Edward Burra’s work is vibrantly coloured, peopled with wonderfully exotic characters. Drawn to bohemian, alternative life styles, he painted the interaction of men and women in jostling, noisy scenes in pubs, American speakeasies, Harlem dives, Parisian bars, transvestite clubs and London jazz hang-outs. And then, in contrast, there are the quieter landscapes of the fields, hills and cliffs around his much-loved Rye.
Burra has a very particular, engaging style. A watercolourist, there is nothing wishy-washy about either his colour tones or subject matter. The paint is vivid and layered. He would plan out his paintings in advance, then fill in the colour, starting from the right-hand bottom corner and work his way up the canvas. If you look carefully – and all Burra’s paintings deserve scrutiny as his pictures reveal their stories and people their true nature – you can often see a character lurking in the bottom right.
He had many different styles: cubist, surrealist, naturalistic, macabre, almost cartoon. His subject matter is far from romantic; he is not nostalgic about the green and pleasant land. He paints the urbanisation of the landscape: pylons stride across the fields, roads scar and snake across hills and fields. However, they are not idealised, empty landscapes; cars, motorbikes and lorries crowd the roads. And if there is an empty scene, look closely and a solitary plane buzzes across the sky.
Edward Burra was born in London but lived most of his life in Playden near Rye – referring to it as Wry or more fulsomely: “Ducky little Tinkerbell towne is like an itsy bitsy morgue, quate dead.” Chronic arthritis and a blood disorder kept him from a formal education. Consequently, he was educated at home which possibly fed his love of the countryside. Later, he went to Chelsea and then on to the Royal College of Art where he met fellow artists who proved to be lifelong friends.
His illness might have shaped his life, painting and lifestyle, however it did not prevent him travelling. He visited Spain, France and America. On one occasion he apparently left the family home simply saying he was going out – failing to announce that he was off to America, not to return for several months. He explained later that had he said he was going, someone would have tried to talk him out of it.
Burra’s influences are anything from the Old Masters to B-movies. He was a born observer, whether of the countryside or the effervescent city life. He did not paint from life but from memory, postcards and photographs. He painted flat on a table, his gnarled hands negotiating the brushes and watercolours, perpetually smoking.
He painted for years without selling very much; canvases were discarded, littered under the table, over the floor. The impetus was painting: “I enjoy the painting.” And then, as fashions changed, he was discovered and to his amusement his work was suddenly in demand. The Tate held a retrospective in 1973. His work started to attract serious sales and in 2011 Burra’s Zoot Suits sold for £2,057,250.
There is a BBC film I Never Tell Anyone Anything: The Life and Art of Edward Burra (which can be seen on Youtube). At times it is excruciatingly embarrassing to watch: he is an interviewer’s nightmare. Feeling that his work should speak for itself, he refuses or is very reluctant to open up to the interviewer, once explaining: “I never tell anybody anything, so they just make it up.” Open and forthcoming among his artistic friends, he was shy and retiring among strangers.
The paintings in the exhibition are of and around Rye and Hastings. There is a colourful, busy, noisy picture of a pub, now the Union Bar, a churchyard, an active scene of The Harbour at Hastings –the fishermen unloading the fish, packing away the sails and hauling the boats up the beach, a louche figure reclining exhausted and a slightly sinister figure intruding bottom right.
In Focus: Edward Burra – A Rye View is at the Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW, until June 7, Tuesday-Sunday and bank holiday Mondays, 11am-5pm.
* This feature first appeared in HOT, Hastings Online Times, the Hastings and St Leonards’ on-line community newspaper
Main photo: Bridgeman Art Library