- Andrew Causey
English painter, illustrator and stage designer. As a student at the Chelsea Polytechnic (1921–3) and the Royal College of Art (1923–5) he became a talented figure draughtsman. In the second half of the decade he spent much time in France painting intricately detailed urban scenes, which depicted the low life of Toulon and Marseille. Works such as the watercolour Toulon (1927; priv. col., see Causey, cat. no. 33) were executed in a meticulously finished and vividly coloured decorative style. Burra usually used watercolour and tempera and occasionally collage oil paints.
Burra took ideas from Cubism, Dada (notably George Grosz) and, especially, Surrealism, but his work is also linked with the English satirical tradition of William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank: Burra loved burlesque and poked fun at people’s pretensions and excesses of style and behaviour, as in John Deth (Homage to Conrad Aiken) (1931; U. Manchester, Whitworth A.G.). His first one-man show at the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1929 gained him a personal following, and his place in the English modern movement was acknowledged by his inclusion in the avant-garde Unit One exhibition in London in 1934. Burra was also a member of the Surrealist group in England and exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, but otherwise he remained independent. He was interested in artists such as Stanley Spencer and William Roberts, who also favoured modern life scenes, but there are no close parallels between Burra and his English contemporaries.
In the 1930s Burra focused his interest on Spain, where he spent much time between 1933 and 1936; the USA, which he visited in 1933–4 and 1937; and Mexico, where he and the American poet Conrad Aiken stayed with the novelist Malcolm Lowry in 1937. In Granada in 1933 Burra witnessed the outbreak of violence in the wave of anti-clericalism that preceded the Spanish Civil War. Brutality and destruction, deprivation and poverty became frequent subjects in his art, for instance in the watercolour Old Iron (c. 1938; ex-Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd, London, 1988). Burra was politically non-partisan, and his work is polemical only in the sense that it attacked all forms of cruelty and repression. While some of his paintings relate specifically to Spain, almost all were affected by the general unrest of the late 1930s, and he would often introduce other cultural traditions, such as Mexican art, into his depictions of contemporary European events.
During World War II Burra was unable to travel, and his work focused for the first time since the mid-1920s on English subjects. Landscape painting, which he began to explore in such watercolours as Blasted Oak (1942; AC Eng), was to dominate his work during the rest of his career. He travelled less as he grew older, though bar scenes in Boston, where he stayed with Aiken in the 1950s, are among his best works: an example is Izzy Ort’s (1955; Edinburgh, N.G. Mod. A.). Unlike earlier 20th-century landscape painters such as Paul Nash (whom he met in 1927), who painted only southern England, Burra looked back to Romanticism and the search for grandeur and solitude, discovering many of his subjects in the sparsely populated peripheries of the British Isles. In the late 1930s he had begun to paint very large watercolours (up to 1.55 × 1.10 m) and continued in his late landscapes a technique of joining together several sheets of paper that he had worked on separately. His sparse drawing and broad washes of colour, for example in River Rother, Early Morning (1962–3; priv. col., see Causey, cat. no. 291), give a commanding presence to his late landscapes, in complete contrast to his early small, crowded figure designs.
Burra’s occasional excursions into book illustration were very successful, but his main professional activity apart from painting was stage design. Through many friends in theatre and ballet he received a steady stream of commissions for set and costume designs for Covent Garden, Sadlers Wells and elsewhere between 1932 and 1958.
- J. Rothenstein: Edward Burra, Penguin Mod. Masters (Harmondsworth, 1945)
- Edward Burra (exh. cat., London, Tate, 1973)
- A. Causey: Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue (Oxford, 1985)
- W. Chappell, ed.: Well Dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra (London, 1985)
- Edward Burra (exh. cat., ACGB, 1985)