Obituary: John Bratby
Thursday 23 July 1992
JOHN BRATBY's life was as colourful as his art. The English love an artist to be eccentric, and Bratby was increasingly content to assume the mantle of Augustus John, living his life in public, always ready to offer his opinion in interviews or letters to the press. Yet there is an odd contradiction here, for Bratby was one of the shyest of men. His actual public appearances were very few. If his private dramas - divorce, wildness, remarriage, threatened loss of sight - often became news, who was ultimately responsible? Bratby, shrewd as ever in the promotion of his art through his life, was his own best press agent.
He was born in Wimbledon in 1928, the son of a winetaster. His childhood was chaotic and unhappy, and he took refuge in various schooltime enterprises: profitably reselling buns in break, writing pornographic stories which he charged for the reading of, and training himself to be a professional boxer. Art only became a consolation in his last year at Tiffin Boys' School, Kingston, in Surrey, under the inspired teaching of Harold Watts, but it was soon to be the register of his life.
Bratby was conscripted but swiftly discharged because of extreme myopia, and managed to obtain an ex-service grant to take him to Kingston School of Art (1948-50). Unsuited to the easy camaraderie of art school and constricted by its formal training, he was not an immediate success as a student. He failed the intermediate exam in arts and crafts, left the school but managed to continue painting.
By dint of application, Bratby produced a body of work which, though awkward in execution, was strong enough to convince the Slade School to offer him a postgraduate place. With enviable insouciance, he managed to swap the Slade for the Royal College of Art, which he thought better, and entered it in 1951.
At this point, Bratby was still drawn to the wispier end of the Neo-Romanticism that had pervaded English art during the war. Now the country was much altered. As he wrote later, the prevailing zeitgeist was 'the colour and mood of ration-books - the general feeling of sackcloth and ashes'. To confront this mood or escape it? In devastated Europe, one response was a return to the solid comforts and reassurance of realism. Bratby, attracted by the practical and down-to-earth, sought to form his own distinctly personal brand of realism.
It was during these college years that the Bratby myth began to coalesce. Antisocial through shyness, he found it difficult to talk to girls and would spend his term's grant in the first fortnight on 'women of the streets'. He was impoverished, and would beg or sleep rough in Hyde Park or stow away in the attics of the Royal College. His art seemed to match his wild reputation. He would be found painting a still-life of dustbins or setting up his easel in the lavatory. He favoured heavily impastoed paint - 'thick as Axminster carpets', someone said - in sombre earth colours. The handling was deliberately crude.
Some stability was brought into his life in 1953 when he met and married his fellow- student Jean Cooke, then a sculptor and potter, now an acclaimed painter. The next year Bratby was given his first one-man exhibition, at the age of 26, at the celebrated Beaux Arts Gallery. His professional career was launched with this success, followed by the first prize in the John Moores Junior Section in 1959, and Guggenheim Awards for 1956, 1957 and 1958. In 1954 he first exhibited at the Royal Academy, to which he was elected an Associate in 1959 and a full member in 1971.
From the start, Bratby excited press attention. When his dour, tough, impolite realism broke over the art world like a wave of dirty dish-water, the shock may have been salutary, but the response was disproportionate. In 1954, John Russell, then art critic of the Sunday Times, favourably compared Bratby's rendition of a cornflake-packet with Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, and Studio Magazine classed Bratby with Rembrandt, Goya, Courbet and Manet. The Marxist art critic John Berger likened Bratby's obsessive vision to that of the prisoner in the condemned cell, seeing life for the last time. Bratby became an international name almost overnight, and the first artist media pop-star, several years before Hockney. In 1956, Bratby and the other so-called Kitchen Sink painters - Edward Middleditch, Jack Smith and Derrick Greaves - were chosen to represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. That year, one of Bratby's finest early works, Still-Life with Chip Frier, was purchased by the Tate.
