One of our earliest guests was the painter John Bratby who Nell had met as part of her studies at the Courtauld and commissioned to paint our portrait. We’d go down to sit for him at his Victorian mansion in Blackheath.
He was becoming a British institution. His books had been widely read since the publication of his ‘Breakdown’. His paintings had been selling for phenomenal prices. As a result of the pictures he painted for the film ‘The Horse’s Mouth’, his work had become familiar to a wide audience.
Despite all the ballyhoo, all the newsprint, gossip and embroidering, John Bratby had nevertheless remained something of a mystery, with the reputation of a hermit, a man a little apart from the world, a man to whom it’s harder than it might seem to gain access. This quality of mystery had increased since his acquisition of a mammoth neo-Tudor mansion in Blackheath. Here, in a succession of studios of which two were built into the framework of an old coach house and one was actually revolving, John Bratby lived with Jean and two children, almost a recluse, or so the story went.
When I called, the windows of the long, half-timbered house were unlighted, and I stepped up a little nervously to an embrasure which contained a massive door. An iron bell-pull hung to my right hand. I gave this a tug, and a bell could be heard jangling rather distantly. Then the door swung open. John Bratby the painter stood before me, a farouche, bearded figure in baggy trousers, plimsolls and an old filthy jersey.
Bratby was familiar from innumerable self-portraits, affected by radiation, seen with fireworks, rockets, trumpet, or smoking a pipe.
He showed me some of his most recent work, finishing with the ‘Effects of radiation’, men with bright bulb lights glaring at their melting eyes and putrescent faces, harsh screaming colours.
Since then, he told me, he has been painting the inside of the house, usually on canvasses up to twenty feet long which wound about the walls as there was a lack of spaces large enough for them.
He showed me various parts of the house he’d painted, the lavatory, the bathroom, with the bath rising like a green transparence from the blue and red checked floor, and the tool shed in which he’d painted radiation pictures. ‘There’s an emotional intensity in that room,’ he said.
There were pictures of film stars on the walls of his studio. ‘The Picture-Goer is our bible,’ said his wife Jean.
He showed me other earlier pictures that he’d done of another studio he’d had as a student, approached up a ladder from a landing at the Victoria and Albert museum. ‘It was an immensely long ladder,’ said Jean in a quiet whispered voice as if enunciating a mystery. ‘An earlier artist fell off once when he was climbing down. I never dared visit John there, I always had a visual picture of that crumpled figure down at the bottom.’
Nell tells me of her first sitting for John Bratby. It was very exhausting. After he had been working with great intensity all day she went round to look at how far he had got and found that he’d been working on a very detailed representation of her left foot.
Commenting on this, Bratby said ‘Some people would think I was daft but I thought to myself “She’s alright, she’s quite happy holding that kitten there, petting it, why not spend some time painting her left foot as it interests me?”’
Nell commented that she could understand what he meant because, when she was using a film camera, she couldn’t film people well unless she felt that every part of their body was shouting to her.
Of Nell, Bratby said to me ‘She’s what you might call the Alice in Wonderland type.’ To me he said ‘Your face is very dynamic. Someone said that to me the other day so I pass it on to you for what it’s worth. Yes, but it is you know. Sometimes I looked up and see that your eyes were great deep pools of reflection.’
To enter the Bratby house is to enter a place of great calm and peace. I stand by the window while a white dog manoevres outside to see me. It has got a crush on me and in order to see me through the window it climbs into the baby’s pram and then upsets it.
Bratby puts on endless records, Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Ethel Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and to the hard happy thumping of this music I stand being painted.
Outside in the garden is a tall rusty iron water tower. ‘Jean once dared one of her courters to climb it,’ said John. ‘But he didn’t. Lucky for him.’
‘Once I was lecturing at an art school in the country and I had some of my pictures there and I pointed out that to an artist’s eye even a Kellogs cornflakes carton is beautiful. Well, the woman who ran this place began looking at them then and she couldn’t see how they could be beautiful, and the more she looked the uglier she thought them so at length she covered them all up with brown paper.
‘One recent picture I did was of me holding a rocket in front of my crutch. Then I painted Jean naked in the background getting into bed, and I painted out the rocket, but my hand was still holding something. Then I realised that it looked as if my hand was fumbling for my penis.’
