Back in the 1950s the painter John Bratby was lumped in with the Angry Young Men and the Kitchen Sink Dramatists as an enfant terrible – only in his case it was more like Kitchen Sink Painting.
Many years after his heyday, when I was writing situation comedies for the BBC, I received a letter from him via Broadcasting House. ‘Dear Alex,’ he wrote. ‘I have been enjoying your scripts for the BBC and would like to paint your portrait. If you would care to have it done, please get in touch. Yours, John Bratby.’
I hadn’t a clue who John Bratby was, so I looked him up in the local library. His paintings were full of bold stokes and the dramatic use of colour.
I called him. He sounded elderly and, judging by his wheeze, suffered from lung problems. He lived in Hastings and wasn’t well enough to travel – but one sitting would be enough, he said. So to Hastings I went. He lived in a large, idiosyncratic house with a huge kitchen/living room that doubled up as his studio. He was an amiable man – a bit of a shambles, but with a certain charisma. His wife, clad in close-fitting leather trousers, made us tea while John got started. On the walls were dozens of his paintings. Many were portraits of well-known figures, mostly from television. I remember a portrait of John Cleese hanging in a corner.
As Bratby worked he told me about himself. He had published some novels. Had I read any of them? No? He immediately found me two to take away. I got the impression that he had known better days, that he was out of fashion now, and that his star was on the wane.
He worked swiftly, and in under two hours the portrait had been completed. It was a recognisable likeness: the colouring was bizarre, but it had a certain something.
‘I like it,’ I rashly said.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than he pounced.
‘Then would you like to buy it?’ he said.
At that moment all became clear. I had wondered why Bratby had written to an unknown, rather obscure writer but had been too flattered by his interest to think deeper – vanity had got the better of me. Obviously this was how he made a living: he wrote to people whose names he found in the Radio Times, asked them to sit for him, professing admiration, and then flogged them the portrait. Plainly not all sitters fell for it. But having already said I liked the portrait I felt painted into a corner.
‘How much?’ I asked.
‘Two hundred,’ he replied. That was quite a sum in those days.
I didn’t have a chequebook on me, but he said he’d trust me and was already wrapping up the picture. So I left with my portrait and the two books. I sent him the money and read the novels. They both seemed to be about a rather roguish artist – John Bratby.
I still have the portrait in my garage. Occasionally I unwrap it and give it a wry look. It was – and is – an education. Successful artists are not always the bohemians they appear; many of them have a dash of the second-hand car salesman in them, too.
I sent his books back, but a few years later I received a letter from him. He was having an exhibition of his portraits. Could I make my portrait available for it if necessary? I agreed that I would.
Weeks after, I got a postcard.
‘It’s all right, thanks,’ Bratby wrote. ‘Won’t need your portrait after all. The organisers say they’ve never heard of you. Sincerely, John Bratby.