Nowadays, the words ‘great’ and ‘greatest’ are bandied around with egregious abandon, but a strong claim can be made for averring that Edward Burra (1905–1976) was the greatest British painter of the Twentieth Century. Certainly he was, as Jonathan Meades described him in a Radio 4 Great Lives programme, “the greatest watercolourist imaginable”.
In a career spanning more than fifty years, Burra pursued his own path, through many different phases, despite the major disadvantage of poor health throughout: from a young age, he suffered from a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis and then hereditary anaemia, which tired him out quickly, thus his propensity for watercolour over the more labour-intensive oils. In later years, it was discovered that he had an enlarged spleen which caused him further, intense pain. Crucially, these conditions seem to have dampened his (gay or bisexual) libido into nothing further than looking and longing, and one can’t help but speculate that his art contains the subjugation of his sex drive.
Born at his maternal grandmother’s house, 31 Elvaston Place (above), in South Kensington, he lived much of his life in his well-to-do family home, Springfield Lodge, in Playden, just to the north of Rye. Although he was sent to a boarding prep. school, he – or rather his rheumatism-addled body – baulked at the thought of the Eton entrance exam and his parents, to their credit, enabled him to be home educated. As his copious and brilliantly droll, gossipy letters attest, his grasp of spelling and grammar was atrocious; nevertheless, he was extraordinarily well-read and became fluent in French and Spanish.
At the age of not quite 16, he enrolled at Chelsea Polytechnic (above), in Manresa Road, and there learnt the basic of what was called ‘commercial art’, as opposed to the more classical theory of, say, the Slade, and progressed to the Royal College of Art, where there was little they could actually teach him, such was his ability by then. At Chelsea and the Royal College he met and became lifelong friends with a core group – among them, the later-to-be ballet dancer and choreographer Billy Chappell, Barbara Key-Seymer, who became a brilliant photographer and Clover Pritchard, who was just brilliant full-stop. Due to his condition, Burra was inevitably more of a brilliant observer than a participant. Chappell, in Well Dearie (1985), his selection of Burra’s letters, noted how Burra’s talent flourished:
His great gifts were obvious. Still in his teens he drew like an angel with a strength and purity of line more than exceptional. The years at Art School nourished and developed his obsessive interests. His absorption with the fantastic, the grotesque and the absurd, and always with visual truth[.]
The quartet of friends established themselves within the wider socialite circles of the ‘Bright Young Things’ who lived for the wild parties fictionalised in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies. As Chappell said:
Edward and his friends were scrambling out of adolescence into a world of high, and excessively perverse, sophistication. How tempting and dangerous, beautiful and wicked, gloriously anarchic and strange, Life appeared. Sexual ambiguity was the rule. Sexual promiscuity and sexual aberration the mode. Had Edward known quite ordinary strength and health there is little doubt he would have become extremely wild. Wilder than any of them.
After college, Burra returned to Springfield, where he produced gloriously colourful and louche figurative paintings, much against the grain of the prevailing trends, and always from memory, without preparatory sketches. He made frequent trips up to London to see his friends and then, from the late Twenties afterwards, popped out, without telling his family as they would only have fussed, to places further afield: the fleshpots of Marseilles and Toulon; New York, or more precisely Harlem where he recorded street scenes and nightlife with an appreciation which few White artists of the time accorded; Spain, just before the Civil War; and Mexico. All those places inspired his art, or ‘fart’ as he offhandedly called it – though he had a deep knowledge of the canon of Western art.
Burra’s friend Paul Nash roped him into Unit One and the Surrealists, but he wasn’t an artist who could easily be pigeon-holed and he wasn’t a natural joiner – he rarely even attended his own exhibitions and apparently cared little for his paintings once they were out of the door. In an age of artistic movements, his recurrent refusal to be easily categorised did him no favours, and still today means that his name is far less known than other, much less technically gifted painters like Nash. That’s not to say that he’s unknown; far from it: among the super-rich cognoscenti, his most prized works sell for millions.
In many of his paintings, there is an underlying and disconcerting oddness, born, perhaps, of not having been expected to live long and of the trauma of seeing Betsy, the beloved youngest of his two sisters, die a long and feverish death from meningitis at the age of 12. That oddness often took on a more sinister appearance; as Meades says, “He makes everything look threatening”. But that is an over-statement, as Burra’s paintings are also very often trenchantly amusing and full of small details containing intriguing sub-narratives. The people in his paintings are almost always frozen in the act of doing something, from the seeming mundanity of drinking tea or biting a ham roll, to flirtation, striptease or fortune-telling.
Burra’s friendship with Chappell and Ashton and the world of ballet in general led to his designing sets and costumes for numerous productions in which his work was frequently cited as the best feature.
Ahead of his time, from the late Forties onwards he became a prolific recorder of British, mostly English, landscapes, and their degradation by road building. His sister Anne, who took on the principal role as general carer for him once their parents reached their dotage, would drive him all over the country, the wilder the terrain the better – as his biographer Jane Stevenson observed, “He loved the bare landscapes of England”. One could easily make a case for him being a proto-environmentalist.
Ultimately, it is the rich range of Burra’s work which sustains his reputation – and its manifestation of a well-travelled, outward-looking Englishness which our current political leaders seem only too keen to suppress. At times, there are hints in his art of the influence of predecessors and contemporaries, such as Arcimboldo, de Chirico, Dalí, Dix, Goya, Grosz, Ozenfant and Posada; yet none of them are especially key influences, and his vision was resolutely, and almost always instantly recognisable as, his own. His paintings are so full of zest and unspoken, hinted-at stories that they trigger memories and thoughts of my own which have, I hope, a similar outlook and characterisation. I can identify with his contradictory love of life and misanthropy. He is a heroic figure, who, though blessed with a wealthy background, overcame a disability which would surely have defeated other souls. He threw what energy he had into his paintings (and his letter-writing), with a controlled, thought-through looseness to which all great art surely aspires.
That Burra lived most of his life in the part of the world from whence my Paul grandparents’ forebears hailed adds to my sense of connection with him. My paternal and idiosyncratic grandfather, Walter RH Paul (1903–1989), from Eastbourne, thirty miles west of Rye, undertook teacher training at the College of St Mark a mile away up the Kings Road from where Burra was honing his craft at Chelsea Polytechnic. I like to imagine they may have bumped into each other occasionally, but who knows.
If you are unfamiliar with Burra’s art, you’re missing out. Seek it out.
All of this is a long preamble to the fact that, last summer, I wrote several poems inspired by Burra paintings. Many ekphrastic poems seem to me to be simply a rendering into words of the scene depicted in the artwork. I tend to use them, as I always did on Pascale Petit’s now legendary Poetry from Art sessions at Tate, as springboards to explore my own tangents. That’s the case with both my published poems after Burra: ‘The Nitpickers’, and ‘Blue Baby: Blitz Over Britain’. The latter is one of three poems of mine published in the spring issue of The High Window today.