Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye 
by Jane Stevenson.
Cape, 496 pp., £30, November 2007, 978 0 224 07875 7
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Delicately, like a surgeon baring a pus-filled appendix, the man behind the counter slices a catering-size salami. His customer feeds a sandwich into her mouth, careful not to smudge the lipstick. Dolled up to the nines and facing professional competition from the pair of high-heeled legs just visible through the street door, she averts her eyes and readies herself for the first bite.

Where are we? If the taxi outside is anything to go by, Edward Burra’s The Snack Bar, an oil painting from 1930 in the Tate (but rarely shown), is set in Paris or Toulon or, plausibly, in a Frenchified Soho. Closer inspection reveals a Metro sign across the street, surely the clincher. But no: John Davenport, writing in Lilliput 17 years later, claimed he knew the joint concerned. ‘If you know Hastings really well you may recognise it.’

Hastings or wherever (‘Burra-Burra Land’ Davenport called it), Burra created here one of his finest greed scenes, stiff with innuendo. The place is a composite. The salami slicer with the Swiss roll hairdo could well be Burra himself, or his best friend ‘Dearie’ Billy Chappell. The hands incidentally look prosthetic while Burra’s own hands were grievously swollen and clawed. He had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and pernicious anaemia since childhood; for him every floppy pink slice of life was something to be eyed and fingered like a mouthwatering sin of the flesh.

Burra’s art was singularly mannered and derisive, his detailing elaborate bordering on pernickety, his superficiality barbed, his outlook sharpened and constricted by circumstances. The people of Burra-Burra Land, leering in every mirror and through every grille, were types drawn from Arthur Rackham, from Puck of Pook’s Hill, Photoplay and Comic Cuts, and dirty postcards. Even the fearsome Hispanic spooks were local villains, flashers at worst. And everywhere Burra went, with the possible exception of the North Pennines and extreme Mexico, reminded him of places in Sussex, his home county. From Brewster, Cape Cod, he wrote to Billy Chappell: ‘Its Hastings realy, the figures dearie! I don’t know how they dare parade themselves about with the most terrible gams & hanging bottoms of Babylon in very tight shorts.’

The speech patterns preserved in Well Dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra (1985) match the graphic style: lots of hilarity and drawl. Indeed Burra drew much the same way as he wrote, hunched over a table, outlining and colouring in as though composing sentences into paragraphs of eyebrow-raising entertainment. He used watercolour mainly, partly for ease of working, inching across the Whatman Antique, but also because he liked to tint. Watercolour is particularly good, he found, for grandiose magic lantern effects.

Presumably it was decided early on by Jane Stevenson or Cape (perhaps both) that, given the wealth of filmed interviews, surviving correspondence with racy friends and the ever interesting state of his health tested by remarkably extensive travels, Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye could be published unillustrated. That is, without reproductions of any of the paintings. (Part of The Tea-Shop, 1929, one of Burra’s Naughtee Paree numbers, perfect for a Folio Society Ronald Firbank reprint, makes it to the dust jacket.) Pictures, it’s true, might distract from the commissioned narrative and, anyway, biographers of painters should avoid frisking pictures for personal disclosures. Yet of all 20th-century British artists, Burra was the one who gossiped most in his art, devilling away at the details like another Dadd. Where Stanley Spencer laced his Cookham scenes with the Song of Solomon and Havelock Ellis, forever explicating in spidery handwriting, Burra made his Burra-Burra pictures speak for themselves – i.e. for him – without notes. Descriptive accounts of a few of them, here and there in the book, are no substitute.

Slipped in among many photos of family and friends, as if in defiance of an editorial dictat, are two early drawings. One is of Nanny McCallum – ‘Mrs Marsupial’, Burra called her (though not to her face) – and the other is of Betsy, his youngest sister, to whom he was devoted and whose death in 1929 at the age of 12 he communicated to art school friends in Bunterish schoolboy language: ‘And now shes croaked.’

Stevenson talks of Burra’s ‘habitual facetiousness’ and ‘camp irony’ in times of grief or pain. When things became too much he carried on behind screeds of banter. The letters, even those to his closest friends, Chappell, a ballet dancer, and Barbara Ker-Seymer, a photographer and launderette owner, rarely confide beyond being rude about third parties. Sex? Forget it. If he was to be believed, it took screen goddess Mae West to get him going to the extent of achieving an erection and that, he said, happened just once.