The Fifties were undoubtedly Bratby's best period. In 1957 he was commissioned to paint the pictures for the film of Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth, and became identified in the popular imagination with its Bohemian artist hero, Gulley Jimson (played by Alec Guinness). In art schools he became a kind of folk idol who was seen to be vigorously demolishing the old order. Bratby's paintings, including several huge figure compositions on hardboard, were shown in the United States, and he could afford to buy a large house in Blackheath. Then in 1960, he was dropped, as he said, 'like a cold potato'. Fashions changed, and abstraction, soon to be followed by Pop Art, ousted Kitchen Sink. The critics reversed their judgements - Berger accused Bratby of selling out to materialism - poured scorn on or ignored his work. The situation remained much the same until last year, when a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, a reassessment of the Kitchen Sink Painters at the Mayor Gallery and an exhibition of his new work at the Albemarle Gallery, London, brought Bratby back into the critical limelight.
Interestingly, the public never lost faith in Bratby, and he continued to sell well. A phenomenally hard worker, he was also an excellent sales promoter. Every other month a Bratby exhibition would open somewhere in Britain.
Bratby was a driven man, a1ways painting. His recreation was to do a bit of drawing, or, in the Sixties, to write compellingly lurid autobiographical novels: Breakdown (1960), Breakfast and Elevenses (1961), Brake-Pedal Down (1962) and Break 50 Kill (1963). His rare leisure activities of that period consisted of squash, snooker and buying fine cars. Then, as he put it, 'The menopause came in 1970 and it was fireworks day, every day. I left the second womb of my life, that of marital somnambulance, crashed cars, lived the high life, drank, and loved young ladies.' The same year also brought a change in palette as Bratby studied the bright contrasts and colour patches of the Fauves and Nabis, in rebellion against Sickertian tonality. Yet it was always to Sickert that Bratby returned for inspiration and guidance. Despite his attraction to the expressionism of Van Gogh, and his cherished but unsubstantiated belief in his own Jewishness (thus linking him more directly to painters he admired like Chaim Soutine and Oskar Kokoschka), Bratby was a very English painter, curiously close to the all-inclusive vision of the Pre-Raphaelites.
His marriage to Jean Cooke was dissolved in 1977; and, after he met Patti Prime, an actress, through a Lonely Hearts column, they married in 1977. This brought Bratby great happiness and the wish to celebrate, which fructified his art and changed his existence. Travel became the inspiration for much of his later work. From an extraordinary house with a cupola in Hastings, the Bratbys would sally forth to London, Istanbul, Paris or Venice, Patti in tight black PVC, John with his prophet's beard and perhaps a pigtail. Thankfully, the enfant terrible never quite became the Grand Old Man, and his paintings retained the power to shock.
Bratby will be remembered for his robust, vivid, muscular style, with its distinctive white-paint overdrawing. He was so prolific - he once told me he had just completed 51 sunflower paintings in 17 days - that he could hardly fail to produce work uneven in quality, but the best of it will stand up to posterity: a handful of self-portraits from all periods, the wonderful crowded table-top paintings of the Fifties, the pencil drawings (c1956) which look like African carvings, and a number of the flower pictures. In the Seventies and Eighties he undertook a massive series of portraits, a 'Gallery of Individuals', which finally numbered over 1,500 pictures. The enterprise was far more ambitious than it was successful, though Bratby could be a penetrating portrait-painter, as can be seen in his Billie Whitelaw of 1967.
Bratby should also be given his due as a precursor of Pop Art. He was, after all, the first to get excited by packaging and brand names. One horror-struck society hostess, after seeing Bratby's still-lifes, immediately had the cornflakes-packets covered in brown paper. His paintings are certainly unambiguous and refreshingly accessible, sure in their purpose of celebrating the sheer physicality of people and things on a heroic level of emotion. The streaks and swathes and tubings of bright pigment make an exuberant appeal to the senses. Raw and vital, Bratby's best paintings have a life-enhancing vulgarity which transcends all questions of tastefulness.
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