How Bratby painted my portrait
||Doc. No. 1983.018
Early in May 1980 I received a telephone call from John
Bratby RA. To my embarrassment he said he was doing a series of paintings of British
heroes and would like to include me. This was in reference to my initiative
in bringing a private prosecution against Peter Hain for disrupting South
African sporting tours in England, which impressed him greatly. I agreed
to a sitting. This took place on 24 May 1980 at Bratby’s house in
Hastings, called ‘Cupola and Tower of the Winds’. The sitting
started at noon and went on for about four hours. Bratby engaged me in
conversation throughout. He said he admired individualists and those who
took personal risks for a good cause.I think this must have been the same series of portraits done
by Bratby as that referred to by David Nobbs (The Guardian G2, 11 April 2006, p. 16) when he
wrote in an accompaniment to an illustrated portrait very like the one Bratby did of me: ‘John
Bratby did this portrait of me in 1980 as part of a series about the individuality of people’.
In a 1983 travel book Paul
Theroux describes how Bratby painted his portrait at about the same time
painted mine. What Theroux writes
apt in my own case, so I reproduce some of it.
‘[John Bratby] did the paintings
for the movie The Horse’s Mouth and his own life somewhat resembled
that of Gully Jimson, the painter-hero of the Joyce Cary novel on which
the movie was based. Mr Bratby was speaking in a room full of paintings,
some of them still wet. He said-
“ I could never buy a house
this large in London or anywhere else. I’d have a poky flat if
I didn’t live in Hastings.”
His house was called The Cupola and
Tower of the Winds, and it matched its name. It was tall and crumbling,
and it creaked when the wind blew, and there were stacks of paintings
leaning against every wall. Mr Bratby was thick-set and had the listening
expression of a forgetful man. He said he painted quickly. He sometimes
referred to his famous riotous past – so riotous it had nearly
killed him. He had been a so-called kitchen sink painter with a taste
for drawing rooms. Now he lived in a quiet way. He said he believed
that western society was doomed, but he said this as he looked out of
Cupola window at the rooftops and the sea of Hastings, a pleasant view.
“Our society is changing from
one based on the concept of the individual and freedom,” Mr Bratby
said, “to one where the individual is non-existent – lost
in a collectivist state.” . . . . “There is no commercial
consideration to this at all,” he had said of my painting, “This
is for posterity to see, when our society has completely changed.’ .
. . He scratched his head and went on dreading a police state where everyone
wore baggy blue suits and called each other “Comrade” – the
Orwell nightmare, which was a warning rather than a reasonable prediction.
Anyway, it was almost 1984 and here was J. Bratby with a delightful wreck
of a house, painting his heart out in Hastings, the bargain paradise
of the south coast! It seemed to me that his fear of the future was actually
a hatred of the present, and yet he was an otherwise cheery soul and
full of projects . . . Bratby was doing portraits of the living in anticipation
of Armageddon . . .’
The illustrations to this piece show
Bratby’s portrait of me painted in 1980 and an undated letter he
later wrote me when there was a suggestion he might paint my wife Mary
This did not come to anything, but afterwards I bought my own portrait
Bratby for £350.
Bratby’s career is described in The
Great Bratby by Maurice Yacowar (Middlesex University Press, 2008). On page 231 there
is a reference to this note, to which Yacowar adds the comment: ‘Bratby’s
individualism trumped opposing apartheid’.
Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain
(Hamish Hamilton, 1983), pp. 37–39
. A nice ambiguity!