Oh for the oo tray

William Feaver

  • Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye by Jane Stevenson
    Cape, 496 pp, £30.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 07875 7

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.’

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