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Reference group
Beaux Arts Quartet [Kitchen Sink School] (act. 1953–1956) was the term applied to four young painters, John Bratby, Derrick Greaves (b. 1927), Edward Middleditch, and Jack Smith (1928–2011), each of whom received solo or joint exhibitions at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton Place, London, in 1953 and 1954. The gallery's director, Helen Lessore, had assumed control of the Beaux Arts Gallery on the death of her husband, Frederick Lessore, in 1951, and she invested her considerable energy and acumen in revising and modernizing its exhibiting policy. By the gallery's closure in 1965 she had shown many of the leading figures in English avant-garde art; besides the ‘quartet’ these included Craigie Aitchison, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Elisabeth Frink, and Leon Kossoff.

Helen Lessore continued to exhibit Bratby, Middleditch, and Smith throughout the 1950s, but the Beaux Arts Quartet became virtually synonymous with another epithet, the ‘Kitchen Sink School’, soon after the publication of an article by David Sylvester, ‘The kitchen sink’, in Encounter (December 1954, 61–4). Sylvester's analysis of contemporary realist painting in the context of its continental antecedents did not, in fact, identify the Beaux Arts Quartet as a cohesive school. Rather he discussed only John Bratby and Jack Smith, and in evaluating the iconographical scope of their domestic interiors and still lifes he pondered rhetorically whether they painted ‘Everything but the kitchen sink?’: ‘The kitchen sink too’, he concluded sardonically.

Sylvester may have had in mind an analogy between ‘kitchen sink’ as a signifier of urban realism and quotidian subject matter, and the Ash Can School, the term applied to a loose alliance of American artists who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had similarly rejected traditional notions of beauty and transferred their attention to painting disenfranchised city dwellers. Both groups help to locate historical markers of the steady demise, within Western figurative art, of paintings of elevated subject matter, whether religious or historical, portraits of powerful men, or of moralizing themes. British resistance to French post-impressionism had gradually broken down in the aftermath of Roger Fry's seminal exhibition ‘Manet and the post-impressionists’ in 1910, further directing artists' attention towards humbler subjects. That same year Walter Sickert, in opposition to the bourgeois Edwardian opulence of William Orpen and John Singer Sargent, had urged that ‘The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen’ (‘Idealism’, Art News, 12 May 1910). In 1926 Thérèse Lessore, Frederick's sister, became Sickert's third wife, and Sickert exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery from 1932 onward. After Sickert's death Helen Lessore remained a staunch admirer of his art, and this contributed to her gallery acting as a significant focal point for incipient social realists in the 1950s.

All of the Beaux Arts Quartet were, at various times, students at the Royal College of Art, although the four attended simultaneously only in 1952. To the extent that they shared a distinct aesthetic it was forged mainly in reaction to the disparate idioms of their tutors, the neo-romanticism of John Minton, the restrained still lifes and portraits of Rodrigo Moynihan, and the disquieting suburban landscapes of Carel Weight. Arguably the most important of their teachers was Ruskin Spear, whose significance as their precursor is sometimes unfairly marginalized. Not only was Spear the most vocal advocate of a post-Sickertian, socially diverse realism, his socialist credentials were cemented by his membership of the Artists' International Association, his having sold Peace News on the streets of Hammersmith during the Second World War, and the robustly working-class leisure sites he liked to frequent and to paint.

The style and content of paintings defined as Beaux Arts Quartet or Kitchen Sink School (the latter, intended satirically by Sylvester, was frequently appropriated as a pejorative) ultimately gave way to the less elliptical and more inclusive description ‘social realism’. Invoked across the chronological and stylistic gulfs between, say, Caravaggio, Courbet, and the Pre-Raphaelites, ‘realism’ is one of the more problematical terms in art-historical discourse. In Britain in the early 1950s the intellectual high ground of realism was arguably more contested by several articulate young critics than among the artists themselves. As Derrick Greaves recalled, ‘what we were most interested in was becoming the Courbets de nos jours’ (Harrison, 78). Among the theorists the passionate Marxist John Berger and the quasi-existentialist aesthetician David Sylvester stood at opposite poles of the debate. Berger was the curator of an Arts Council exhibition, ‘Looking forward’, which opened at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery in September 1952; it included work by Greaves and Middleditch, and was driven by Berger's aim to demonstrate ‘the futility of art being separated from the beliefs and problems of society’. ‘Recent trends in realist painting’, co-organized by David Sylvester, had opened two months earlier at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. An eclectic survey, it encompassed numerous School of Paris painters as well as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Graham Sutherland, and compared with Berger's realism its thrust was apolitical and non-populist. By 1957 Berger had arranged three further versions of ‘Looking forward’, but his interest in the realist project was subsiding; Sylvester, who had continued to support Bacon and Giacometti, was about to turn his attention to American abstract expressionism.

