This article is part of issue N° 4 – The Sink

1.

What The Sink Saw

John Bratby, <em>Kitchen</em>, 1965, University of Leeds Art Collection © The Estate of John Bratby / Bridgeman Art Library

John Bratby, Kitchen, 1965, University of Leeds Art Collection © The Estate of John Bratby / Bridgeman Art Library

Post-war British artists, writers and filmmakers saw in the humble sink an object laden with symbolism and meaning, and made it a frequent fixture in their kitchen sink dramas.
Text by Eliot Haworth

Picture a kitchen sink in all its normality. Arguably the least exciting or glamorous of kitchen fixtures, without the opportunity for flair and invention of the oven or the conversation and good company of the kitchen table. Even the bin, revolting as it is, holds onto our castaways and forms a telling collage of our lives through the things we dispose of. The sink is where we scrub, clean, fill things up, empty other things out, dump dirty dishes when we can’t be bothered to wash up. A functional station for getting boring tasks done. How unexpected then, that the sink should find itself the powerful if unlikely figurehead of an influential new wave of British art, literature and film that spread through the 1950s and 60s. This is the story of how the sink, of all things, helped to reshape British culture and society.

1.

Kitchen sinks were first thrust into the spotlight in 1954 when art critic David Sylvester, writing in the journal Encounter, outlined a growing trend for young British painters to gravitate towards the kitchen in their social realist subject matter. Kitchens were nothing new in art, having been the subject of countless still lifes and interiors. However, Sylvester noticed a predilection for kitchen scenes that emphasized the banal and mundane: ‘A kitchen in which ordinary people cook their ordinary food, and doubtless live their ordinary lives’. His comments were aimed specifically at a group of painters known as the Beaux Arts Group, a loose quartet comprising Jack Smith, John Bratby, Edward Middleditch and Derrick Greaves, who regularly exhibited at Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery in London. Their work, said Sylvester, ‘Includes every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink? The kitchen sink too.’ And thus, ‘The Kitchen Sink School’ of social realism was born. Or as it came to be known, ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’, in which no subject was too unspectacular to be documented.

Of the Kitchen Sink Painters, the two that fitted the term most literally were Smith and Bratby. Middleditch was more devoted to natural themes and Greaves to documenting his home town of Sheffield and life at home with his young family. Despite their varying styles, the artists shared a similar desire to react against the perceived status quo of British figurative painting by eschewing the neat and pretty for the rough and ready, focusing on everyday, often working class, themes. As art critic and novelist John Berger commented, ‘There is the same suspicion of elegance and the same ability to be moved by the commonplace’. Or as Greaves put it more matter of factly, ‘We were all discontented, kicking against the pricks’.

When sinks were actually included in the paintings, they were suitably robust and unglamorous. Smith tended to revisit a large, rectangular, wall-mounted porcelain sink with a single spout protruding from a boiler. His rooms were largely empty, save for the sink and a few choice arrangements, all rendered in his soft, sparse light, a range of diffused greys and beiges. In one of his most celebrated works, Mother Bathing Child (1953), a woman stands in an empty kitchen, her baby ankle-deep in the murky sink water as she scrubs away. In another the sink is empty, water sputtering out of its single tap as the remains of a meal sit on a table in the foreground.

Bratby’s work was decidedly livelier, with broad brushstrokes and thick daubs of bright paint that he would squirt directly onto the canvas. His sinks were often lost amidst the cluttered flatness of his kitchen scenes, filled with cereal boxes, bits of food, crockery and utensils warped into odd squished shapes. Bratby did focus on one sink in particular, a small white enamel handbasin with seashell-shaped soap trays, of which he made several studies often with water pouring in and a lather of soap frothing in the basin.

