An angry artist's 'gorilla within'; The victims in John Bratby's life included the painter himself
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 September 2008)

In 1958, Alec Guinness suggested, scripted and starred in a film version of The Horse's Mouth, by Joyce Cary, a much-admired novelist. Guinness played Gulley Jimson, a painter of grand ambitions and total irresponsibility, an appalling but somehow lovable caricature of artistic bohemia in mid-century London.

Gulley lives in a broken-down houseboat on the Thames, stays alive by pawning objects that he may or may not own and goes to jail briefly for harassing a patron. When he's released, he convinces a wealthy couple to let him paint a mural in their penthouse while they're on a six-week holiday. When they return, they discover Gulley has pretty well destroyed their dwelling, but always in the interests of art.

The gigantic pictures attributed in the movie to Gulley were painted by John Bratby (1928-1992), a spectacular tabloid star of the era, both the most famous and the most notorious artist in England. He made messy, chaotic paintings while living a messy, chaotic life. When Guinness met him, he realized that he was dealing with Gulley's living embodiment. Naturally, he incorporated Bratby's antisocial manner in his performance.

For six years or so, Bratby's crude, obvious, slapped-together canvasses were popular. It was the era of the Angry Young Men, and Bratby was considered their equivalent in the visual arts. He was a leftist, like most of the Angries, but in a 1961 interview he announced that acquiring some property and money had made him a Tory. His children went to expensive schools. In 1965, he told another interviewer, "the proletariat are twits. They're non-cultural and dominant; what could be more horrible?"

He also wrote autobiographical novels, which enjoyed some success. The best-known, Breakdown (1960), concerns a falling-to-pieces artist, much like Bratby, named James Brady, who paints brutal, realistic pictures and tries to release his "gorilla within." Bratby claimed he was surprised that readers considered it autobiographical.

In his days of success as a young sensation, he was praised by the two best art critics of the time, John Berger and David Sylvester. But fame vanished as quickly as it had arrived. In recent years, a few collectors have rediscovered him and his paintings now bring respectable, if not sensational, prices at auction. But for decades the art establishment gave every sign of wanting to forget him.

Fortunately, for biographical purposes, Bratby left behind a rich, thick, highly gossipy archive, which has now been adroitly mined by Maurice Yacowar, emeritus professor of English from the University of Calgary, in The Great Bratby (Middlesex University Press). An earlier would-be biographer, Andrew Lambirth, set out to write Bratby's life but gave up because he found Bratby such "a deeply unpleasant person." Lambirth decided, "I didn't want to know any more."

Obviously, Yacowar is made of sterner stuff. He must have been delighted to discover that Bratby was a dedicated diarist. The diary describes in detail the progress of his career, his rage when his work failed, his many publicity stunts and such personal details as his obsessive masturbation. Yacowar admires many of the paintings, prints some of Bratby's lamentable poetry, discovers in the autobiographical novels a considerable comic charm (but "lost to self indulgence") and decides that Bratby's "candour wins a begrudging respect" and his self-destructive energy a certain sympathy. "The monster was human."

Middlesex University Press has given The Great Bratby a superb production, with dozens of reproductions. Curiously, Bratby looks better to me in this context than he ever did in an art gallery. Was he one of those rare artists whose reproductions are improvements on the originals?

Reproductions slightly tone down the ugliest col-ours and encourage us to ignore the clumsy brushwork. Yacowar's book will certainly improve Bratby's reputation as an artist.

He was an expressionist who painted in a vigorous, offhanded style, a familiar manner elsewhere in Europe but something of a novelty in England. He applied paint straight from the tube (he called it tubism), then spread it with a palette knife. He seems to have had no ability to distinguish between a good Bratby and a bad one.

His subjects were what everyone noticed first: He was called a Kitchen Sink painter because he so often painted domestic life, from kitchen tables crammed with cereal boxes to toilets. He painted an absolutely authentic old-fashioned British horror of a water closet, with the gigantic water tank hanging from the ceiling and the enormous chain.

He liked the look of his contributions to The Horse's Mouth. "It certainly had an enormous influence on my work afterwards. Instead of painting thickly, I thereafter painted tremendously thickly." Bratby in his studio copied the Bratby in the film. It was like a loop of influence. By admiring himself he became more like himself.

Yacowar summarizes his private life: "He was violent, alcoholic, completely self-absorbed -- yet he commanded several people's love." He beat both of his wives and condemned them viciously in his diaries.

The first, Jean Cooke, a talented painter and a fellow student at the Royal College of Art, complained during their divorce proceedings (after two decades of marriage) that he tried to strangle her when she was pregnant with one of his children and that on another occasion he kicked her, causing her to miscarry. He threatened to kill her father and her sister if she didn't do what he wanted. Even so, when he left her and lived for a while with another painter, Diane Hills, she asked him to come back, though he didn't.

His second wife, Patti Prime, a Canadian actress who attended Bishop Strachan School in Toronto and the University of Toronto, must have felt like a character stumbling into the final act of a melodrama. She found herself attached to a man who was so jealous he hated her being out of his sight. Of the first Bratby family she reported: "Jean wanted kids and John did not. John didn't like them and they didn't like him. But he tried."

We encounter several times the notion that this selfish, repellent personality was, after all, doing the best he could, given his character. The dedication of Yacowar's book is highly unusual but apt. He cites the two wives, Bratby's sister, the children -- "and John," who suffered even as he made others suffer. All this goes under a heading, "To the victims."

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