Edward Burra: an utterly unique vision

Back in January I wrote an appreciation of the work of Edward Burra, inspired partly by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent film on the artist broadcast in the autumn and partly by regret at not being able to get to the  first major retrospective of Burra’s work for 25 years at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.

However, last weekend as luck would have it,  I had to travel to Derbyshire and so took the opportunity to catch the exhibition, now on tour, at the Djanogly Art Gallery on the Nottingham University campus.  Burra is an artist whose work I have loved since I first encountered his paintings of Harlem night life.  This extensive exhibition does him proud, with representative work from all stages of his career, including the less well-known British landscapes of the post-war decades.  It was a joy to come face to face with works such as The Straw Man from 1963 which, though remarkable in reproduction, is truly electrifying in the flesh.  The late landscapes are a revelation, too – including paintings such as English Countryside, 1965–7 (above).

Burra was a white Englishman, the son of a rich lawyer who never needed to earn his living.  Born in 1905, he had a dull, comfortable upbringing in the ‘quintessentially English’ town of Rye.  There he had led a particularly closeted life, being  crippled by a rare form of acute rheumatoid  arthritis from an early age, as well as suffering from pernicious anemia.  The combination of fatigue and muscular pain made it too difficult for him to stand for any length of time and explains why virtually all of his paintings are watercolours. But what extraordinary watercolours!   In 1969 the critic Pierre Rouve observed of Burra’s work: ‘The power of his larger compositions is unique and uniquely disconcerting in the eyes of those convinced that watercolours can only water down all colours. To ask them to convey emotional intensity and cerebral strength would seem absurd… And yet this miracle occurs time and time again in Burra’s work’.

For his entire life Burra’s home was the handsome and substantial family mansion set in rolling Sussex countryside, attended by eight servants and with eleven acres of garden perched on a hill overlooking Rye.   Cabbages, Springfield, Rye painted around 1937 (below) depicts the view from the Burra family house.

The opening section of the exhibition, ‘High Art, Low Culture’, concentrates on the paintings of street life in New York, Paris and the south of France with which his name is most commonly associated.  Reading about his upbringing in the book published to accompany the exhibition – Edward Burra by Simon Martin – makes these vibrant paintings seem even more remarkable. As Jane Stevenson writes in one of the essays:

Burra was born into what surely must have been one of the most secure milieux ever to exist: the English upper middle class before the First World War.  His father … was the descendent of three generations of successful bankers. … The infant Edward was automatically entered for Eton; the family outlook was profoundly right-wing and class-conscious.  His grandmother, whom he loved, was a member of the anti-socialist British Empire Union.

Yet this young artist, raised in an exclusive rural setting, produced paintings in the 1920s and 1930s that revelled in the vitality of modern city life – paintings that are now some of the most memorable images of the Jazz Age.  Burra was fascinated by low-life, loved jazz and films, and, on his travels, frequented nightclubs and bars in New York, Paris and Marseilles in the early 1930s – from where he drew the inspiration for his paintings in that period.  His affectionate and celebratory depictions of black street culture in Harlem in the 1930s, and the nightlife of Boston in the early 1950s, led him to be described by his friend the American poet Conrad Aiken as the ‘best painter of the American Scene’.

Hop Pickers Who’ve Lost Their Mothers, 1924

Two early paintings in the exhibition show Burra’s characteristic style already fully developed by the early 1920s.  Hop Pickers Who’ve Lost Their Mothers 1924 (above) and Market Day, 1926 (below) were painted when Burra was just 19 and 21 years old respectively. The caption to the former work offers no explanation as to its strange title but its subject matter would probably have been familiar to Burra: each September whole families would go from the East End of London down to Kent to live in hoppers’ huts for most of September (Orwell observed the conditions they worked under in one of his essays).  What is interesting is that Burra portrays this group of hop-pickers as being from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  The art historian Andrew Causey wrote of Burra’s works demonstrating a ‘Whimanesque brotherhood of races and types’.

Market Day, 1926

Burra was a student at the Chelsea School of Art and Royal College of Art between 1921 and 1925, so Market Day is one of the first works painted after completing his studies.  This busy scene presents a multicultural view of a Mediterranean port – but the inspiration must have been drawn from films and novels since it was not until September 1927 that Burra made the first of several trips to the south of France, visiting the ports of Cassis, Marseilles and Toulon.