‘Look at those Monets. Well, I must say, Monet certainly did know how to use his paint,’ said John Bratby, pointing at a Seurat.
I didn’t at once appreciate that he was playing mock philistine. When I finally caught on I said, pointing at a Constable, ‘Yes, but not a patch on Bratby.’
‘Ah, I see you’re on the same plane as me at last.’
‘We’re on the same plane, well, where shall we go?’
Bratby’s conversational brilliance came to be much prized by us. On being introduced to Lady Diana Cooper, he said, ‘Are you the one that was once a great beauty?’
We lent him some fetishistic pornographic magazines and he later said, ‘You two have been educating me you know. All the muck has been brought up out of my subconscious!’
Talking of his ancestors he said, ‘No, no distinguished ones. Excepting my grandfather who went off his head through indulging himself.’
‘How did he indulge himself?’
‘In Picadilly, mainly. As a result of the disease he picked up there, both he and my father went off their rockers in their old age. It goes through two generations but, so they say, the third is alright, with luck. That’s me.’
‘I don’t entirely understand the effect that Jean and I have on people. Once we went to a hairdressers and they told us they didn’t do haircuts. Another time Jean and I were sitting outside a café and they told us to go back inside because we were disturbing the customers.
‘I always make a point of not tipping taxis. They ask me ‘Are you off your head?’
Nell and I were invited to dinner at Blackheath and we sat with Jean at a round wooden table at one side of the large kitchen. Bratby, who was slimming at the time, didn’t sit at the table. Instead he munched a margarine sandwich from a nearby easy chair, occasionally throwing comments into the conversation from a distance. I talked mainly with Jean, herself also an artist whose gentle self-portraits, so unlike John’s work, were at that time on show at the Establishment Gallery. Then, as she brewed a cup of tea for us, John Bratby began to speak of his early days and how hopeless he’d been at the normal subjects on the school curriculum.
‘The only thing I seemed to be any good at was art, and so I took art in my school certificate, and after that I went into the army as a conscript. I had a very distinguished career of nine weeks. The reason for this was, I was let into the army without a proper optical examination, and when they found that I’d an extreme degree of myopia they had to shove me out again. In addition to this, they had come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be much use in the army because I couldn’t put a machine gun together. But the beauty of this was, although I’d only been in nine weeks, I qualified for an ex-service grant, just the same as any other conscript, with the result that I was able to go to art school. The art school I chose was Kingston Art School, and I tried very hard there, but unfortunately I failed to pass the intermediate examination in arts and crafts. I’d become rather desperate at this point because I had lost my grant and the future was hopeless. So I went off privately and worked very hard for a year in my digs and at the end of that year I failed again despite frequent visions of Bruce’s spider. During this period I’d been taking various jobs to keep myself; in a toy factory, in a brewery, on a wharf at Kingston. At the end of my second year in digs I took my work to the Royal College of Art and showed it to the professor of painting. Although I hadn’t taken the official entrance examination, he was suitably impressed and thought that this chap had got potential. I was in.
‘During these years I’d been painting flowers, I’d been painting sunflowers, I’d been painting myself, I’d been painting the interior of my digs, I’d been painting the breakfast on the table, the window of my little room, and the girl in the room opposite. They were all small paintings and quite spontaneous. As well as these I’d already given vent to my liking for large pictures, and I’d painted murals over the entire walls of my little room. These murals were of huge linear native figures and the crucifixion. Already, it seems to me, these paintings all had a certain quality, that personal quality that all my art has, the well-known Bratby sign. Anyway, I arrived at college very pleased at the thought of at last being able to make an artist of myself, and I did a great deal of painting there, and became a sort of character. My friends regarded me with a little of a lame duck attitude. They thought of me as a semi enfant terrible sort of type.
‘I indulged in various wild behaviours such as spending the night in the mural school, in a triangular screen – which wasn’t done – other things which gave me a name for wild behaviour were things like leaving a frying pan filled with ancient fat in a cupboard in the mural school, and cooking rabbit or bacon and eggs in the mural school at mid morning, or snoring in the mural school as I lay on some sacks while everyone was distractedly trying to work.
