Once a Fashionable Monster

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, August 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

Once a Fashionable Monster


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


THE GRETA BRATBY by Maurice Yawcowar Middlesex University Press, £30, pp. 282, ISBN 9781904750260 £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Maurice Yacowar, Emeritus Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Calgary, begins his 'portrait' thus: 'John Bratby was an overachiever who fell short of his potential.' Rather like this book really. Instead of a balanced assessment of one of the most interesting postwar figures in the British art world, we are offered a lurid account of Bratby's private life and loves in the sort of shameless exposé of which their hero would quite possibly have approved. But it's a very different thing for an artist to leak his own scandal to the papers in order to boost sales from a foreign academic's coming along and reheating it all. This book simply promotes the Bratby myth without attempting to explain it. Odd moments of perception aside, it's an essentially voyeuristic enterprise that many will find overwhelmingly depressing.

John Bratby (1928-92) was a monster who possessed great talent. I knew him quite well over the last decade of his life and even contemplated writing a book about him before I learnt enough to put me off. He came to prominence in the mid-1950s as the leading light of the Kitchen Sink School, a group of radical realist painters derisively named by David Sylvester. His crammed tabletops with chip friers and cornflakes packets won considerable acclaim (John Russell in the Sunday Times compared him favourably with Velázquez), and for a brief halfdozen years Bratby was fêted. A compulsive worker, he wrote and illustrated novels when he wasn't painting and managed to get four published before he was dumped by fashion. He set about fighting back, by keeping in the public eye and painting prolifically. He drove dealers to distraction by demanding ever more frequent shows and better remuneration, eventually withdrawing from the London scene and organising a Bratby roadshow that toured the country to sustained commercial success. He spent the rest of his life devising strategies to make money -- his endless series of portraits supposedly of people of distinction was just one of the best-known schemes -- and working frenetically. He once told me he'd just finished 51 paintings of sunflowers in 17 days.

Professor Yacowar lists Bratby's characteristics: 'He was violent, alcoholic, completely self-absorbed ... pathologically shy ... combined pornographer and prig.' The book then goes on to illustrate these qualities at tedious length. Bratby's own writing style was prolix and pompous, much given to neologisms and archness. …

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