Previously Unseen Ayckbourn Portrait On Display

A previously unseen John Bratby portrait of theatrical legend Alan Ayckbourn will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery exploring the role of portaiture.

Who Am I? (from 4 April) will include a range of portraits from the Scarborough Collection of local people, artists, royalty, and the aristocracy.

A highlight will be a portait of locally based theatrical legend Alan Ayckbourn by ‘kitchen sink realist’ Bratby (1928-1992), painted in the mid-1970s and kindly loaned by Sir Alan and Lady Ayckbourn. The portrait has never been seen in public before. Bratby’s other subjects included Michael Caine, Paul McCartney, Iris Murdoch and Michael Palin.

Although the playwright cannot recall precisely when the portrait was painted, it’s clearly from the mid 1970s and came about after Bratby rang the playwright enquiring whether he would like to have his portrait painted.

At the time, Brady was taking commissions prolifically to pay the alimony to his first wife, Jean. Alan went to the artist’s home in London and was painted in the kitchen with the artist revealing the complete portrait after about after 10 minutes.

“Bratby said, ‘what do you think?’ and I said, ‘erm… yeah.’ He said, ‘I’ll do another one.’ I said, ‘No, no, don’t bother,’ and he said, ‘No, no, I’ll do another one, I’ll do Another one. You obviously don’t like it.’

“I said, ‘Well, I’m just getting used to it.’”

Bratby’s distinctive painting technique seen in the portrait epitomised the style for which he became known for as part of the so called ‘kitchen sink’ movement during the 1950s; a term applied to a small group of British artists  who painted ordinary people in scenes of everyday life.

“He never used the brushes,” said Alan of the portrait. “He just used a palette knife, the paint was so thick when he put it on.”

The second portrait, which is on display in the exhibition, took half-an-hour and if it still didn’t quite ring a bell with the subject, his wife – Heather Stoney – thinks it is the better of the two and does catch a side of the playwright’s personality.

Although he argues it’s ‘the dismayed side’.

Alan decided to buy both the picture, but not out of love for them. “We had to buy it from him. I bought both to keep them out of circulation! I think most people bought them because they were so distressed by the pictures.”

Sir Alan Ayckbourn with the portrait painted by John Bratby on display in the forthcoming exhibition (© Tony Bartholomew)

Also on display will be a portrait by Bruce Turner (1894-1963) of the Scarborough hotelier and art collector Tom Laughton, brother of Hollywood actor Charles Laughton, who donated several of the portraits to Scarborough Art Gallery, including that of the French Empress Eugenie.

The earliest painting in the show will be a late 16th century portrait of an unknown man, by an unknown artist, donated to the collection in 2022.

Andrew Clay, Chief Executive of Scarborough Museums and Galleries, says: “The display will explore the role of portraiture as a means of representation; the history, if known, of the sitter; the appeal of this genre to collectors and the important work of conservators in preserving paintings for future audiences.

“It will provoke wider conversations: whose faces are absent? Are women sitters portrayed differently to men? Who could afford to have their portraits painted? What do these portraits tell us about museum collecting?

“In the middle of the 19th century the invention of photography and the establishment of photographic studios meant that portraiture was no longer confined to the upper classes. This means we can show the faces of ordinary working people visiting or living in Scarborough from the 1870s to the early 20th century.

“We’d like to thank Sir Alan and Lady Ayckbourn for this rare chance to see this painting by the renowned portraitist John Bratby.”

Scarborough Art Gallery is open from 10am to 5pm every day except Monday (plus Bank Holidays). Entrance is free with a £3 annual pass, which also allows unlimited free entry to the Rotunda Museum.

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