Protestations delivered for laughs are gags, not affidavits. Stevenson engages as an accomplished storyteller, not an intrusive sleuth, with such life as Burra enjoyed, describing background and encounters rather than teasing out the concerns that call out for attention in the life’s work. ‘Oh these memories down Memory Lane, theyre all very well in small quantities but not to be heaped on as one goes on.’

Burra was born in 1905, one year after Dalí, and brought up in Springfield Lodge, a good size house with a monkey puzzle tree in front and, before the Great War, as many as eight servants to hand. Springfield, near Rye, remained his home until he was in his late forties and it furnished him with enough domestic imagery for a lifetime. ‘Victorian watercolours in the drawing-room,’ Stevenson writes, ‘and a model of the Taj Mahal under a glass dome. There was a stuffed barn owl on the mantelpiece.’ His father was keenly conventional; his mother enjoyed ill health and cosseted herself and little Edward (‘dearest Snooks’), whose rheumatoid arthritis and subsequent ailments left him in poor shape and without an Eton education, despite which he survived into his seventies. His sister Anne was an ally throughout. He found her reliably sympathetic: ‘I dont think she cares a fig realy – she is like me.’ His cousin Lawrence also proved like-minded; the pair of them took to calling themselves Gladys and Phyllis Dilly. Edward as Gladys doubled once as Widow Twankey.

The Dilly sisters were imagined belles of Rye, the cobbled and gabled ‘Tinkerbell Towne’, as Burra dubbed it, where memories of Henry James and Stephen Crane were fresh and sightings of Radclyffe Hall and her friend Una, Lady Troubridge, lent a touch of verisimilitude to the farcical Rye that, passed off as ‘Tilling’, was the abode of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia and ‘Quaint Irene’, the resident Post-Impressionist. Burra thrived on literary and artistic connections and, in 1926, even went so far as to exhibit alongside the Quaint Irenes of the Rye Art Society: ‘Oh dear you should see it No. 1 is old Mill at Twinkleton no 2 is moonlight and old tinned Salmon & no 3 is “Church of Santa Maria del Tomato Assisi”. I have sent a dreadful little thing I did at the Chelsea P.’

‘Chelsea P’ was the Chelsea Polytechnic where, at 16, Burra met Ker-Seymer and Chappell, aka ‘Fishnet Annie’. Ganging up with them he developed his mocking style, the verbal at this stage outplaying the pictorial. His fashion notes (‘Around the bottom roses à la poached egs’) were more eye-catching than his pastoral scenes à la Claud Lovat Fraser and Chelsea set subjects such as ‘The Thief’ from Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie, for which he drew a kidnapper with a sackful of kiddies prancing past wigwam mountains and silhouette trees.

Burra probably attended de la Mare’s lecture on ‘Atmosphere in Fiction’ at the Royal College of Art in April 1923, since he started there as soon as he was 18. The college magazine reported a ‘surprisingly lively and prompt discussion’ afterwards: Burra, ‘a silent, pale boy’, as John Rothenstein described him, would not have joined in, yet undoubtedly he derived something like inspiration from de la Mare’s archness turned gruesome:

Grill me some bones, said the Cobbler,
Some bones, my pretty Sue …

The standard line on Burra is that he took his cue from Continental graphic artists: Caran d’Ache, for one, and George Grosz obviously. But even when he was producing the sort of stuff now classified by the dealers as Art Deco, his traits, ghoulish yet lyrical in tone and atmosphere, evoke de la Mare.

A screech across the sands!
That sullen Thump!
Oh, wicked Mr Punch …

A splendid variety of weaknesses for this and that, the barbed and the hammy, flavoured Burra’s style. He drew on Dicky Doyle and Edward Lear (both comic and topographic) and Ridgewell’s illustrations to Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. Later on he produced still lifes stocked with gleaming pots and pans like those in Geppetto’s gemütlich workplace in Disney’s Pinocchio. The final landscapes often look as if attuned to the lovingly asserted grottiness of Middle England in Giles cartoons.

