Edward Burra was a true English upper-middle-class eccentric. He could be waspish, camp and difficult. In 1961, while painting at home, the Royal Academy rang to ask if he would consider becoming an associate. His acerbic response was to shout downstairs to his manservant, who was speaking to them: “Tell them I’m busy.”
Birdmen and Pots, 1947
The eldest son of barrister Henry Curteis Burra and Ermentrude Anne Robertson-Luxford, he was born on 29 March 1905 in South Kensington. An attack, at the age of 13, of anaemia and rheumatic fever cut short his education and his parents, considering him too sickly for regular employment, encouraged his interest in art. After studying at home he went, in 1921, to Chelsea Polytechnic and then subsequently to the Royal College of Art.
Although not openly gay, he visited gay bars and had gay friends such as the dancer and theatrical director William Chappell, with whom he, reputedly, had an affair – though some accounts of his life suggest that he always remained celibate. He also had a camp sensibility and his copious writings have the astringent wit of an arty Kenneth Williams. A prodigious letter writer, he wrote to one friend that “I’m taking up my pen for Sunday venom, dearie, it relieves me.” A visit to London from his home in Rye, where he lived all his life, was referred to as a trip to “TinkerBell Towne”.
Best known for his paintings executed in the 1920s and 1930s of seedy urban scenes, he stands outside the modernist tradition, though among English painters there is an obvious affinity with Stanley Spencer and, to some extent, Paul Nash, who was his mentor. At a time when the avant-garde were obsessed with abstraction, Burra was more interested in painting people; whether big blondes in the local boozer, zoot-suited gangsters on Harlem streets, or musclebound sailors.
Today Burra is a rather neglected painter. His work has always been hard to define – perhaps because he worked not in oils but watercolour (it was easier on his arthritis) and because his credo was “always join the minority”.
He had six paintings in London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, but was never formally a Surrealist, and for most of his life he was represented by the Lefevre Gallery. From his 1930s Harlem pictures to the late landscapes, Burra’s view of the world was unlike that of any of his contemporaries.
His vivid paintings of Harlem in the 1930s captured a moment in history epitomised by jazz and street life and have an affiliation with de Chirico and George Grosz. The current Tate exhibition The Life and Times of Edward Burra concentrates on this, his most celebrated period.
To coincide with this, and the publication of a recent biography, the Crane Kalman Gallery is showing 30 rarely seen watercolours, primarily on loan from private collections. They span every decade of the artist’s career, from the 1930s Burlesque performers in Harlem and Marseilles, to the Surrealist images painted on the brink of war, and the later rural scenes executed in the 1960s and 1970s, redolent of Nash, which presaged the decay and demise of traditional English rural life.
These works emphasise his idiosyncratic, often rather macabre, vision and his rich sense of colour. He was a painstaking draughtsman and a great traveller. Not only did he visit Harlem and Marseilles but also Barcelona, Seville and Morocco, where he painted scenes influenced by the Spanish civil war, as well as New York, Dublin and Paris. When he became too ill to travel abroad he concentrated on England.
His work during the late 1920s to the 1940s recorded, with a sharp eye and a trenchant satirical wit, the soft underbelly of a society of cabarets and music halls, tottering towards war. His later work never quite lived up to the early panache.
Edward Burra Crane at the Kalman Gallery, London from 10 April to 10 May 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © the Estate of Edward Burra. Courtesy of the Crane Kalman Gallery
Published in The Independent