“[Edward Burra] satirizes the present with an alarming gentleness, sympathy and an abandoned feeling of nonsense. His world is not pestered by vain attempts to rationalize. It is the topsy-turvy world we somehow live in…”
John Banting (from Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered; Andre Deutsch, 1982).
Portrait of Edward Burra (1905-1976) by John Banting [1930s; National Portrait Gallery]
Greetings! What a glorious meeting we had on Saturday exploring the early paintings of Edward Burra – and indeed his world. Whether London, Paris, Marseille or Harlem, the theatre and ballet, films or illustrated magazines and paperback-thrillers, all inspired his imagination and the pictures are packed with people going about their business; with drama and humour they offer quite a perspective on the 1920s Jazz Age. The early works, certainly, deliver a fairly benign vision of the ‘underworld’ – the sex workers, sailors and dubious-looking characters – that must have represented such excitement and freedom so far were they from the respectability of Rye and, indeed, the exhaustion of illness, not to mention the cultural shadow of World War I.
The best books – and there are very few – on Edward Burra, are:
Jane Stevenson’s biography “Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye” (Jonathan Cape, 2007)
Simon Martin’s Pallant House Gallery exhibition catalogue “Edward Burra” (Lund Humphries, 2011)
The Tate website has a fascinating Rothenstein Lecture by Andrew Stephenson: New Ways of Modern Bohemia’: Edward Burra in London, Paris, Marseilles and Harlem as well as some digitised archive images, such as this wonderful woodcut “Balcony” (c.1928/9):
There is also a (rather tame) episode of Radio 4’s “Great Lives” on i-player with Jane Stevenson and Jonathan Meades, and (currently unavailable) a documentary by Andrew Graham-Dixon “I Never Tell Anybody Anything: The Life and Art of Edward Burra” (which might be found on YouTube)
For Burra’s art works, the best places are Christies and Sothebys – click on the picture and sometimes there’s a “Lot Essay” further down the individual pages.
Other interesting websites for the 1930s more generally are: Cocktails with Elvira – all about Elvira Barney and her circle of friends, and for some great photographs and a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance period: allthatsinteresting.com
For an overview of the Bright Young People scene in 1920s & 30s London:
D.J. Taylor’s “Bright Young People” [Vintage, 2008] is an excellent and highly recommended read.
Drawing on the writings and reminiscences of the Bright Young People themselves, D.J. Taylor has produced an enthralling social and cultural history, a definitive portrait of a vanished age.
And for a broader social/ political history of the 1930s, Juliet Gardiner’s book “The Thirties” (2011, HarperCollins) is, to my mind, the very best.
One aspect we discussed was Burra’s admiration for Josephine Baker:
Went to the Casino de P[aris] revue, glorious my dear. Ive never enjoyed so much for years. J[osephine] Baker rose out of a gilded casket in a green evening dress to the floor trimmed with diamonte & sang ‘King for a day’ in English. Never have I heard anything so lovely.
– Letter from Edward Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer [Tate]
And Baker is still, of course, renowned as a performer, a pioneering artist on stage and screen. She was also, through World War II, a highly skilful and successful spy. And she is about to be honoured in Paris.
In The Times (4th Sept. 2021), Ben Macintyre writes:
“It is primarily in appreciation of her work as an agent of the French Resistance… that Baker’s remains will be interred at the Pantheon in November. She will be only the sixth woman to received France’s highest honour, the first entertainer and the first black woman to be laid to rest in a national mausoleum… alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Voltaire.”
I believe this will be happening on 30th November, and they’re bound to broadcast it on the France 24 channel (streamed on the internet, in English).