John Bratby

The Toilet


Not on display

John Bratby 1928–1992
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1171 × 872 mm
frame: 1227 × 927 × 96 mm
Purchased 1993


Described by Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery (1938-64), as 'expressive of his tough, larger-and-uglier than life view of his intimate environment' (quoted in John Bratby, exhibition catalogue, French and Company, New York 1958,pp.1-2), and by the art critic David Sylvester as 'Kitchen Sink', Bratby's realist paintings of the mid 1950s were considered to be a radical departure from the Modernism of the pre-Second World War era and the pastoral Neo-Romanticism of the war period. Retrospectively, Bratby himself stated that the realist paintings of the 1950s expressed the decade's 'Zeitgeist - introvert, grim, Khaki in colour, often opposed to prettiness, and dedicated to portraying a stark, raw, ugly reality' (quoted in The Forgotten Fifties, p.46).

The mundane, domestic subject matter of The Toilet is typical of the realism which characterised Bratby's work during the period. The distorted perspective is used to afford a direct view of the cistern, chain and pipework as well as the stained inside of the bowl. The high position of the cistern in relation to the toilet pan was a common design in the period. The formal clarity of the composition and the muscular handling of thick paint led the critic David Sylvester to compare Bratby's style with that of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). However, the lurid palette of browns, yellows and whites was specifically associated with the Kitchen Sink painters. In the stringent economic circumstances of the period, the relative cost of different colours was a significant factor in determining the chromatic range of artists who worked on large canvases and who applied paint thickly. According to Bratby they also conveyed 'the colour and mood of ration books - the general feeling of sackcloth and ashes after the war' (quoted in The Forgotten Fifties, p.14).

The toilet was located in Bratby's flat at Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea, London. At least one other painting of this subject matter was made by Bratby in the mid 1950s, though it is reported that his dealer at the time, Helen Lessore, Director of Beaux Art Gallery, was not enthusiastic about them.

Further reading:
The Forgotten Fifties, exhibition catalogue, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1984

Toby Treves
September 2000

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Display caption

Bratby attended the Royal College of Art from 1951-4 and was given a London exhibition while still a student. The art critic David Sylvester wrote an article in December 1954 about recent painting, including that of Bratby, and he titled his article 'The Kitchen Sink'. Sylvester identified a shared interest among younger painters in commonplace domestic subjects. Bratby not only chose the kitchen as a subject, but also the bathroom. He made three paintings of lavatories and at least three of bathrooms. Bratby's three paintings of lavatories focus exclusively on the toilet and are very direct in both subject and colour.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed in oil colours on the smooth side of a single piece of oil-tempered hardboard. The full construction of the support consists of the hardboard nailed to a four-membered butt-joined frame behind its edges, although the edges of the frame extend slightly beyond those of the hardboard. The presence of only the top part of the artist's signature in the bottom left corner suggests that initially the painting was executed on a slightly larger piece of hardboard, which was subsequently cut down by the artist to the present dimensions. The viewable area of the present composition has been marked out with pencil lines around all four edges. The completed painting was re-signed (and dated) in the bottom right corner.

The paint was applied directly to the board without any further preparation and has been thickly applied with fairly wide brushes, often in several layers, to produce appreciable impasto. Most of the layering has been applied with a wet-in wet technique, in particular the yellow and white paint found in most of the background. The paint is generally rich in medium and has been covered with a varnish layer, which results in a very glossy and rather voluptuous surface. One of the more interesting aspects of Bratby's technique in this work is that the warm brown colour, used to outline the layout of the room (i.e. corners of walls and floors) and some of the pipework, is the bare hardboard.

The painting is in excellent condition. The hardboard appears to be offering good support to the paint films and there is no sign of paint loss or cracking anywhere. The high and potentially vulnerable areas of impasto are now well protected by the glazing. The frame is painted white and is thought to be original to the work. It has been modified slightly with a build-up at the back to offer further protection to the painting. The painting's support was recently strengthened with the attachment of a further piece of oil-tempered hardboard to replace two wooden battens which had not provided satisfactory support.

Tom Learner
July 1997

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