Edward Burra

Paintings by Edward Burra

Born in South Kensington in March of 1905, Edward John Burra was an English painter, printmaker, and draftsman best known for his depictions of the urban underworld and New York City’s Harlem culture of the 1930s. He attended preparatory school at Northaw Place, located in Hertfordshire, until 1917 when he suffered from pneumonia and had to continue his education at home. His education ranged wider than most boys of his class, including a great understanding of French literature.

Burra struggled his whole life with rheumatoid arthritis and a debilitating blood disease which meant that he was never able to use an easel in the conventional way. He was basically forced to sit and work mostly in watercolor, unfashionable at the time, on thick paper laid flat on a table. The fluidity of the watercolor medium, though, allowed Burra to produce a smooth finish, even though he was working with an arthritic hand. Although Burra was briefly a member of the 1930s’ One Unit collective of Modernist artists , his ill health prevented him from actively joining artistic groups and cliques. He, for the most part, protected his privacy and went his own way in the art world.

Edward Burra began his art training in 1921 with a tutor, Miss Bradley, who lived in the coastal town of Rye, East Sussex. At the age of sixteen, he studied at the Chelsea School of Art for two years. From 1923 to 1925, Burra studied at the Royal College of Art under draftsman and etcher Randolph Schwabe and portrait and landscape painter Raymond Coxon. In his time at Chelsea, he established friendships which would support him his whole life; these included the costume designer Beatrice Dawson, photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer, and, perhaps his closest friend, William Chappell, a ballet dancer who became a fellow traveler and Burra’s introduction to avant-garde dance.

Burra delighted in travel. In the summer of 1925 while in Italy, he met landscape painter Paul Nash, who at that time was already well-know for his work as a war artist in World War One. In October of that year, Burra visited Paris accompanied by William Chappell and, in 1926, visited Paris and stayed in both Florence and Siena, Italy with his family. Later, in the mid 1930s, he landed in Harlem, New York, at the height of its cultural Renaissance; he had been fascinated with its culture since his early exposure to imported American jazz music. Burra’s paintings of the places he visited in the world were not made on location. Blessed with a photographic memory, he reworked images of Paris, Marseilles, and Harlem at his parents’ eleven-acre estate in Rye where he continued to live until his death.

Edward Burra has his first solo exhibition at London’s Leicester Galleries in 1929 which was followed with a second show in May of 1931. In October of 1929, he exhibited with the London Group and showed his woodblock prints at the Society of Wood-Engravers exhibition at London’s Redfern Gallery, this would be followed in November of 1942 with a solo exhibition of his paintings.  In October of 1931, Burra exhibited in the show “Recent Developments in British Painting”, alongside Paul Nash,, Ben Nicolson, John Armstrong and Edward Wadsworth, at Arthur Tooth & Sons gallery in London. Beginning in July of 1952, at the age of forty-seven, until his death, Burra had multiple solo exhibitions at the Lefevre Gallery, one of London’s most prestigious galleries. 

Edward Burra had a sharp eye for contemporary urban life and also a deep knowledge and affection for art of the past. His 1926 “Market Day”, showing two black sailors sauntering along a chaotic dockside, contains a wealth of detail from its merchant ships unloading and couples courting to the bowl of fruit balanced on the head of a woman and the jazzy necktie on one of the sailors. In his 1929 “The Two Sisters”, Burra took the eighteenth-century conventional genre of a group of people gathered socially and, showing his satirical wit, depicted the two women with pronounced rouge, lipstick and open dresses, being served by a maid who on closer look is a man in drag. Another work in 1929, “Dockside Cafe, Marseilles” shows clearly two male transvestites by the bar and a standing sailor wearing ballet shoes with criss-crossed ribbons. Burra’s life, however, cannot be read directly from his art. Although drawn to the clubs and cafés, he was a non-participating observer of these scenes which he stored in his memory for future works. 

Best known for his early images of city life, Edward Burra continued to develop his painting throughout his career. Beginning in the mid-1930s and into the war years, his work darkened with images of the cruelty of the war and the tragedy of the innocents who killed or were killed. In the 1950s, Burra started painting images of the British countryside, whose consoling pastures evolved into ones with rusting machinery, animal skulls, and an increasing sense of unease. In the 1960s through the mid-1970s, his work directly commented on the rapid change in the countryside around him. The farm tractors, lorries, and diggers in Burra’s work transform into monstrous machines ripping through the landscape. 

Following the death of his mother in the 1960s, Burra moved into a small cottage on the grounds of the family’s estate. His sister came to visit and there were occasional motoring holidays with his close friend William Chappell. Burra continued, however, to be obsessed with his painting to the exclusion of all else. After breaking his hip in 1974, his health declined quickly. Edward Burra died, at the age of seventy-one, in Hastings, East Sussex, on the 22nd of October in 1976.

Although he declined associate membership in the Royal Academy in 1963, Edward Burra accepted the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the CBE, in 1971. A retrospective of his work was held at the Tate Gallery in 1973; in conjunction with the exhibition, the Arts Council of Great Britain produced “Edward Burra”, a documentary on his life and work. In June of 2011, Edward Burra’s 1948 watercolor “Zoot Suits”, depicting two well-dressed men in Harlem, set a record at Sotheby’s for a work by the artist when it sold for 2,057,250 Pounds.

Tope Insert Image: Barbara Ker-Seymer, “Edward Burra”, 1933, Photograph, 4.5 x 3.5 cm, Tate Museum, London

Second Inser Image: Edward Burra, “Flowering Vegetables”, 1957-59, Watercolor and Pencil on Paper, 134.5 x 76.5 cm, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Edward Burra”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print, Tate Museum, London

Bottom Insert Image: Edward Burra, “Ropes and Pullies”, 1942-43, Watercolor and Pencil on Paper, 109.9 x 76.8 cm, Private Collection

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