Despite it gaining them publicity, ‘Kitchen Sink’ was not a moniker that any of the artists particularly liked. Nor was being part of a group that they felt shoehorned into, placed there by critics rather than of their own volition. In 1956 the group represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and then distanced themselves from the movement. Smith, Middleditch and Greaves moved away from social realism entirely, venturing into pop art and abstractionism, while Bratby retained his rough impasto, becoming a celebrity portraitist for much of the 60s and 70s. Kitchen Sink Realism was dead. For the time being.

Kitchen II

John Bratby, Kitchen II, 1966, Portsmouth Museum © The Estate of John Bratby / Bridgeman Art Library

2.

Being the sturdy fixtures that they are, sinks are not easily beaten, and in the same year that coincided with the dissolution of the Kitchen Sink Painters, the 1956 opening of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre saw the birth of Kitchen Sink Drama. Much like the painters from whom the name had originated, Kitchen Sink Drama attempted to break with perfectionist and idealized visions of Britain and instead shed light on the hitherto overlooked realities of everyday working class life. Prior to this, English theatre had been dominated by escapism and stories of the upper classes, typified by the plays of Noël Coward and William Somerset Maugham.

Where the painters used unassuming mundanity in their still lives, emphasizing the infra-ordinary, Kitchen Sink Dramas were explosive and confrontational. They thrust the unsightly and overlooked issues facing working class society under the nose of the theatre-going public. Look Back in Anger depicted isolated and angry youth in a small Midlands town, the toil of manual labour, sex, politics, life in poverty. The protagonist Jimmy Porter is cramped up in an attic bedsit that he shares with his wife and his close friend Cliff. There is swearing, physical violence, a love triangle and miscarriage as well as nuanced ideas on the loss of societal values and the gradual breakdown of marriage. The dialogue is provocative and makes a point of using slang and regional dialect, in direct contrast to the writing of the likes of Maugham whom Osborne singled out as being ‘Dead, elusively inert, wobbly like some synthetic rubber substance’.

The effect of Osborne’s play on British theatre was summed up by the novelist Alan Sillitoe when he said, ‘John Osborne didn’t contribute to British theatre: he set off a landmine called Look Back in Anger and blew most of it up’. The play gave rise to other, equally realist and equally challenging productions such as Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958), in which Jo, a young girl from Manchester, sleeps with a black sailor and falls pregnant before being forced to leave home and move in with a gay acquaintance named Geof, or Arnold Wesker’s play Roots (also 1958) that centres on a family of Norfolk farm labourers and was staged entirely in rich local dialect.

As with the painters before them, many playwrights rejected the Kitchen Sink moniker, dismissing it as irrelevant and inaccurate. Wesker even referred to it as ‘At best unhelpful, at worst, meaningless’. However, in spite of such resistance to the term, the humble sink still held significance. As demonstrated by the painters, composition and setting were key to telling the stories of the working class, and for all the groundbreaking dialogue and unflinching subject matter in the plays, the mundane spaces in which they were set were also crucial in evoking a social realist vision. These domestic settings, even if purely unintentionally, often provided the perfect opportunity for the sink to come into its own.

A sink can speak volumes when deployed in the right space. How better to break from stuffy tradition than to bring into focus an object that had once been symbolically hidden? Sinks were not objects of traditional English escapist theatre. They were meant to be out of sight, tended to by maids and cooks, while the well-heeled protagonists indulged themselves in titillating hijinks. The sink, just by being there, became a fixture of the narrative and atmosphere of the plays. Roots opens with a character washing up and there the sink sits, front and centre for the rest of the play, proudly and provocatively on display. The kitchen door in A Taste of Honey stays nonchalantly open for any onlooker to peek into, Jo’s messy flat a symbol of her chaotic, topsy-turvy life. ‘Where do you keep your cups?’ asks Geof on his first time visiting. ‘In the sink,’ she replies matter of factly. Even the fact that Look Back in Anger doesn’t feature a single sink is significant. The small attic flat is so cramped that they have to make do with an enamel bowl instead. As revolutionary as the scriptwriting was, the plays needed something as sturdy and humdrum as the sink to keep every­thing firmly grounded in reality.

