John Bratby British, 1928-1992
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.
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.
It was during these college years that the Bratby myth began to coalesce. 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.
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.
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 (c.1956) 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.