It was a real treat to be back at Jerwood Gallery this month, to see its crowd-sourced exhibition of John Bratby paintings, Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink. John Bratby was a prolific painter, writer and something of an enfant terrible on the British art scene during the Fifties and Sixties. Born in 1928, he died in his adopted home town of Hastings, just a day after his 64th birthday, while walking home from the local chippy.
As always, we welcomed back many regular Drawn To The Page writers for this session, and several newcomers too, and then we took some time to wander around the extensive collection of Bratby’s works, scribbling down our own thoughts about the paintings on display. Back together again, I asked writers to share five words which summed up their feelings about the show. We were all interested in the visceral way Bratby used paint and the varying degrees of crudeness or sophistication this gave to the works. We were also very struck by the presence and character of the artist as it emerged from the works, and by his way of looking at people in particular, which felt uncomfortable and negative to many of us. We were certainly engaged and pulled into the portraits, but didn’t always like what we found within them.
However there was a very different response from writers to Bratby’s depiction of rooms and spaces. We talked about the austere, post-war aesthetic that emerged in these, and discussed their similarities with British post-war cinema, and films such as A Taste of Honey or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Bratby’s depiction of these spaces was tender and intimate compared with his portraits, and we all felt more comfortable occupying them.
This lead us nicely on to our writing theme for the day – which was (in the words of Georges Perec), Species of Spaces. I shared some of Perec’s writing about rooms, doors, beds and bedrooms, and then through a series of questions and provocations on slips of paper, invited writers to start to explore their own ideas and memories about rooms, about what a room is, and what a gallery is, before occupying the paintings themselves.
Here is our first set of writing prompts.
Make a list of different types of room.
Make a list of words or phrases that are linked to or associated with room.
Make a list of all the rooms you have slept in, eaten in, made love in.
Describe one or two of them. See where the memory takes you.
If the page or notebook you write on is a room, in what way are you occupying it?
We then moved onto these – treating the room as if it has a personality, a voice, feelings – in other words to personify:
Describe the different doors, windows and thresholds you can see in the pictures.
Write as the room in the painting, Describe what it’s like to have walls, to have windows. Describe what it is like to be moved around in, to have your thresholds crossed, your furniture used, your objects held and moved. Are people just another ‘thing’ to a room? Do tables, beds, chairs have voices, personalities emotions too – are they just alive as the people – as the room itself?
Having developed a voice and point of view, I then invited writers to try the following:
Describe the occupant/s of one of these rooms from the POV of the room. What is the relationship between the room and the occupant? Make the room a narrator telling the story of their day, their relationship, their work, their art or whatever else you’d like to reveal.
And finally, I asked writers to think about the space of the gallery, and to personify this.
Write as the gallery – what is it like to have pictures on its walls? What does it see through them, and through the windows? Is there any difference in the gallery’s perception between its own space and the spaces within the paintings, or between what it sees or experiences through its windows and through the paintings? What would it feel like to have your ‘windows/paintings’ constantly changing as each new art exhibition opened and closed?
Writers wrote in their notebooks and on large sheets of paper, thinking of the page as another space they were occupying. Pages and pages were traversed over the course of the afternoon, everyone finding the spaces of Bratby’s paintings and the gallery a very rich one to occupy.
Do feel free to try these writing prompts for yourself, and if you would like to join us for a Drawn To The Page workshop, then our next session is at Towner Art Gallery on Saturday April 23rd.