‘The usual timetable for students at the Royal College of Art made them paint the nude model, so really most of the work of the students revolved round the throne and the nude life model on it. But being a very complex individual at the time, I was scared stiff of the life model, and while I was at the Royal College of Art for three years I never painted the life model, I just ran away from the very disturbing nude female figure that was to be found in many of the Royal College rooms. I ran to the mural school where people were painting murals. Here I found the atmosphere not so distracting, and I did paintings there.
‘There were already things about my painting which people regarded as eccentric. It was the result of a sort of wild excitement at being in the College, I began to paint very thick, a habit which has remained with me ever since. I don’t know why I’ve always done this, except that it seems to be the natural result of vigour and energy in a painter. When one has vigour and energy, and one’s painting in that sort of way, it seems natural that the paint should be used thickly. But already I was needing to use more paint and more hardboard to paint on than I could afford, and so I sent an application to the professor for more materials. I was given a special allotment of oil paint, more than other students, and more twelve by four sheets of hardboard. I was able to paint as much and as thick as I liked.
‘I had a reasonable grant, but I spent it all on cigars, paint and self indulgence, so my wife and I lived in poverty. She used to get our vegetables in the gutters of the North End Road market after the market was over. She washed them, so we stayed healthy.
‘My first exhibition was in 1954, there were twenty paintings, ranging from three foot by four foot to one foot square in size, selling for up to £60 each. Most of them sold. The best subjects were crowded table tops with a cornflakes packet as the central motif, masses of domestic articles all crowded over the table, scissors, ketchup bottles, cereal packets, dishes, and so on and so forth, with the dog in the background, a couple of versions of the same dog underneath the table. I found the design and shape of the cornflakes packet with a bit sticking out on top a rather beautiful thing. But in addition to this, I used to steal objects from all over my wife’s father’s house with which I littered the tables. My father-in-law could never find his pot of jam, he could never find his dishes, and at one time he couldn’t find his lavatory paper roll.
‘After this exhibition I went on three scholarships out to Sicily. I did a series of seascapes, which inspired me a great deal. I painted close to the sea, the sea coming over the sand, a rough sea against rocks, and when the great storm occurred in Sicily, the worst one they ever had, and I was there at the time, I painted during and just after that storm, the sea discoloured with the yellow sand, so that it was a yellow ochre colour. Later we went to live in Italy, and I did some pictures of Anticoli, a little village outside Rome, not far from where Gina Lollobrigida was born.
‘My second successful exhibition came in the autumn of 1957. This was the time of my long paintings. There were about sixteen of them, and almost all were of the same shape and size, twelve feet by four feet. These were mainly interiors, and I called them by the name of Squashed Out Rooms. They were pictures of various rooms in the Greenwich house where I was living, but in which all four walls were presented in a long extending strip. The reason I did this was that it seemed false to me to paint just one view of the room, which is the way rooms have usually been painted, I wanted to paint what I saw in the room, which was all four walls, the windows and the door all at once, which I think is the way in which most people are conscious of a room when they are in it. So I put all aspects together on one long piece of hardboard, and the result I thought was convincing and not artificial.
‘I don’t plan out my paintings in advance or know what’s going to be in every position of them before I start. I don’t paint a painting or write a book in that sort of way. A preconceived plan I find inhibiting and limiting, so I just go ahead with the work of art, a literary one or a painterly one, and the painting or book grows out of itself as it were, the first part suggests the second, and the second suggests the third. I can’t work to a preconceived plan, it really does inhibit me.
‘At the end of 1957 it was decided to make a film of Mr Joyce Cary’s book “The Horse’s Mouth” and Kenneth Clarke suggested to the producers that I might be a good man to do the pictures which purport to be painted by the book’s hero, Gully Jimson. Now Gully Jimson, the hero of that book, always painted very big, and it’s a strange coincidence that just at a time when the offer of this work came up there was a sort of cry inside me to paint big paintings. I had already painted one of immense size, a crowd of friends, which won the Guggenheim Prize and I had painted this series of squashed out rooms, which were big paintings. At the time my desire was to paint more big paintings, bigger paintings, and then came this film with the chance to paint altogether twenty-two huge paintings. These took me from the end of 1957 to the middle of 1958 to paint. Well, these are some of the paintings; “Adam and Eve”, six foot by eight; “The Raising of Lazarus”, nine feet by sixteen feet; “The Last Judgement”, thirty-six feet by twenty-four feet.
