He studied at the Kingston College of Art from 1948-50 and later at the Royal College of Art in 1951. Here he was awarded a bursary to travel in Italy, however he was not stimulated by the art he experienced there and decided against travelling. His interest in English domestic life is reflected in his painting. His style is harsh realism, applying paint thickly and in vibrant colours, sometimes depicting desperate or ugly faces.
Bratby’s main subjects are his family, and he portrays all the clutter of urban domestic life in his work. His concern with social realism brought him into contact with the Kitchen Sink artists, who shared a desire to depict the banality of a working-class domestic environment. Bratby’s use of colour and more middle-class surroundings distinguished his style from that of his associates. He taught for two brief periods, then began a series of portraits of celebrities in the 1960s, including the actress Billie Whitelaw. The series was developed during the 1970s into a Hall of Fame.
During the 1980s he travelled abroad, painting whilst on trips, but concentrated on self-portraits and portraits of his second wife in intimate poses and with bright colours and an economy of line. When not painting Bratby was also a successful novelist. He died in 1992.