As a student at London’s Royal College of Art for three years from 1951 to 1954, John Bratby had access to remarkable teachers such as Carel Weight, Rodrigo Moynihan, Ruskin Spear and John Minton, but he rebelled against the school’s reverence for the muted palette of British painter Walter Sickert. Even as a student, Bratby had already developed his own method of applying thick skeins of paint in high-keyed colours with an expressionistic enthusiasm that revealed his indebtedness to Van Gogh, providing a colour shock that he recalled was ‘an absolute anathema at the Royal College at the time’.1John Bratby, quoted in Maurice Yacowar, The Great Bratby. A Portrait of John Bratby R. A., Middlesex University Press, London, 2008, pp. 19–20. The dramatic scale and brilliant coloration of Bratby’s work during his Royal College years put him at odds with both teachers and fellow pupils:
It was to do with the aftermath of the war, and the climate of the aftermath of the war. People got used to austerity — the opposite of extravagance. Colour of khaki, restricted foods, ration cards, all contributed to the zeitgeist … The scale was important. This was all an obsession. Paintings had to be large. It was one of those strange things that happened. A reaction against the small picture.2Yacowar, p. 20.
The enormous scale of Bratby’s paintings was counterbalanced by their close narrative focus – foodstuffs piled on the kitchen bench or, more prosaically, his wooden-seated toilet. This sort of subject matter caused him to be linked with fellow artists Edward Middleditch, Derrick Greaves and Jack Smith, whom the art critic David Sylvester dubbed Kitchen Sink painters. Looking back on Bratby’s work in 1961, art writer Alan Clutton-Brock observed:
We have been constantly able to observe life with the Bratbys, almost the only subject he cares to paint. It has continued year after year, like a serial story which is all middle and no beginning or end, or like catching glimpses of what the next-door neighbours, at once familiar and enigmatic, are doing over the garden wall. Not the slightest attempt is made to arrange things for our inspection; nothing is put away tidily but everything and everybody is always all over the place.3 Alan Clutton-Brock, Painters of Today. John Bratby A. R. A., Studio Books, London, 1961, p. 12.
A preoccupation with gritty domestic subject matter also led to artists like Bratby being dubbed Social Realists. At the time, however, Bratby stated that his art should be depoliticised by considering it under the aegis of New Realism, although the Times disagreed vehemently, writing of the paintings of Bratby and like-minded artists Smith, Greaves and Middleditch:
There is a recurrent emphasis in their work on the shoddy character of domestic life as most of us in this country are compelled to live it, and their pictures are redolent of the variety of functions now inappropriately performed in the kitchens of those who are lucky enough to have one. According to Mr Bratby, they simply paint their environment, with no social criticism; but their environment being what it is, the mere choice of the subject matter contains a germ of protest.4 ‘Degrees of realism in painting’, The Times, 17 Jul. 1956, p. 5.
Conversely, although not surprisingly, for a Marxist critic concerned by ‘the disastrous relation between art and property’, John Berger attacked the abundance of objects in Bratby’s paintings on suspicion of wanton consumerism in a now perhaps too-prosperous post-war Britain, feeling that ‘his girls are drawn like fashion plates and his scooters like advertisements in a trade paper’.5John Berger, Permanent Red. Essays in Seeing, Writers and Readers, London, 1979, pp. 9, 82.
Shortly after the National Gallery of Victoria’s acquisition of Three self-portraits, 1957, curator Brian Finemore argued that Bratby’s
detailing of everyday life, the packet of breakfast food, the studio litter, the stiff-backed chair, and the ugly record-player, have misled those critics who count him as a realist. His art is expressionist, and therefore inevitably romantic. Expressionism makes the work of art an emotionally charged symbol for the artist’s subjective feelings … Thus, with ruthless distortion of perspective, arbitrary tone and vibrant strokes and swirls of paint, Bratby forces us to look anew at the commonplace.6Brian Finemore, ‘John Bratby: Three self-portraits’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 1, 1959, p. 25.
This accords with Bratby’s own recollections concerning the creation of Three self-portraits, which was painted at the same time as Three self-portraits with a white wall, 1957 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), a similarly sized work depicting the artist reflected in three vertical mirrors. The NGV’s painting was ‘a sister to it & coeval’, the artist stated:
My first wife [Jean E. Cooke] had an old wardrobe with glass in it & I tore off the door, & painted myself in it, doing this 3 times, same door, 3 different images. It was painted in the long room of 42 Dartmouth Row, Blackheath, London SE3. I remember I searched for truth, not a flattering image.7John Bratby, letter to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, 1987, artist file, National Gallery of Victoria.
Bratby and Cooke were sharing Cooke’s father’s house at this time, an arrangement that was not without its tensions. The record player at the bottom right of Three self-portraits brings physical noise to the visual cacophony of Bratby’s obsessively busy composition, which creates a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect through multiple reflections and ambitious spatial recessions and obtrusions. This hints at discord in the Cooke-Bratby household, where Bratby’s behaviour at this time was characterised by self-centredness, selfishness and lack of consideration for his wife and father-in-law.8For Bratby’s inappropriate behaviour in this ménage, see Yacowar, pp. 22–6.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
John Bratby, quoted in Maurice Yacowar, The Great Bratby. A Portrait of John Bratby R. A., Middlesex University Press, London, 2008, pp. 19–20.
Yacowar, p. 20.
Alan Clutton-Brock, Painters of Today. John Bratby A. R. A., Studio Books, London, 1961, p. 12.
‘Degrees of realism in painting’, The Times, 17 Jul. 1956, p. 5.
John Berger, Permanent Red. Essays in Seeing, Writers and Readers, London, 1979, pp. 9, 82.
Brian Finemore, ‘John Bratby: Three self-portraits’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 1, 1959, p. 25.
John Bratby, letter to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, 1987, artist file, National Gallery of Victoria.
For Bratby’s inappropriate behaviour in this ménage, see Yacowar, pp. 22–6.