Bratby, Greaves, Middleditch, and Smith, briefly as it transpired, were swept up in an ideological debate initiated by Berger. Yet while the four artists may have considered themselves fundamentally left-wing, none was as politically committed as Berger, and if their paintings were united by their mundane subject matter this was as much the result of force of circumstance—their impecuniousness—as their allegiance to anti-bourgeois or socialist polemics: as Jack Smith dryly remarked: ‘I just painted the objects around me. I lived in that kind of house … If one had lived in a palace, one might have painted chandeliers’ (F. Spalding, 7). Moreover, Berger drew an important distinction between social and socialist realism; an artist he particularly admired was Renato Guttuso, who had joined the Italian Communist Party in 1940 and who supported many left-wing causes; for Berger art was fundamentally a question of social obligation, a utopian view that led him to promote not only the Beaux Arts Quartet but many now forgotten minor artists.

Of the quartet Bratby painted with exceptional vigour and confidence. His work exploited a raw, almost expressionist pictorial language, of which the boldness and intense colour derived as much from late Van Gogh as from his tutors. His thickly encrusted paint strokes as well as his provocative subject matter—for example his naked wife or lavatories—tested the bounds of contemporary cultural mores. Bratby alone among the quartet adhered, throughout most of his career, to downbeat, unglamorous subjects, and he corresponded most nearly with the general public's perception of the artist as a louche bohemian. He was responsible for the paintings attributed to the fictional Gully Jimson used in the film The Horse's Mouth (1958), which crystallized the image of the artist as a social outsider and attracted considerable media attention to Bratby.

Jack Smith's paintings of children teetering across sparsely furnished, austere rooms presented a bleaker but more intimate and sensitive aspect of social realism than Bratby's. His Mother Bathing Child (1953; Tate collection), which incorporates the eponymous kitchen sink, was painted in a flat at 44 Pembroke Road, Earl's Court, London, a house that was a locus classicus for emergent social realists. Smith's limited palette of tenebrous browns is redolent of Sickert, but the mix of spatial perspectives is astutely calculated to intensify an atmosphere of instability and vulnerability; what might appear to have been motivated by his awed response to parenthood, Smith described as seeking ‘the miraculous in the ordinary’. In contrast, far from commenting on poverty, Bratby's product-laden table tops, piled high with cornucopias of foodstuffs, appeared to celebrate the burgeoning consumer commodity boom, to prefigure what would be described by the end of the decade as ‘the new affluence’. He broadcast with alacrity his pursuit of wealth and fame, ambitions that coincided with the increased social mobility that characterized another aspect of the 1950s: in an essay republished in Permanent Red (1960) Berger equated Bratby's commercial success with his artistic downfall. In the wake of the literary exploration of the breakdown of established social hierarchies, and the linking of Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, John Wain, and Colin Wilson as ‘angry young men’ in 1956, their aims and group identity tended to be conflated, especially in the popular press, with that of the Kitchen Sink School [see angry young men and British new wave cinema].

The Beaux Arts Quartet was selected to represent Britain in the 1956 Venice Biennale, but ironically this prestigious event (which none of them could afford to attend) marked not so much the apotheosis of social realism as a valediction to it. With the exception of Bratby, the momentum of the original quartet rapidly dissipated thereafter, and indeed Edward Middleditch and Derrick Greaves had already moved out of London and begun to slough off their attachment to social realism. In the context of Middleditch's switch to landscape painting his Pigeons in Trafalgar Square (1954; Leicestershire education committee) can be interpreted as a turning point, for while still essentially urban this darkly dramatic grisaille presents a depopulated and slightly ominous view of the hub of the capital, its concerns entirely removed from the domestic. Greaves, too, forsook superficially commonplace subjects soon after he was awarded an Abbey major scholarship in 1952; he spent the next two years in Italy, where his exposure to Renaissance art helped initiate a radical reconsideration of his future direction, which, like Greaves's, was antithetical to Bratby's. Jack Smith's transition from social realism was announced as early as Creation and Crucifixion (1955–6; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), from which the human figure is banished and asymmetry is now combined with a vertiginous perspective, so that the contents of the table top slide chaotically, as though caught up in a vortex. By 1958 Smith had renounced figuration altogether, and subsequently he disavowed social realism as a youthful aberration.

Paradoxically, as a current artistic style social realism outlasted the involvement of three of its most celebrated proponents to remain a potent force in British art until the close of the 1950s. Though Peter Coker, for example, was not officially a member of the quartet, his striking paintings of butchers' shops marked him from the outset as a kindred spirit and a colleague. Indeed, for many artists it became de rigueur to pass through a social realist phase; the sculptor Bryan Kneale, though his mature work scarcely betrays it, was a committed social realist painter in the mid-1950s, and the paintings of Les Duxbury, who lived at 44 Pembroke Road from 1946 until 1955, were similarly indebted to the techniques and iconography of the Beaux Arts Quartet. In the 1960s, although aspects of its iconography had informed British pop art, social realism rapidly slipped from favour. However, following the 1984 travelling exhibition ‘The forgotten fifties’—which chimed with a partial revival of both painting (as opposed to other media) and representational art—there has been a revival of interest in the quartet and their peers, as the uncompromising robustness of their paintings resonated with the taste of an equally brash, if very different, era.

Martin Harrison


M. Harrison, Transition: the London art scene in the fifties (2002) · J. Hyman, The battle for realism (2001) · J. Spalding, The forgotten fifties (1984) [exh. cat., Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield] · F. Spalding, ed., The kitchen sink painters (1991) [exh. cat., Mayor Gallery, London, March 20 – April 26, 1991] · D. Sylvester, About modern art (1996)