Still Life with Chip Frier

John Bratby, Still Life with Chip Frier, 1954, Tate Britain © The Estate of John Bratby / Bridgeman Art Library / Tate London

3.

With the impact of Kitchen Sink Drama and closely associated novels by the likes of writers Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Nell Dunn and David Storey, the sink was about to enter yet another public sphere. And in the late 50s and early 60s came British New Wave cinema, also carrying the Kitchen Sink Drama epithet. Once again it was Look Back in Anger that proved a catalyst, with John Osborne, the play’s original director Terry Richardson and Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman setting up Woodfall Films to produce the film in 1959. Although it is technically not the first Kitchen Sink film — the adaptation of John Braine’s novel Room at the Top beating it to the box office by a matter of months — the foundation of Woodfall was significant, with the company going on to become easily the most prolific producer of Kitchen Sink cinema.

Although film allowed for a wandering frame of vision that fully explored the trappings of everyday British life — some films such as Up the Junction (1965), the made-for-TV play written by Nell Dunn and directed by Ken Loach, focused almost exclusively on the factories, pubs and music halls of Battersea — the Kitchen Sink Dramas of British New Wave cinema largely embraced the domestic, allowing the sink to make another prominent appearance, as though the genre couldn’t bear to be wholly removed from its namesake. Indeed, if one isolates the scenes in which sinks appear, it is noticeable that they tend to pop up at pivotal moments. The points in which the Kitchen Sink Dramas are at their most ‘Kitchen Sinky’, almost destined by nominative determinism to be at the epicentre of the action. Time and time again the sinks bear witness to affairs, petty theft, physical assault, police harassment, arguments, flirtations, confessions, backstreet abortions and all the other trappings of gritty reality.

As so many of the films are adaptations of literary works, for the avid sink spotter it is also a joy to see them brought to life. Each sink typology is as individualistic, humdrum and extraordinary as the protagonists and the everyday melodrama surrounding them. We have the depressing yet ingenious bath-turned-sink in A Taste of Honey (1961); the chipped away and worn out sink of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); the rebelliously cluttered sink of ultimate anti-hero Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960); the miniscule triangular hand sink in The L-Shaped Room (1962); and the non-sink in Look Back in Anger that has to be filled up with water from the boiler downstairs.

Far more than the artistic and literary movements that preceded them, the films of the British New Wave succeeded in spreading Kitchen Sink values of unvarnished, unflinching realism to a wider audience, and their success is reflected in the considerable awards received in national and international competitions. While they easily rank amongst the greatest films produced in British cinema, perhaps the crowning achievement of these Kitchen Sink Dramas was having an actual impact on the social issues they sought to draw attention to, most notably Up the Junction and the accompanying Loach television play Cathy Come Home (1966) which are credited with playing important roles in the passing of the Abortion Act of 1967 and the founding of homeless charity crisis.

For a title that started with a throwaway comment in an art journal and was largely looked down upon by those to whom it was applied, it is surprising that ‘Kitchen Sink’ has been such an enduring term, managing to transcend the utilitarian kitchen fixture to encapsulate a very distinct and powerful thread of British social realism. It has no doubt been aided by the image of the sink itself, so provocative and steadfast in its mundanity. The symbol of the very last thing left to throw at an audience when trying to expose every nook and cranny of quotidian life. Now the kitchen sink lives on, as hardy as ever, in long-running soap operas. Where much like the art, plays and films before them, the ups, downs and ridiculousness of everyday life are constantly played out. More often than not in a kitchen, with an unassuming sink watching on.

