Fame is a slippery business. I thought about this when I went to see the exhibition of Bratby works at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. Until the publicity surrounding this show I must admit I had never heard of him. Nothing necessarily unusual in that; there are many artists whose names will be unfamiliar to me. But Bratby, I learnt, had been a star; his was the name which the man in the street would have given back in 1965 if asked to think of a contemporary artist: the Damien Hirst of his time.
Bratby died in 1992 at the relatively young age of 66. He spent the final years of his life in Hastings; yet in four years of art education, two of which were at Sussex Coast College, less than a mile from where he lived and died, I cannot recollect his being mentioned once. As it was possible I had not been paying attention, I conducted a straw poll to find who on my contact list was familiar with him. Of the dozen replies – only two people had heard of him before the exhibition, in one case because friends’ parents had owned two of his works. There were no ‘yes’ responses from anybody under 65; all the people I asked were interested in art and half of them were artists.
The downward trajectory of Bratby’s career must have been hard for him. Born in 1928, he first studied at Kingston School of Art but then turned down a scholarship at the Slade and went instead for post graduate studies to the Royal School of Art. He had the apparent good fortune to be an instant success on leaving; a larger than life character, he attracted critical attention from the start. His personality somehow seemed to reflect what journalists and the public thought an artist should be like; he was reported to have slept in the attics at the Royal School of Art, only being discovered by the smell of his portable cooking stove.
At the age of 26 he had a solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery; he gained a series of Guggenheim awards, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1954 and was elected an associate in 1959 at 31. It was a good year for him. He was the founder of the so called kitchen sink movement, a form of realism, supposedly unromantic but actually romanticising ordinary domestic life. He and fellow painters were chosen to represent Great Britain at the 1959 Venice Biennale.
Though not of the first order, some of the early paintings have have a real charm. They create what it turns out is a false feeling of intimacy. The apparently revealing pictures of the interior of his home, his wife Jean looking a little fed up, the packet of cornflakes, the Daz that seems to have just been forgotten were in fact artfully arranged rather than a chance composition. You can understand why the public felt they got to know him and believed that he provided a window into his life.
Bratby was chosen to paint the pictures in the 1958 film the Horses Mouth in which Alex Guinness played an artist Gulley Jimson. This helped propel Bratby to fame but it did not necessarily benefit his art. The thick impasto of his paintings became even thicker. He began playing up to being an artist. And then in the mid 1960s, the attention suddenly started falling away; he felt that he was dropped; kitchen sink art gave way to pop art. The fame evaporated. It is significant that the Jerwood put together this exhibition not through borrowing paintings from other museums and galleries but through a public call. They were offered some 300 paintings and chose 66.
Assuming that the Jerwood chose the best, it appears more than likely that reason that Bratby failed to maintain his early success was not just the result of a change in fashion. but arose from his strategy to maximise his income. He took the view that it was better to sell ten paintings for a moderate price than one expensive one. As he was remarkably prolific, this indeed provided him with an income which enabled him to buy a house in Blackheath. But ‘the pile ’em high sell ’em cheap’ philosophy works better for tins of beans, or indeed airline tickets, than for art. Inevitably with such quantities it would have been difficult to maintain standards. The Jerwood has assembled a remarkable collection but some of them,particularly the smaller celebrity portraits, look as though they were knocked off in an afternoon; his later works appear to be a pastiche of himself, in that they are imitating and exaggerating what has worked before rather than the genuinely exploring or developing. His ego, which was always large, clearly grew enormous, witnessed by the painting of Sir Richard Attenborough and his wife, in which he included himself not just once but three times. Neither of his subjects looked entirely comfortable with it.
Among the works there are nevertheless some striking paintings. He was good at capturing expressions. I particularly liked his portrait of Anne Butler; whom he painted, though he preferred brunettes, because she could sit still, hence the title, They taught me immobility in Madras.
In the painting Juxstaposition of images, the viewer has the chance to see the imagination which Bratby brought into this group portrait: there is the unexpected image of a leopard and a gladiator, and the skill by which he captured the expressions and disapproval of those around them.
The Jerwood may not have succeeded in giving back to Bratby the prominence that he had in his early years and no doubt, felt he deserved. But the exhibition is enjoyable and undoubtedly worth a visit; at least it will ensure that the current cohort of students studying art in Hastings will have heard of him.
John Bratby Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink is running at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings until 17 April.