Stevenson deems Burra ‘far more of an intellectual than most 20th-century painters’. Fair enough in the sense that he read widely, if dismissively: ‘A book by D.H. Lawrence which is so full of guts and maleness and femaleness it gives me the fidgets.’ But his intellectual curiosity was nothing like as studied as that of Paul Nash, a somewhat patronising friend, who construed metaphysicality if not surreality wherever he chanced to look. Nash came to live near Rye in 1925 and, Burra gleefully reported, was subjected by his wife to the local music scene: ‘He said my dear must you? when Mrs N executed a few steps of the dear old Elizabethan farragado “Maiden heds Bung ho” to the pipeing notes of a bamboo rigadon bought by Mrs Buchanan for 20 pesetas in Palermo.’

Through another friend, Irene Hodgkins (‘that dreadful Hodgekins nothing but a monster goes to bed twice nightly with a hippopotamus’), Burra secured the commission – the hippo happened to be a publisher – to illustrate an ABC of the Theatre, issued in tarnished silver boards in 1932. Given space enough on every other page to parade chorus boys and contortionists, ruffians on stairs, goggle-eyed audiences, an advert for Burp Jelly, he upstaged the author, Humbert Wolfe. Part skit, part storyboard and part exercise in reconstituted late baroque, it was very typical Burra. ‘I’m serious about my work, but I don’t spread seriousness around its such a bore,’ he once said.

In John Deth (1932), partygoers arrayed in funny hats and masks indistinguishable from the faces they were born with, make hideous whoopee. It’s a dance of death, of course, a Chelsea Arts Ball gone crackers; it’s also, as Burra wrote on the back, a homage to Conrad Aiken, specifically to his poem ‘John Deth’:

Come Millicent, my spangled queen!
Come thump your shivering tambourine

Burra got to know Aiken, who had lived in Rye on and off since 1924, through Paul Nash. Aiken became Burra’s connection to America from 1933 when, having been to Spain and France (a bad time in Toulon with the Nashes), he landed in New York and declared it very much to his taste, what with the ‘non-stop twitchery day and night’ of Times Square, the jazz and dance routines of brownstone Harlem (‘Harlem is like Walham green gone crazy’) and the joys of breakfast at the Arabian Nights Luncheonette (‘the food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs and hamburgers must be consumed in NY daily’). Four years later he and the Aikens went to Mexico and stayed for a while with Malcolm Lowry and his wife in Cuernavaca, fifty miles from Mexico City. Rain, altitude, the warring couples, sleeplessness and black widow spiders were bad enough but when Josefina the maid cooked them a rabbit whole, fur and all, in tepid water, he bolted to Boston, racked with dysentery and memories of overbearing altarpieces. Mexico served, in retrospect, as a permanent set where fiendish eyes glowed in the dark and conquistadores in ballet tights put the frighteners on humble folk.

Burra’s artistic development was piecemeal. Bit by bit he spread himself, feeding experience into observation and gradually loosening up. Occasionally he chanced his arm. Once, when his spleen played up particularly badly and his mother sent him to London with money for an operation, he decided instead to have a Chinese mask and dagger tattooed on his left shoulder. The paintings sprawled more, beaked predators closing in on sacrificial figures. The outside world became ever more alarming. Hardly was the ‘dear old Span civil guerre’ over, as far as Burra was concerned, than Neville Chamberlain went and announced the next bout. (Not at 11.15 p.m., as the author claims, but 11.15 a.m.; elevenses time or Sunday matins, leaving the rest of the day clear for the anticipated air-raids.) Billy Chappell became Gunner Chappell and Burra showed willing by volunteering for canteen work (‘cups washed up in a thick velouté sauce’). His war was not uneventful. ‘Well dearie what a whirl of Messerschmidt this evening they love it a little cloudy,’ he told Chappell. Besides being flown over and threatened with being the front line following an invasion, Rye – now ‘Fort Dung’, he said – felt the lack of onions acutely.

Burra’s wartime paintings included what Stevenson describes as ‘a set of alarmingly diabolic pictures of impersonally hyperactive squaddies’. Tin-hatted and masked and tightly trousered, they were part Bellmer, part Uccello. Wyndham Lewis confessed to fraternal feelings for Burra and his troops. ‘When I see the purple bottoms of his military ruffians in athletic action against other stout though fiendish fellows, I recognise a brother.’