This Sporting Life This Sporting Life

In This Sporting Life (1963), based on the novel by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson, the main sink is a shallow ceramic trough in the kitchen of the house that Yorkshire coal miner turned star rugby player Frank Machin (played by Richard Harris) rents a room in. It is propped up on bricks and has a strange rubber nozzle on the end of one tap. The soap dish juts out of a wall covered with faded floral wallpaper. Each night he returns home to the kitchen to argue with and attempt to seduce Margaret, his widowed landlady (played by Rachel Roberts), who is still traumatised by her husband’s death. Frank is eventually thrown out and lands in a seedy hostel where two strange men sneer at him as he enters. There is a tiny dirty sink in the hallway standing on knobbly wooden legs. One of the men stands aimlessly, swilling his hands about in it and staring fixedly at Frank while he climbs the stairs to his new room. We need only look at this unsightly basin to gather how far the protagonist has fallen. At the tragic climax of the film, Margaret suffers a brain haemorrhage and passes away in her sleep the moment that Frank reaches her hospital bed. That night he breaks into her house and stands bawling her name in the empty kitchen with only the trough for company.

The sinks in Room at the Top The sinks in Room at the Top

The sinks in Room at the Top (1959) bear witness to the unscrupulous ambitions of Joe Lampton (played by Laurence Harvey), a local council worker in a northern mill town who hatches a plot to marry his way to a better life and social standing. He twiddles the taps of the tiny sink that sits at the foot of his bed while he looks out at the expensive houses across town and proclaims, ‘I’m going to have the lot’. Sinks are there again as his life collapses. While he attempts to seduce Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a local millionaire, Joe begins an affair with the married Alice Askill (Simone Signoret). They mess around in the kitchen while making a cup of tea in the small apartment they are borrowing for their liaisons. Alice cuts her finger and Joe washes the blood away in the homely, domestic sink with a flowery curtain fringing the bottom of it. He carries her to the bed and they lay down gazing into each other’s eyes, declaring undying love for one another. In the background the kettle boils and emits a long piercing scream. Later Joe picks Susan and Alice drives her car into a cliff.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), directed by Karel Reisz, Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney) is a young factory worker in Nottingham who spends his days fuming at his job and uttering the motto, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. At night he drinks, fights and has an affair with Brenda, an older woman married to a colleague. Brenda’s husband is out of town and after a night of heavy drinking Arthur climbs through her scullery window and starts washing himself in her sink. She finds him in the kitchen and the two go to bed. Later Brenda reveals that she is pregnant with Arthur’s child and he takes her to his aunt Ada’s house to discuss abortion. Brenda and Ada talk over a cup of tea while Arthur stands in the alley outside and peeks in through the lace curtains, over the top of the big porcelain sink. Later it is discovered that the abortion treatment (sitting in a hot bath and drinking gin) didn’t work and that Brenda has decided to keep the baby. The affair is revealed and Arthur is seriously assaulted, being left bedridden. Arthur’s own kitchen sink is gloriously unkept and plays host to one of the lighter moments in the film where, after shooting his nosey neighbour in the backside with an air rifle, Arthur and his cousin Bert sit calmly at the dining table while first his neighbour and then the police enter his kitchen to try, without success, to get him to confess. The neighbour eventually leaves in frustration, exclaiming loudly to her husband, ‘Did you see the muck in their kitchen?’

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Although it is set largely in a borstal, kitchen sinks even find a way to work their way into The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), written by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Tony Richardson. As the details of how Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) came to get locked up unfold via flashback, the kitchen sink is with him every step of the way. Colin enters his kitchen to find his younger siblings banging away at the table and his exhausted mother washing dishes at the equally worn-away kitchen sink. She tells him matter of factly that his sick father, worn down from years of labour at the local factory, is going to die. Colin puts on a brave face but is in private worries over his father and leaves the house to walk the streets with his friend Mike. After his father dies, the family get compensation from the factory and his mother’s new boyfriend quickly moves in, carrying a brand-new television in through the kitchen door. After the money runs out, Colin and Mike rob a bakery and hide the money in a drainpipe outside the kitchen. The police quickly come searching the house on a tip-off, but to no avail, and Colin delights in winding them up at the kitchen door, the large ugly sink peeking over his shoulder. Unfortunately for Colin, rain flushes the money out of the drainpipe mid-conversation and he is swiftly arrested.

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