Market Day is full of detail, with two black sailors on shore leave carrying their ditty bags and being accosted by hip-jutting prostitutes. Simon Martin writes

It is hard to believe that such works were executed in watercolour, for Burra’s handling of the medium was so tight and the intensity of colour more akin to temura painting than the fluidity normally associated with watercolour.

Edward Burra in Toulon, 1931

Marriage à la Mode (1928–29) was loosely based on William Hogarth’s formal Baroque marriage portrait The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox (1729). Burra’s modern take on the subject is full of humorous details and visual double-entendres. For example, the putti holding a cornucopia of flowers in Hogarth’s painting are replaced by wingless flying children who water the bride and groom’s floral headpieces with an atomiser and a watering can.

Edward Burra: Marriage-a-la-mode, 1928

Another early work inspired by a metropolitan setting is, unusually, an oil painting.  In The Snack Bar (1930) a woman whose thoughts are elsewhere is frozen in the act of placing a sandwich between her brightly painted lips, while the man behind the counter suggestively slices an enlarged salami while  glancing in her direction.

The scene is set in the Continental Snack Bar in Shaftesbury Avenue in London, and the woman is probably a prostitute. According to Burra’s friend Clover de Pertinez, ‘Soho tarts were mostly French around 1930 and dressed and made up just like that’.  There is a suggestion of sexual violence as the barman slices a ham, his eyes on her rather than on the task in hand, but she is clearly off duty, caught in a moment of reflection and far from eroticised.

The Snack Bar, 1930

In Three Sailors at the Bar (1930), the trompe l’oeil painted frame suggests that this bar scene is a reflection in a mirror. The perspective of the tiled floor in the bar falls away vertiginously and the table in the foreground appears to be floating.  Two of the sailors have their backs to the viewer, giving the picture a voyeuristic feel that relates to the visual strategies of early cinema.

The cinema remained a great love and source of inspiration throughout Burra’s life.  As Graham-Dixon pointed out in his TV documentary, Burra’s sense of composition – with extreme close-ups, plunging, vertiginous perspectives, close cropping and heavily made-up faces with exaggerated expressions – was derived from the old silent movies.  Burra’s biographer, Jane Stevenson, suggests that rather like the novelist Christopher Isherwood, Burra was a ‘camera’ – a spectator with an extraordinary memory for vivid detail.

Harlem, 1934

Burra’s paintings of Harlem fall into two groups – street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainment. Harlem (1934) depicts the area’s daytime street life. Several men and women are shown in front of a row of brownstone tenements, with New York’s elevated railway visible in the background. On the street people linger at their doorsteps to smoke, talk and read newspapers.Burra painted his Harlem scenes after returning from New York, but he remembered details such as clothing and window signs with great clarity.

Burra visited New York, staying with the photographer Olivia Wyndham and her partner the black actress Edna Thomas on Seventh Avenue in Harlem from October to December 1933, and again in January 1934.  He wrote enthusiastic letters to friends about the exuberant jazz clubs he visited at night, while his images of Harlem street life during the day capture a quieter sense of nonchalance and friendly community. Burra wrote to his friend Barbara Ker-Seymer:

New York would drive you into a fit. Harlem is like Walham green gone crazy we do a little shopping on 116th St every morning there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts also 40 cinemas & Apollo burlesk featuring Paris in Harlem which I am plotting to go to It must be seen to be believed…The food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs and hamburgers must be consumed in N.Y. daily.[sic]

In the next section, ‘The Danse Macabre’, the exhibition explores Burra’s fascination with the macabre and supernatural. He enjoyed watching horror movies and reading science-fiction novels by cult authors such as HP Lovecraft, and admired the ghoulish work of artists such as Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. In the 1930s Burra visited Spain and witnessed the Spanish Civil War first-hand, an experience which informed the violence of some of his paintings – for example, Beelzebub (c.1937–38).