The war brought Burra to the boil, whether complaining about evacuees or eyeing the shortcomings of a nation besieged. His sets and costumes for Robert Helpmann’s ballet Miracle in the Gorbals of 1944 were generally agreed to be the only things worth remembering about it. He attended rehearsals at Sadler’s Wells: ‘2 sharp pokes with broken bottles in the face then followed a sort of descent de la croix copied from El Greco & a resurection and scotch jig.’ A Glasgow recce gave him material for several grim townscapes and these, together with a good look at the work of his fellow Lefevre Gallery artist L.S. Lowry, set him doing more in the way of widespread semi-rural views.

Rye Landscape with Figure is his vision of postwar Britain, winter of 1947, overcast, slushy, a prospect littered with sheds and carts and lorries with their wheels come off. A gamekeeper figure enters the picture, strolling in gumboots downhill into the dreary mess. Stevenson talks about his ‘highly individualised people’. These are hard to spot, I find. Mostly they are characters drawn from stock, pop-eyed or slitty-eyed and uniformly shifty.

Middle-aged and lacking stamina, Burra made attempts to diversify, producing violent flower pieces (peonies posed with an onion) and fantasies interpretable as stiff competition for Powell and Pressburger. In landscape he found renewal. He and Anne went on day trips to Boulogne and car journeys to the North and West. For him, being in the front passenger seat was as good as being at the cinema watching the countryside glide by in Cinemascope. Stevenson remarks that ‘there were three million more private cars on the roads at the end of the 1960s than there had been at the beginning.’ Even so the roads were fairly empty. From the M1 onwards, opportunities unfolded. Burra could observe and recall, without bothering to sketch; back home he set it all down bit by bit: roadside cafés, droning Triumph bikes, cat’s-eyes glinting in the tarmac. He did topography proud, the features magnified, Cornwall nibbled by the surrounding sea, woodland draped like Mae West boas over bold bare hills. As for what went on overhead, de la Mare’s ‘clouds like sheep/Stream o’er the steep/ Grey skies’ conveys it pretty well.

There was, inevitably, a fading of impulse. He could enjoy Poldark for the scenery and cleavages and he thoroughly enjoyed Hammer horror. ‘It was called the Light from beyond Space & the plants in the conservatory began to strangle people as nameless things were carefully preserved in the cellar.’ He could read Maigret and watch Rupert Davies in the title role on TV, tamping his pipe and scenting sexual misbehaviour. But the gossipy stimulus ebbed away.

‘I am between paintings so am in a dreadful way. I hate being between so will start anything no wonder they get odd sometimes.’ Oh for the ‘oo tray’, such as the Profumo affair (‘what a squawk dearie … La Belle Keeler’), yet that happy set of events was too remote for him to use, and when he did happen to encounter a ‘boorgwah’ celebrity there wasn’t anything he could actually do with it. ‘A surly pudding face that I suddenly realised was Mr Heath!’

‘Ive got no pity it realy is terrible sometimes Ime quite frightened at myself I think such awful things.’ Drink was a solace and cannabis made him laugh, but he felt trapped. Having moved from Springfield Lodge to Chapel House in Rye, the littleness of life got to him worse than ever. Although he said once that he liked the idea of living in a jar, Chapel House set him waspishly fizzing, its small garden ‘a lovesome spot consisting of coke logs & mud’.

London still had its attractions. At the Colony Room he was introduced to Francis Bacon but they didn’t hit it off. Beyond Soho gentrification threatened, not least in Islington. ‘It will be made terribly quainty dainty wee before you can say knife.’ As for Rye, by the 1970s it was a thriving tourist destination. ‘The centre is completely given over to gyfterie and other forms of perversion,’ he grumbled. ‘Pottery plaques with the name of the house on every sweet little place.’

After he died Tinkerbell towne felt free at last to clasp Burra to its pottery-plaqued bosom, but it wasn’t until 1989, 13 years later, that Burra in Rye was staged at the Rye Art Gallery. The opening was a pleasant occasion, elevenses time on a Saturday morning with the mayor and mayoress doing the honours. Mapp and Lucia and Quaint Irene were not there in person but they were well represented.

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