Header Painting: Detail from Harlem, 1934, by Edward Burra. Brush and ink and gouache on paper.
© Tate.

Essential Reading: Edward Burra. Discover probaly the most underrated ever artist in this 176 paged book by Simon Martin. For me, it is the monograph that brought his world to life.

Edward Burra: Biography >> Trivia

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Edward Burra (1905 - 1976) ~ My Notes

Born: 29 March 1905, near Rye, Sussex, UK.
Died: 22 October 1976, Hastings, Sussex, UK. Aged 71.

I stumbled across the strange but wonderful art of Edward Burra by accident. I had kind of known of his work, or namely of the famous The Snack Bar (1930) painting as wandering through Tate Britain over the years I would stumble across it, marvel at it, and then move on to a Gertler or a Spencer, and anyone who has seen the Spencers in the Tate would understand how they dwarf almost anything. But the Burra stayed with me nonetheless though I forgot the artist's name.

One visit to the Tate in 2013 when I was going to see the Lowry exhibition I had another wander through the gallery and again found the Burra and photographed it below.

edward burra snack bar painting
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The Snack Bar, Photo © Paul Page, 2013. Subject © Tate

Seeing it again blew me away. Beautiful but ever so uncomfortable, sinister even, the way he holds the knife and the way she eats - its like watching two human sharks having a bite to eat. I think of the man as a young 'Mack the Knife'.

I saw the name of the artist: Edward Burra. I vaguely recalled the name and thought he was American. Don't know why; the name to me sounded American. And then I remembered the Harlem pictures and realised why I had thought he was from the States. I mean, someone who had such in-depth feeling for the culture of the Harlem streets in the 1930s, someone who could convey what he witnessed with so much jazzy warmth and joy, must have been from those streets, from New York, from under the same rooftops and skies as his subject matter.

To my utter amazement, I found out that he grew up in Rye and lived much of his life around there! Rye to those that don't know is a pretty and tranquil town on the South Coast in the Uk, now famous for the fact that Paul McCartney has a country estate nearby and Henry James lived there. But is as far removed from the tough streets of Harlem as night is to day.

So I endeavoured to find out more about the man behind those remarkable pictures and much is included in the 'Trivia' section below.

Why he is not as well known as a Spencer or Bacon or Freud s beyond me. His work now can sell for over £2 million quid at auction and yet to so many people his work is still unknown. I don't know why as Burra's big figures are once seen never forgotten.

Could it be he worked mostly in watercolour and not oil? Or that he was a private man who didn't enjoy expanding on what he meant by his work? Or that he was an outsider who never really felt inclined to be an insider?

I just don't know.

Above Text © : Paul Page, 2014.


Recommended Reading: Edward Burra - Tate Gallery Publications (1973)

He came from a well to do family and grew up in a splendid house at Playden, near Rye. You really have to see it to believe it, Certainly it was an upper middle class upbringing. Financially, I can see him wanting for nothing.

He had life-long health problems. Chronic arthritis and a blood disease which severely sapped his energy. I'm sure these problems had a major impact on how visionary his art was. To me, I think Burra always considered himself an outsider, looking in on a window to the human condition. He worked from a perspective only an outsider could reach - someone detached from everyday life - and that perspective saw things those that lived in the everyday life had neither the time nor inclination to know were there. Just look at some of his figures, really look, and see if you can see what I mean.

If you never have to worry about making a living or making ends meet because of a wealthy family then I don't think it can be denied it does give you a wonderful advantage in life to follow what you really want to do. Or in other words, or to use a cliche, to follow your dreams because you ain't short of cash. This is not a criticism, maybe a touch of jealousy on my part, for what he did with that freedom of money worries is something few could achieve. What a body of work.

Ill health prevented him from going to Eton. Attended Chesea Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art.

Throughout his life worked mosty in watercolour.

First solo exhibition at the age of 24. Leicester Gallery, London.

Retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1973.

Died in hospital in Hastings in October 1976.

Travelled and exhibited widely throughout the world. US, obviously and France, Spain among other places.

Modern urban life is the key theme in his work. He observes it and if you study his work then nothing is as it seems. He seems to subvert everything!

He was influenced by artists such as Bosch and Max Ernst. Surrealism is all to apparent especially in the latter works. I say influenced but like all great artists he absorbed these influences until they were his own and his own vision. To me his fantastic imagery is the 20th century equivalent of that of the imagery of Bosch. Can there be a higher compliment to compare him to that ultimate of alchemists.

Collectors have reported that he often used both sides of the page to work on. Thus, someone buying a framed Burra at auction would open it up and tot heir surprise there would be a 2nd Burra on the reverse. 2 for the price of 1.

Sister Betsy died of meningitis in 1929, aged only eleven

Avid cinema-goer and the influence of early cinema is really apparent in his work. The close-ups of heads are reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Chaplin. You see their heads in those films in unusual close-ups and then you look at the figures in Burra's heads and the resemblance is clear. Cinema, unlike theatre, is made up of close-ups and Burra picked up on this in his work. Furthermore, he collected postcards of film stars and used them in his art thity years before Warhol would use similar techniques. He was so obviously ahead of time surely widespread recognition of this fact alone is long overdue.

Was a valued book illustrator, theatre set designer and costume designer.

Mae West was one of his favourite film stars and captured her in watercolour in 1934/5.

Strangely for someone who was such an alchemist of the human form, from 1959 to his death in 1976, 'landscape became his main subject matter.

Member of Unit One.

He was familiar with the work of Georg Grosz. That influence is probaly the easiest to see in his work. Imagine getting Grosz, Otto Dix and Burra in the same room to paint a portrait. Now that would be remarkable to see what they came up with.

Declined membership of the Royal Academy in 1963 but accepted a CBE in 1971.

Unrealistic perspective is what grabs me about his work. Its what make it, for me, akin to the greats of German Expressionism. The tricks to the mind are similar to stills from a Fritz Lang movie.

In 1936, his work was included in both the 'International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London and ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Edward Burra: Biography >> Trivia

Frank Auerbach >> Francis Bacon >> Baselitz >> Joseph Beuys >> Christo >> Salvador Dali >> Lucian Freud >> Hundertwasser >> Jasper Johns >> Anselm Kiefer >> Jean Marais >> Lichtenstein >> Anus McBean >> Picasso >> Egon Schiele >> Stanley Spencer >> Andy Warhol >> Edward Burra exhibition posters, exhibition catalogues, books and more @ (direct link to rarities) >> Advertise here >> Edward Burra Books available @

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