Beelzebub, c.1937

In Spain in 1935, Burra had witnessed a church being burned down in the months before the Spanish Civil War. In this enormous watercolour (very powerful when seen in the gallery), a marauding throng with bloody weapons clashes violently in the ruins of a church. The devilish monster that goads them on is Beelzebub (literally ‘Lord of the Flies’), one of the seven princes of Hell.  The elongated figures influenced by Mannerist and Baroque art serve to heighten the drama of the scene.

This section also includes some works painted during the Second World War.  Burra did not address the conflict directly; instead, he painted images of soldier’s backs and ghoulish monsters to represent the terror of war.  A remarkable painting when encountered in the flesh is Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain (1941) in which the German air attack is represented as a monstrous blue bird-woman dominating the skies as figures cower or run for shelter.

Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, 1941

In September 1940 the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above Burra’s home in Rye.  He wrote to Paul Nash:

Oh theres bombs here messershmidts there and I dont know what all!!  The other evening I observed a parachute descending gracefully down. The whole place is an armed camp with crashing tanks roaring up & down the rd – so if anything’s a military objective all they have to do is throw a bomb & hit one of the Irish Fusileers [sic].

Two more fine wartime paintings on show are Ropes and Lorries (1942-43) and Soldiers’ Backs (1942–3).

Soldiers’ Backs, 1942 (detail)

During the Second World War large numbers of troops were stationed at Rye. Burra told Paul Nash of how: ‘Ive [sic] got some very turgid work, delightful sketches of the troops’.  Soldiers’ Backs, an image of soldiers climbing into the back of a lorry, dehumanizes the soldiers, who are seen from behind as they clamber into an army lorry. Their buttocks, shoulders and calves are emphasized, almost like medieval armour.  Another small wartime painting is Seaman Ashore, Greenock, 1944 (below).

The exhibition features a group of landscapes that Burra painted in the 1930s and 1940s. These include Landscape with Red Wheels (1937-9), Blasted Oak (1942), Landscape near Rye (c.1943–45), The Harbour, Hastings (1947), Cabbages, Springfield, Rye (c.1937) and The Cabbage Harvest (c.1943–45).

Landscape near Rye, 1943

The Harbour, Hastings, 1947

Cabbages, Springfield, Rye, c.1937

Cabbages, Springfield, Rye is a composition structured by ranks of trees, with the foreground depicting the cabbage patch in the family garden at Springfield.  Cabbage Harvest is a darker, wilder image with human figures stacking sacks of cabbages under a lowering sky.  Most of the cabbages are harvested, the colours are autumnal and there’s a sense of impending storm.

Cabbage Harvest, 1943-45

In another room are paintings made in the post-war period, including tow of the most striking that Burra created.  Silver Dollar Bar (c.1953)  was inspired by a visit to the eponymous bar in Boston – a locale he had painted before in Izzy Ort’s (1937).  Silver Dollar Bar was painted after another visit to the bar by Burra while he was staying with the American poet Conrad Aiken. According to Aiken’s wife Mary, Burra painted the scene from memory after he had returned home to England:

Oddly, though typical, Ed didn’t do the Silver Dollar Bar etc paintings until after he returned to England. What a memory – photographic – they couldn’t have been more ‘like’! Especially of the essence, which only Burra could do.  We’re lucky they exist since the bars themselves are gone forever.  I shall always miss them, and thus be more than grateful for the paintings, a lost juicy slice of life as it will never be lived again.

Silver Dollar Bar, 1953

Reviewing the exhibition  in The Observer when it was on at Pallant House, Rachel Cooke suggested that to understand Burra a good place to start is with  later painting,  The Straw Man (1963).  It’s a wonderful, dynamic composition, all intersecting diagonals, given a wall to itself at Nottingham.  Reproductions simply can’t compare to the experience of seeing the large original up close: it grabs you by the throat.  This is what Rachel Cooke had to say about it:

The Straw Man is purest essence of Burra: mysterious, antic, wild. Five flat-capped men – or is it six? – appear at first to be dancing, their calves bulging and stockinged, as if they had come from the ballet. Then you understand: these high steps are not celebratory. They are kicking some kind of mannequin. In the right-hand corner of the painting (right-hand corners are important with Burra; the novelist Anthony Powell recalled that this was where the artist began a painting, sweeping diagonally leftwards), a mother pushes a small boy away from the scene, her gesture confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a tale of violence, not joy.