‘I put an order through the production manager for a whole list of paints. He didn’t query it, and the paints were bought and delivered, masses and masses of them, then the production manager nearly had a heart failure when he saw the bill, which was for £300.
‘After finishing those pictures, and they were all shown in a huge exhibition in New York, I did some more big ones, and in about October 1958, I dried up. I felt that I’d absolutely explored big paintings, and expressed myself on this scale completely. It’s not surprising, because I’d done so many by then. And then came a month when I couldn’t do any more painting. I was at a loose end, and for the first time for years I seemed to have exhausted my energy as a painter.
‘I looked around for something else to do, and I wrote a book. This took me one month. I’ve always been distrustful of the inspiration idea in art, I’ve always regarded this as a pretty hopeless way of working, but I was writing this book, I did ten pages a day steadily for ten weeks, working seven days a week.’
‘Sometimes when I’m writing, I feel writing is more important to me than painting. I’ve done more painting than writing in my life, and I’m known as a painter more than a writer, I suppose, but what little writing I’ve done I’m still tremendously caught up in it, and I take it very seriously.’
‘Next I painted the Sunflower series of paintings, which sold very well. I’d just got this new house, you see, in the summer of that year, in May, and I decided to paint smaller paintings at that point. I had another exhibition in 1961, in February, which was of some Victorian self-portraits, some more sunflowers, some tall pictures of a model called Gloria, and some bits and pieces of one kind and another, and some very large drawings of Gloria that I’d done, one called “Waterloo Station”, and another one called “The Thinker”.
‘My father-in-law died, unfortunately, just before that, and I acquired some of his clothes, the top hat and a yeomanry scarf, and a waistcoat and a few things like that, and I painted myself in these clothes.
‘Then I had another exhibition of some pictures of melons and some more self portraits. And then I had a show which was of animals, I wasn’t disguising the fact that the animals were pieces of taxidermy. I wasn’t trying to pretend that I’d painted in the Zoo or in the jungle or anything, but I was just painting studies of the static forms of these animals, but somehow the critics and the public thought of the spurious nature of taxidermy, and somehow they thought that my pictures were spurious, they didn’t think that taxidermy was a fit subject for a painter to paint. Which was very unfortunate for me, because I think the censure, d’you see, was unjustified.
‘Having a bit of money at last means I’ve got freedom. If you want freedom these days you don’t really just go on the road and become a tramp, it’s not the way to find true freedom, you’ve got to have some money to buy your independence. Without money you’ve got to earn money and then you become a slave to some boss in some sort of way or another. But with a bit of money, you know, you’ve got the best sort of freedom and independence you can find I think.
‘This is the first requirement really of a creative person if that person is going to function properly. And this is what a lot of artists don’t realise, the poor nits. They despise money, they think that it’s the right thing to do. But if an artist’s going to function absolutely properly and continuously in this society he’s got to have money.
‘This mansion, this beautiful, rambling mansion is one of the best things that money has bought me. I knew from teenage that there’s one thing I really needed was a house of my own.
‘I live an hermetic existence, and I know that I need to live that way if I’m going to create at maximum pressure, you know. I work obsessively, absolutely every day, and I work for a great many hours during each day. In the summer of 1960 and the beginning of the autumn and the spring of that year I worked virtually every day, nine till five, with a model, painting her. I painted sixteen paintings of the same dimensions and the same subject, of this girl for instance. But now I’ve decided on a course of exercise to counteract my otherwise sedentary existence. I play squash at the local tennis club.
‘I’m very contented here. There is only one thing more that I’d love to have, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter how much money you might have, you can’t buy this at any rate immediately if you haven’t got it. What I’d like is a front garden and a back garden loaded with magnolias and magnolia trees and camellia bushes. I’ve just bought myself a ten foot magnolia sapling and three camellia bushes but these are going to take a long time before they reach maturity. One day they’ll be very beautiful. In the very early spring you don’t see all that many flowers, and I think it’s admitted the magnolia tree is perhaps the most magnificent tree in England anyway. It’s a tree covered with blooms, each of which is as fine as a tulip bloom. I think it’s a fabulous thing. That’s what I’d like to see in my garden one day.’
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