated the period.'

Bratby was so prolific and turned out so much substandard work that he depressed the prices for his pictures, especially at auction. His letters to Mr Simm record the London dealer Julian Hartnoll saying 'Good' after he had told him he was going to stop painting for a while. But he was soon back at the easel and was incensed when Mr Simm suggested he should discard minor works.

The auction market for Bratbys is now so flat that last year only three came up at Christie's and only one at Sotheby's, though Bonham's Chelsea sold 13. Prices were in the pounds 600- pounds 2,500 range, with pounds 1,000 common for a mediocre run-of-the-mill work. According to Art Sales Index of Weybridge, no Bratby has ever exceeded at auction the freakishly high pounds 4,510 (nearly double his top prices) paid by a private buyer at Phillips Edinburgh in May for the tiny 24in by 18in The Fishing Port - a less-than-excellent Bratby bearing neither date nor location, estimated at pounds 600- pounds 800.

But dealers have created a market among those with an eye for his best works - especially his huge, stunning early portraits. Last year Julian Hartnoll sold the big 1958 canvas Interior with Jean for 'over pounds 10,000'. Four years ago Noel Oddy, Bratby's principal agent, got pounds 9,000 for the 6ft by 12ft The Painter Painting Janet Churchman, also of 1958.

Mr Hartnoll, who held last year's 'The Kitchen Sink Painters' selling exhibition in collaboration with the Mayor Gallery - and who was also once offered a houseful of 500 drawings by Bratby (which he accepted) - said: 'I told him: 'If you paint 10 pictures, eight are bad, one is all right and one is a masterpiece'.'

Mr Simm has the biggest holding of Bratbys - 120 oils and acrylics, 800 drawings. Towards the end of his life, Bratby came to trust him as the custodian of his life's work. The pair had hit it off from the start. Mr Simm, with his management experience, did not turn a hair at Bratby's eccentric sales techniques. He even complimented him on his use of direct mail to tempt 1,500 celebrities to have their portraits painted in the Seventies.

The two men shared the compulsion periodically to clear the decks and move forward - something that Bratby found less easy to accomplish than Mr Simm. Of his archive, Bratby wrote to him: 'I'm going to wipe out my past and sell it all to you.'

Bratby would harangue Mr Simm about his opinions on life and art and press him for ideas about how to revive his flagging reputation. 'You had to have your wits about you,' said Mr Simm. 'He had a powerful intellect and asked probing questions. It was like going to therapy once a month.'

The artist was always in need of money. When one of Mr Simm's six- year series of spring and autumn bankers' orders to Bratby bounced because of a banking error, Bratby appeared to be completely thrown, even though Mr Simm replaced the money immediately. He eventually redeemed the standing order by sending Bratby pounds 40,000, which the artist needed in a hurry.

There was a rift between the two when Bratby, similarly incensed, discovered that a painting he had sold him, Melon at Positano, had turned up at Christie's, where it had been ignominiously bought in at pounds 900, well short of its pounds 1,300- pounds 1,800 estimate. 'How could you let it out of your possession?' he wanted to know. Mr Simm, who had sold it to an enthusiast who had stung him by calling his big collection 'greedy', dug his heels in, insisting on his right to sell.

After six months the pair made it up. At the time of his death, Bratby was revelling in his new-found acclaim. There had been 16 touring exhibitions of his work in five years, including the 'retrospective' that is currently touring Scotland, and he had also taken to signing pictures and letters with 'Dr Bratby', anticipating the honorary doctorate awarded to him last month by Birmingham University.

According to Mr Simm, he told his beloved Patti: 'I've never felt so alive.'

(Photograph omitted)

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