The Straw Man, 1963

This remarkable watercolour relates to a painting by Francisco de Goya called The Straw Manikin (1791–2) in which four women toss a masked straw figure into the air with a blanket.  However, the dark menace of Burra’s large watercolour (created with two sheets of paper) is far removed from the Goya.  Burra has re-imagined Goya’s decorative scene in an urban wasteland where a group of flat-capped working-class men violently kick a straw dummy on an urban wasteland. Though the violence of the scene is metaphorical, the air of brooding menace is emphasised by details such as the train hurtling past on the bridge, and the indifferent figures standing alongside.

Francisco de Goya: TheStraw Manikin, 1791

In another room are displayed examples of Burra’s late landscapes.  In the last decade of his life Edward Burra travelled around the British Isles with his sister Anne to places such as Yorkshire, Dartmoor, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. On his return to his studio he would make preliminary drawings on sketchpads using pencil, crayons and felt-tip pens before commencing his enormous landscape watercolours.  The majestic scale of these late landscapes gives them an epic quality that is remarkable given his frail physical state at the end of his life.

Of the late landscapes, my outright favourites are  Near Whitby, Yorkshire and Valley and River, Northumberland (in the Tate collection), both painted in 1972. Neither are in the current exhibition, but there are several more fine examples of this strand in Burra’s work, most notably English Countryside (1965–7, top) and Connemara (1962-63), a superb, wild and rocky landscape that is in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth House.

English Countryside is typical of many of these later landscapes in that, although there is little evidence of human beings in these scenes, Burra did not shy away from showing man’s impact on the landscape – depicting electricity pylons, tunnels, motorways and heavy goods vehicles.

Often, these are not pure landscape views in the traditional sense, being  imbued with a sense of supernatural activity.  The most startling example of this tendency here being Black Mountain, painted in 1968.

Black Mountain, 1968 (detail)

Against a distant view of the dark hulking mass of the mountain, Burra depicts a modern-day tractor and its driver tractor with blue cans of Shell diesel in the foreground.  But they are surrounded by mysterious, medieval-looking hooded figures, perhaps cowled monks, one of whom appears to be radiating from his eyes red bolts of electricity. ‘Visitors from the past, perhaps usually invisible to the living’, suggests Andrew Lambirth in the exhibition catalogue.

While Burra was alive, his late landscapes were seen by many art critics as something of a distraction from the main body of his work.  This began to change after his death in 1976, and by the time of the 1985 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, Andrew Causey was writing in a catalogue essay that ‘these late landscapes are one of the most important and undervalued aspects of his work’.

These landscapes are not conventional, picturesque views and there is sometimes a sinister edge to them, with dark brooding colours or unlikely choice of subject matter, such as a menacing petrol tanker or bulldozer. Burra’s late landscapes seem to reflect a return to his roots, but also a concern with the despoilation of the English countryside taking place around him. There are powerful paintings in which diggers, lorries and tractors appear as monsters ripping hungrily through the landscape. Commenting on the late landscapes, Jane Stevenson writes:

In the 1950s, he turned away from the human form to concentrate on landscapes of luminous serenity and weirdly powerful flower pieces. In the 1960s and 70s, he was one of the first artists to protest about the ravaging of the English countryside that went along with the creation of the new motorways, to perceive the real costs of you’ve-never-had-it-so-good. His interest in ecology as well as in the built landscape can be charted in letters and paintings from the end of the war onwards. He produced, for instance, a series of pictures in which the vast diggers and dumpers of the construction industry have morphed into carnivorous dinosaurs, snapping at each other and at the landscape with hostility and greed.

