© Courtesy of the Artist's Estate/ The Bridgeman Art Library


John Bratby (1928 – 1992)


120.7 X 120.7 CM
Accession number


More or less in life size, this painting shows two art students and a jazz musician gathered in Elm Park Gardens, Fulham, in 1950s London. The painter Jean Cooke (1927-2008) stares rather intently in Bratby’s direction, two dots of red picking out her pupils. Behind her is a fellow Royal College of Art student, Marion Platt, his features flattened to push him further to the background, and, across the table, Brian Innes, former bandleader of the Temperance Seven. [1] His facial features are sketched out with the same oily clumps as his hair.

Bratby had married Cooke in 1953, and the next year, in the July or August after his RCA graduation, painted a series of table top still lifes at his father-in-law’s house in Greenwich, London. “I used the same table every time”, he remembered,

“The works were therefore contrived and artificially set up. So the work is not a direct painting of the table top just as the cook left it.”[2]

The pointedly everyday subject matter excited critics, who rounded him up with Derrick Greaves, Jack Smith, Jack Middleditch into a painterly gang variously referred to as the “the Kitchen Sink School”, “the New Realists”, “Social Realists”, or “the Cornflakes school”. They balked at the generalisation, as artists tend to. The year after this painting, Bratby published a strongly-worded letter in the Art News and Review [3] rejecting all but the label ‘Beaux Arts Quartet’, in recognition of the support they had received from the Beaux Arts Gallery: their link, through the owner, Helen Lessore, to an older tradition of grubbily realist British painting in Walter Sickert.

These critical labels were in some sense an echo of the brand labels that their work was beginning to include; on this table, Robin Gibson spots “medicines and chalk pills for ulcers” – which a period of overwork had inflicted on the artist, apparently, and a Kellogg’s packet. The thickness of paint Bratby has shaped into the milk bottle looks, up close, to actually be three-dimensional, with a droplet splashing on the surface of the liquid. John Russell went as far as to write that Bratby could make something as simple as packaging “look like the Rokeby Venus”,[4] referring to the Velázquez nude that passed through various private aristocratic collections before the National Gallery acquired it in 1906.[5] This is perhaps slightly over the top, but it is telling that Bratby has approached the cereal box with the same palette of colours as his wife’s face.

In the perspective of Art History, this kind of approach to popular culture became the trademark of the Pop Art that was shortly about to distract critical attention from Bratby and his contemporaries. The height of their fame would be the 1956 Venice Biennale, at which the British Council showed this work as part of the diplomatically-titled ‘Four British Painters’ show.[6] Though Bratby would later paint extensively in the city, he, like the other three, didn’t then have the resources to travel out to accompany his work.

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] Robin Gibson & John Bratby, John Bratby: Portraits [exh. cat.](London: National Portrait Gallery, 1991).
[2] Peter Davies, Bratby (Gwent: Old Bakehouse Publications, 2002), p.53
[3] John Bratby, ‘A Painter’s Credo’, Art News and Review, Vol. VII. No.6, 14th April 1956.
[4] John Russell, ‘Mr. Bratby’, The Sunday Times, 19th September 1954.
[5]The Times, 11th March 1914, pp.9-10.
[6] J. P. Hodin, ‘Four Young Painters’, in The British Pavilion: Exhibition of works by Ivon Hitchens, Lynn Chadwick et. Al. [exh. cat.] (London: British Council, 1956).