Beaux Arts, London
Granada Television Collection
London, Beaux Arts, John Bratby, 5 February - 26 March 1959, cat no.4
London, National Portrait Gallery, John Bratby: Portraits, 8 March - 27 May 1991, cat no.10, illus colour
John Bratby achieved success early on in his career, after graduating from the Royal College alongside Peter Blake in 1954. Included in the Venice Biennale in 1956, he won a succession of prizes including the Daily Express Young Artist Award in 1955, John Moores, Junior Category in 1957 and the international Peggy Guggenheim Award jointly with Ben Nicholson in 1958. All of this public commendation helped make Bratby, a household name, helped further when he created the paintings for the film Horse’s Mouth in 1958. Bratby’s domestic subject matter was very much part of the zeitgeist, emerging at the same time as a grittier social realism in television, theatre, literature and films in works such as Look Back in Anger, 1956, Room at the Top, 1957and A Taste of Honey, 1958.
The most prominent of the so called ‘Kitchen Sink’ artists - who also included Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, Jack Smith and Peter Coker - the name was in fact a rather derisory term coined by critic David Sylvester to describe these artists’ humble subject matter. In fact they were a loose group, who were for a short while exhibiting together at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London. Typically, Bratby seems to have revelled in this new label by making several paintings of toilets.
Bratby’s large-scale paintings such as Four Lambrettas were painted mainly between 1956 and early 1959, although he returned to them occasionally after this period. There were several factors which contributed to this shift of scale, not least of which was Bratby’s exuberant self-confidence and ambition at this time. The script for the Horse’s Mouth, (starring Alec Guinness as the misunderstood painter), required Bratby to paint mural sized images, and his fast style of painting and prolific output could easily provide them. These works must also be considered as part of a broad international trend at this time, led by artists in the United States. Many British artists, took a similar path following contact with New York galleries and influential exhibitions such as The New American Painting held at the Tate Gallery in Spring 1959.
Known for his portraits of his two wives and girlfriend, Janet Churchman was in fact not a lover but an art student and regular model, depicted here at Bratby's Dartmouth Row studio. In the painting she appears three times over, in each pose her expression and clothing suggesting a different aspect of her character. These multiple appearances are characteristic of Bratby’s work, the artist himself (or parts of him) sometimes appearing, at two sides of the same canvas. This strategy creates a more complex psychological portrait of both artist and sitter, and their relationship becomes part of the subject of the painting. Just as Bratby describes his own home and domestic life, the painting foregrounds its own making and consequently, time passing.
Bratby had a great talent for drawing, and all of his paintings have an underlying graphic structure. Here, strong linear patterns are carefully balanced by more painterly impulses. In some areas paint is built up very thickly - parts of the face and skirts protrude from the surface to literally describe their volume, an approach more akin to sculpture than traditional methods of painting. This play in the painting between illusionistic pictorial space and the physical quality of the paint itself, is comparable the methods of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, although their paintings have very different ends. In Four Lambrettas Bratby’s use of paint is energetic and playful, an exuberant bending of painterly rules for his own ends, rather than a search for an authentic likeness or language.
The strong vertical lines of the three figures which touch the canvas almost edge to edge, and the pronounced vertical lines of the floorboards, help balance Four Lambretta’s wide horizontal proportions, as does Bratby’s palette of colours, red in particular appears throughout the composition, bringing together the many disparate and detailed elements. The strongly receding perspective of floorboards and small window at the end, bear a marked resemblance to Van Gogh’s Bedroom, 1888, a famous work by Bratby’s life-long hero. Janet’s rather doll-like face also suggest the Austrian Expressionists Oskar Kokoshka and Egon Schiele who Bratby greatly admired. However, the period detail of this painting -the iconic Vespa scooters, contemporary clothes and ubiquitous television set - root it firmly in late 1950s Britain. Like his earlier paintings of Cornflake packets on breakfast tables, this work prefigures the British Pop artists who emerged only a few years later from the same art college.