Writing in The Observer, Rachel Cooke concluded:

It is his landscapes, though, that for me are the best paintings in this show: transcendent and wonderfully modern – you see Hockney here, and Michael Andrews – even as he nods to the masters. In his last years, Burra toured Britain, chauffeured by his sister, Anne. He went to wild places – to Cornwall, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Moors – and he gawped and gawped. “It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted,” said his friend, Billy Chappell. “He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.” Only when he got back home did he settle to work, reproducing the heather and the screes, but with curious dashes of his own: a road as blue as a river, a field as brightly coloured as an orange. And often, too, an invader or three: a crawling lorry, a demonic motorbike, a rapacious tractor, even an aeroplane, tiny in the sky, but indelibly black. Black Mountain (1968), English Countryside (1965-7) and An English Scene No 2 (1970) are unforgettable paintings: giant postcards from a man who could not ignore what was happening to England, even if it is sometimes hard to tell if her changing landscape was more a source of regret or delight. Oh, you must see this show. It is fascinating and beautiful – and we will not, perhaps, see its like again: the majority of these works are in private collections. Feast your eyes while you can.

Another section of the exhibition surveys the work that Burra did for the stage. Burra’s love of theatrical spectacle was exuberantly expressed in his depictions of music halls, and of actors and movie stars such as Mae West. He was also one of the greatest British designers for the stage in the twentieth century; he designed striking décor and costumes for several notable ballets and operas, as well as a set for the 1948 film A Piece of Cake.  Not only were Burra’s costume designs concerned with an understanding of fabric and movement, they also conveyed the personality of the individual character and had much in common with the people that appear in his watercolours of bars and street scenes. With his interest in depicting ordinary people in the streets, Burra was the perfect choice to design sets and costumes for Robert Helpmann’s wartime ballet The Miracle in the Gorbals.

Front cloth for Don Quixote, 1950

Burra’s front cloth for an operatic version of Don Quixote in 1950 was, I thought the most striking.  It depicts Quixote on his donkey heading out into the Spanish plains, with Sancho Panza behind. The Sadlers Wells choreographer Ninette de Valois recalled:

There stands out clearly a special memory: the magic front-cloth for Don Quixote. Rarely does there appear such force and spiritual strength in a stage set painting. Every line conveying purpose with a defiance that is highlighted; a fate framed in ennobling colours – whatever the outcome. We do not get such cloths today in the theatre.

The exhibition concludes with a display of Edward Burra’s paintbox and paints, alongside colour tests on opened envelopes and a shopping list.

It looks increasingly likely that Edward Burra will be accepted as one of the greatest British artists of the 2oth century. He is a unique figure, impossible to categorise, who charted his own highly individual course, never aligning himself with any particular movement or group. In the exhibition catalogue, Simon Martin gives this overall assessment of his significance:

With [his] baroque exuberance Burra does not neatly fit into the restrained and cerebral modernism of his contemporaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, John Piper or Graham Sutherland. He was not interested in good taste. If anything he embraced ‘bad’ taste: garish nightclub performers, sailors in search of a pick-up, tarts in a snack bar or dancing skeletons. He was unafraid of expressing a gay sensibility at a time when such personal honesty and an overtly camp aesthetic were by no means widely acceptable.  Decades before the contemporary artist Grayson Perry was exploring transvestism in his art, Burra was depicting men in drag and in his hilarious letters to friends adopting the alter egos of ‘Lady Ex Bureaux’, ‘Tottie’, ‘Gladys Dilly’, ‘Marguerite’ and ‘Madame Mata-Hari’.  He was not interested in what other people thought of him, but he was interested  in people,  in their foibles and eccentricities, but also in mankind’s dark side – to which he gave powerful expression during the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. His fascination with the macabre led to the creation of uncanny images of unsettling  power that are  as disquieting as his other images are humorous.

Acknowledging his importance internationally, Burra’s work was rightly included in the major survey of the art of the  Harlem  Renaissance, Rhapsodies in Black, and in time his paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War will be viewed as an important contribution to the visual legacy of that conflict.  Likewise,  his ballet and opera designs will be celebrated as some of the most significant artistic contributions to modern set and costume design, while his late landscapes, scarred with motorways, pylons and construction, will come to be seen as a powerful and un-idealised record of man’s environmental impact on the great British landscape. [...] Edward  Burra deserves to be considered as one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century: utterly unique, and to be celebrated for his extraordinary individuality.

Burra hated all the talk around pictures and once, in a TV interview, got annoyed at the question, ‘So what does it all mean then?’  With a twinkle in his eye, Burra responded, ‘Nothing’.  He died in 1976 at the age of 72 having lived far longer than anyone could possibly have predicted, and leaving a far greater legacy than he was given credit for at the time.

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