Your details


Update your details || || Logout


Art & artists

Risqué glamour: the work of Edward Burra

— January 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Edward Burra (1905–76), The Straw Man (1963)

Edward Burra

By Simon Martin, with contributions from Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevenson

 ‘Such tarts, all crumbling and all sexes and all colours’

Each succeeding generation finds things new and intriguing in the work of the British 20th-century artist, Edward Burra. His best-known work draws its vibrancy and individual personality from his journeying to the urban hotspots of France and Spain, Havana and Harlem. It feeds off the visual adventure of travel and exposure to the edginess of human encounter and sexual tension, definitively opposite to the polite and protective Englishness of his upbringing.  His painting resists easy stylistic categories. There are hints of William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis from the preceding generation of British modernists, but it often seems most closely allied to that of German artists of the 1920s such as Grosz, Dix and Beckmann.

Jane Stevenson provides an affectionate and revealing account of Burra’s personality and way of life, based on a treasure trove of his surviving correspondence. Alive with racy gossip and witty verbal inventions, his letters speak as much about the privileged social world of artists in 1920s Britain and the particular camp complexion of his close clan of acquaintances, as about his personal creative endeavours.

Simon Martin gives the reader a detailed guidance through  scenes of the risqué glamour of Parisian nightlife and dockside bars in Toulon, which provide a spectrum of sexual ambiguity. As Burra, the essential voyeur, eagerly notes, ‘The people are glorious. Such tarts, all crumbling, and all sexes and colours’. In New York’s Harlem, he was clearly attracted by the physical demeanour and the sharp fashions of its population, with the constant hint of intrigue in sidewalk conversations or the exultant energy of the dancehalls.

There was often much of the Surrealist in Burra’s imagery and he was included in Surrealist exhibitions in the 1930s in London, Paris and New York. This tendency first shows itself through the medium of collage to achieve threatening, hybrid mechanized beings, and later, in malevolent, bird-headed soldiers.  There was a noticeable transformation in mood from such subjects as the carnivalesque recreation of the mediaeval Dance of Death, John Deth, to a more profound testament of evil and menace in the face of the militaristic turn of events leading to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.  That he saw other rituals of macho bonding as inherently threatening and dehumanizing in nature, is revealed in The Straw Man.

The landscape provided another important direction for Burra to follow, increasingly in his later years. Yet, as Andrew Lambirth demonstrates, what he found in the subject was far from a vision of romantic solace. The skeleton of a horse lies beside the shafts of an abandoned cart in his wartime painting, Landscape near Rye, and a stream of ugly vehicles despoils the downland scenery in  An English Scene no. 2.

A further chapter celebrates Burra’s well-received contributions to a successful period of British ballet, as stage and costume designer in the 1930s and ’40s.  This reflected his friendship with the choreographer Frederick Ashton and other figures in the world of ballet.

This attractively illustrated and engagingly written book, produced in association with the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK, where an exhibition of Burra’s work continues until 19 February 2012, covers the full range of his work and will do much to secure a growing realization of his importance within, and beyond, British art of the 20th century.

Edward Burra bySimon Martin, with contributions from Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevensonis published byLund Humphries in association with Pallant House Gallery, 2011.176 pp., 137 colour/15 mono illus. ISBN 978-1-84822-090—4 (hardback) 978-1-869827-10-6 (paperback)


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

Media credit: Image from Edward Burra by Simon Martin et al.

Editor's notes

An exhibition of Edward Burra’s work is currently on at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 19 February 2012.

In addition, there is a special event, ‘Well Dearie: An Evening with Edward Burra’ on Thursday 26th January (6 p.m.) described as ‘

An entertaining evening of readings from Burra's witty and ascerbic letters to his friends. With British stage and television actor Frank Barrie.’ Tickets are £7.50 and can be purchased from the Gallery website.

See Jenny Kingsley's article about the art in Chichester cathedral and at Pallant House in September's issue of Cassone.

Other interesting content

Read news from the world of art