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Diane in Sun Hat, John Bratby (date unknown) ©The Artist’s Estate(1)

Diane in Sun Hat, John Bratby (date unknown) ©The Artist’s Estate(1)

John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Last year there was a call to arms from the Jerwood. “Bring us your Bratbys.” And they did – in droves. On 19 October 2015 there was a bizarre sight as a stream of visitors crossed the road bearing large rectangular treasures. The result is a retrospective of John Bratby’s work: Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went to see what had made the final cut –400 submissions whittled down to 66.

Still Life, John Bratby ©The Artist’s Estate

Still Life, John Bratby ©The Artist’s Estate

Bratby was a prolific painter. In the fifties he was a celebrity painter, until his star lost its lustre due to the rise of Abstraction and then Pop Art. He also somewhat devalued his own currency through the sheer number of paintings he produced. He was known as part of the ‘Kitchen Sink School’ of painters – a phrase coined by art critic David Sylvester in the fifties about a group of artists that portrayed domestic spaces and objects. However, Bratby maintained that he painted many bathroom sinks and loos, but never a kitchen sink.

Jean with Dog

Jean with Dog

The exhibition takes up the entire ground floor. Though Bratby is reputed to have painted over 3,000 paintings, there are few in public galleries, and this is the first opportunity of seeing so many together. The works are separated into different categories: paintings from the fifties kitchen sink period, his studio in north London, celebrities, family and self-portraits. Then there is an archive room, which contains his paint-spattered easel, painted desk and sideboard, a mannequin of his wife wearing the red raincoat that can be seen in several paintings. There are also letters and notebooks, and photographs of his family, as well as of people like the young Brigitte Bardot and Sir Winston Churchill.

Moving through the different genres, it is interesting seeing his subject matter. Domestic still lives with well-known cornflake brands, his wives, his children, the pets – a fluffy, pet angora rabbit, a stuffed lion, looking as if it still has a roar in him; a fighting cock beadily advancing out of the picture. Then there are landscapes and the sunflowers. A Van Gogh admirer, Bratby painted many sunflower paintings, reputedly grown from a seed of the same variety as Van Gogh’s flowers. And there are nudes, a fine reflective reclining Nude is a wonderful painting – apparently a favourite of Lucien Freud’s.

Three lambrettas and Two Portaits

Three Lambrettas and Two Portaits of Jean

Some of the canvases are huge and powerful. In Three Lambrettas and Two Portaits of Jean, his first wife, Jean Cooke, looks morosely into the middle distance alongside some bikes – although it says it was in his north London studio, according to his eldest son David, these were in his grandfather’s father’s house, and grandfather was not best pleased with the invasion of the motor-bikes. The paint is so globular in parts it is 3D; Jena’s nose protrudes out of the painting; the ‘L’ on the back of a motor bike looks stuck on. He painted a similar work of Four Lambrettas with Three Portraits of Janet Churcham, which featured on the album cover for Mark Knopfler’s Kill to Get Crimson.

Characteristic are dark paintings, confident strokes; however, many of the paintings, particularly of his family, are gloomy. There is a portrait of his wife staring unfocused with soulful eyes; a sad, large canvas with a gallery of characters standing as if in judgement of Bratby’s children and wife, the family looking slightly cowed, stooped shoulders, inhibited.

Tools, John Bratby (c. 1965) ©The Artist’s Estate

Tools, John Bratby (c. 1965) ©The Artist’s Estate

So when he breaks into colour, light, joyfulness, it is a surprise. The sunflowers, a quiet landscape. A picture of Diane in Sun Hat, colourful, enjoying the sun. Somehow it is not a surprise to learn that Bratby is having an affair with her which split up his marriage. However, that did not last and he later married Patti Prince whom he met through a lonely hearts column. One picture I did particularly like was of some tools – colourful, inviting, jostling for position, wanting to be used by someone who clearly appreciated handling them.

For me some of the celebrity portraits are the least successful. There are images of  a young Paul McCartney, Arthur Askey, oddly  surrounded by nasturtiums, Michael Palin, Tom Bell, Lord and Lady Attenborough. When a bit hard-up for money he wrote to some celebrities and politicians inviting them to sit for him, presumably with the proviso that they would buy the resulting portrait. However, the florid nature of the letters appeared to have the opposite effect. Neil Kinnock turned him down and Ian Mikardo was certainly not impressed, writing “the second paragraph of your letter is a monumental piece of flatulent Neanderthal nonsense.”

Self Portrait with Yellow Sowwester in Slight Rain with Piercing Blue Eyes

Self Portrait with Yellow Sowwester in Slight Rain with Piercing Blue Eyes

The exhibition is extraordinary and I think has even taken the gallery and his gallerist by surprise through the sheer numbers of submissions. It might even go some way to rehabilitating Bratby’s reputation.

Bratby was a local. He lived for over a decade in Hastings. He died in 1992 on his way back from the chippie. Many locals remember him and his exploits well. They have many stories they could tell. And with this exhibition I’m sure they will be.

 

 

John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink is on until 17 April at the Jerwood Gallery, Rock-A-Nore Rd, Hastings TN34 3DW. Opening times: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm, bank holiday Mondays, 11am-5pm.

 

 

Posted 11:03 Wednesday, Feb 3, 2016 In: Visual Arts

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