Irritants #1: John Bratby

Here’s fun! See if you can identify these famous people who sat for the painter John Bratby:

Starting with the easy one in the top left-hand corner and working across and down to the bottom right I’ve placed known and unknown subjects alternately, with the solutions to the known ones at the foot of the page. With the others your guess is as good as mine, and we’ll see in a moment why the artist might have chosen not to identify some of his subjects  — but why is this artist a particular irritant to me?

Well, for nearly ten  years I worked as an editor for John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, an old and rather quaint firm in the heart of posh Mayfair whose original claim to fame had been to publish the works of Lord Byron. The main room on the first floor was like a sort of shrine to Byron with a large oil painting of the poet on the wall , a marble bust of him over there, a glass case containing one of his shirts over here, and between them the very fireplace in which Byron’s scurrilous autobiography had been consigned to the flames, to the lasting shame of the later Murrays.  The firm had published other distinguished writers since Byron’s day, of course, and at some point had commissioned portraits of some of the living ones from John Bratby.

I had become aware of his work when I was at school and Bratby was featured in the new colour supplements as the founder of the ‘kitchen sink’ school of art with paintings like this one:

John Bratby: ‘Kitchen’ 1965

Kitchen sink realism was a movement in which artists used everyday objects like dustbins and beer bottles as subjects of their works, which are often thickly-laden portraits or paintings. It began in the early 1950s and has been considered an aspect of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement… Bratby often painted with bright colours, capturing his middle-class family’s daily lives. The faces of his subjects often appeared desperate and unsightly. Bratby painted several kitchen subjects, often turning practical utensils such as sieves and spoons into semi-abstract shapes. He also painted bathrooms, and made three paintings of toilets. [–this paragraph is adapted from the Wikipedia entry[

Time passed. Fashions in art changed as in everything else, and Bratby found that he was no longer the enfant terrible of the British scene. He needed new outlets and new ways of earning money, and hit upon the idea of painting people’s portraits — but he didn’t hang about waiting for commissions; he wrote to possible subjects telling them that he was preparing an exhibition of portraits of Notable Figures of Our Time (or something like that) and would they be willing to sit for him? No charge, and it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two. Many of them rose to the bait, a sitting would be arranged and a portrait speedily done, and when it was done Bratby shrewdly and correctly judged that many of the sitters would wish to buy the finished picture for themselves, and many of them did. I have read in several autobiographies how flattered the writer was to be selected for such an honour and how proud they subsequently were to have an original Bratby hanging in a place of honour over the fireplace. There is no limit to the vanity of some people, as Bratby knew very well judging by the very large number of self=portraits he painted.

How Bratby came to paint the Murray authors I don’t know, and the finished pictures weren’t allowed in the Byron room but hung on the walls of the stairwell. No.50 Albemarle Street is a tall, narrow building and the department I worked in was right at the top, so in the years that I was there I went up and down those stairs many, many times, and there they always were: Sir John Betjeman, Sir Kenneth Clarke, Dame Freya Stark, Jock Murray and several others. These paintings were executed in Bratby’s sketchiest, blobbiest manner, recognizeable only if you knew in advance what the subject looked like; if not, they could have been rorschach tests in which you might or might not discern some sort of pattern or likeness. I like to see some evidence of skill or technique in art, and I hated them.

Some years after I’d left to start my own company Murray’s was taken over by Hachette and now survives only as an imprint within that much larger international company. The house in Albemarle Street is still there, gifted  to the National Trust I think, with the Byron room opened up occasionally for launch parties. I wonder whether the Bratbys are still there on the stairs, but I never want to see them again.


Top row, left to right: Michael Caine, unnamed female celebrity, Ken Dodd, unnamed female celebrity

Middle row, left to right: Michael Palin, female celebrity [possibly Noele Gordon]. Richard Briers, unnamed male celebrity [Sean Connery? Jeremy Irons?]

Bottom row, left to right: P.D. James. unnamed male celebrity, The [late] Queen Mother at the races, portrait of an unnamed man [Francis Bacon?]

I’d guess btw that the reason why some of these portraits are unnamed is that they are of sitters who declined to buy their own portraits, and that Bratby certainly wasn’t going to give them any free publicity. He was a pugnatious character.