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 Edward Burra  (1905 - 1976)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: surrealist underworld figure and genre painting, theatre design

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Following is a book review by Alistair Sooke published in The Telegraph, London, September 11, 2011.  The book titled Edward Burra: 20th Century Eye is written by Jane Stevenson:  

Edward Burra could be a difficult man. In 1961, when the Royal Academy rang to ask if he would consider becoming an associate, he shouted downstairs to his manservant, who had picked up the telephone: "Tell them to f*** off, I'm busy."

He painted compulsively but seldom attended his private views. When the Tate mounted a retrospective of more than 140 of his paintings in 1973, he visited the exhibition once.
In the run-up to the show, he complained that he felt badgered: "its like a night mare to me - very wrong I'm sure but there it is," he wrote to a confidant.

The year before his Tate exhibition, he was the subject of a television documentary. After filming, he wrote to a different friend ranting about the questions posed by the presenter, who wanted to know "when this and when that & what date this & if I shat?…& what may I enquire has all that crap to do with Painting?"

Jane Stevenson's magnificent biography, her debut as a biographer and the first full-scale study of the artist's life and work, answers Burra's irritable question. "All that crap" has quite a lot to do with painting, after all.

Today Burra is neglected, frequently glossed over in histories of 20th-century British art. In part, this is because his work is so idiosyncratic (his motto was "Always join the minority"), and because he preferred watercolours to oils.

Best known for paintings executed in the 1920s and '30s depicting seedy urban scenes, he seems to stand apart from the modernist tradition.

At a time when the avant-garde was obsessed with abstraction, Burra was painting people: boozing sailors; dockside barmaids; zoot-suited hipsters hanging on Harlem street corners.
Stevenson suggests that it is time for reassessment. Burra resisted stylistic stagnation. He vigorously reinvented himself until he died in 1976, by which time he had turned to landscapes (then a strikingly unfashionable genre).

And although he could come across as cussed and cranky, to his friends he revealed a personality that glowed with warmth, generosity and wit.

He was born in Rye in Sussex in 1905, the second son of wealthy parents who could afford eight servants. A waif-like child, he suffered from anemia and arthritis, and illness intermittently crippled him throughout his life.

By 16, he had enrolled at art school in London (first in Chelsea, then at the Royal College of Art), and he was soon whooping it up with a tight band of friends, many of whom remained close until his death.

His correspondence with them is the foundation of this biography.  Burra's epistolary style is arch, gossipy and lightning quick. He had a withering disregard for spelling and grammar, and a gift for put-downs and nimble turns of phrase.

Stevenson has trawled through hundreds of "grubby" letters in Tate Britain's archives, and quotes these immensely entertaining missives at length.

During the 1920s, Burra mixed with a bohemian set of fast-living writers, dancers, lesbian socialites and men about town, whose intrigues he documented with relish in his letters. At heart, though, he was an observer.

While many around him got hooked on drugs (cocaine, morphine, heroin, Veronal), he intoxicated himself with art ("Painting is of course a sort of drug," he said). And while he was fascinated by the bed-hopping antics of his peers, he stayed celibate until his death.

Before the war, the strangeness of city life was his primary subject, and he spent much time browsing flea-markets, cafes, pubs and squalid dives, searching for the dissipated characters (hustlers, prostitutes, music-hall artistes) whom he painted in lush and lurid colours. His friend and mentor Paul Nash, whom he met in 1925 and who nurtured his career, called him the modern Hogarth.

Burra travelled extensively, soaking up Paris's seedy-chic demi-monde and the seamy side of Spain in the years before the Civil War, as well as spending time in Mexico. But it was America that really gripped him.

One evening, supposedly, he left Springfield Lodge, his parents' stucco mansion, where he lived until the 1950s, telling his mother that he was going into the garden. He didn't return for six months. During that time he lived in Harlem, drinking in speakeasies, and drawing pimps, prostitutes and drug-fiends.

The war blanched his paintings of impishness and mischief, and he turned to more sombre subjects such as bramble-tangled landscapes suggesting civilisation in retreat.

He refused to carry on producing work in the style that had made his name, choosing instead to paint uncharacteristic still lifes and semi-abstract flower paintings.

He became a heavy drinker, wasting away weekends getting plastered in Soho.  During the 1960s, he loved to stay in Islington in north London, which he described as "full of ladies pickled in years of Guinness & gin & very scruffy" (A Sunday Morning at the Agricultural Arms, his bustling watercolour from 1975, records this period).

By then, he looked so dilapidated that he often had trouble getting a drink: "No wonder they wouldn't serve me - what I looked like - methylated spirit in person".

When he accepted a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1971, it was partly on the grounds that this might help to prevent publicans throwing him out.  His cracked body eventually failed him five years later.

Burra was extraordinarily secretive and hated nothing more than for people to "Make a Fuss" on his behalf.  This splendid Life makes a monumental fuss of him, reminding us what a one-off he was; but you sense that he would have been deeply pleased with the result.

My sole complaint is that only a single painting of his is reproduced: The Tea Shop, in which a naked waitress spills tea over a goggle-eyed customer, adorns the cover.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Edward Burra (29 March 1905 – 22 October 1976) was an English painter, draughtsman and printmaker, best known for his depictions of the urban underworld, black culture and the Harlem scene of the 1930s.

Burra was born in South Kensington, London, and attended preparatory school but later had to be withdrawn due to anemia and rheumatic fever.  Burra studied at Chelsea School of Art* from 1921-3, and the Royal College of Art* from 1923-4.  He had his first solo show at the Leicester Galleries in 1929.  He was a member of Unit One* in 1933 and showed with the English Surrealists* later in the 1930s.

Burra traveled widely, and many influences are at play in his works, which were usually watercolour on a large scale in strong colours.  During World War Two, when it became impossible to travel, he also became involved in designing scenery and costumes for ballet (including Miracle in the Gorbals) and became very successful in that field.

He declined membership of the Royal Academy of London* in 1963 after being elected, but was created CBE in 1971.  The Tate Modern Gallery* held a retrospective of his work in 1973.

After breaking his hip in 1974, he had health, which declined sharply, and he died in Hastings, England in 1976.  Archive material of Edward Burra's is held at the Tate Gallery Archive.

The first major museum exhibition of Burra's work for over 25 years will be held at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester from 22 October 2011 to 19 February 2012.  It will be accompanied by a new monograph on the artist by the Gallery's curator Simon Martin and published by Lund Humphries.


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