Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Edward Burra: Pallant House Retrospective

Edward Burra, Country Scene 2, 1970
Why do we neglect British artists so badly? When you think of the effort made by Kenneth Clark to employ painters during World War II, both as war artists and on projects like Recording Britain, you have to wonder what has gone wrong since. Look at Edward Burra, one of the most original and extraordinary painters of the century.

Edward Burra, Silver Dollar Bar, 1948
He worked from the 1920s to the 1970s, travelling widely and painting subjects as diverse as 1930s Harlem, the cafes and hotels of French ports and bizarre skulls and skeletons. Prolific and inventive, he brought to the world an eye that was neither Modernist nor traditional; in fact his vision doesn't fit any of the maps of 20th century painting. For that reason he ought to be celebrated as a true original but instead art historians (the map-makers) have skirted around him.

Burra doesn't even sound British, and his work certainly doesn't look British - where are we supposed to put him? What were his influences and who, in turn, did he influence? Where does he belong in the evolution of art? 

Visiting the recent Watercolour show at Tate Britain I was knocked sideways by a gigantic painting of a church interior. Surely it couldn't be watercolour?! It was too big, too bold. It stuck out among the gentle washes and topographical details like the sorest of thumbs. I didn't know then that the artist who made that picture was crippled, often barely able to use his hands. I didn't know that he painted in the strangest way, starting in one corner and working his way like a spider across the paper. I didn't know that he was born and raised in suburban luxury, just outside Rye, and lived his whole life either at his parents' house (which he hated) or in the town itself (which he didn't like either).

I did happen to know that he was a friend of Paul Nash and studied at the RCA during the 'outbreak of talent' that included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Rex Whistler (Fine Art) and Ravilious and Bawden (Design). Burra appears in 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', accompanying the Nashes and their friend Ruth Clark on a disastrous 1930 trip to the Cote D'Azur...

Edward Burra, Valley and River, Northumberland, 1972
These few bits of information make Ed Burra seem all the more extraordinary, so well done to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester for putting on the first major retrospective of his work in a quarter-century. Hooray! It starts at the weekend and runs until February, and personally I can't wait to get there. I'm particularly keen to see the late landscapes - there was one fabulous example in the Tate's Watercolour exhibition - with their lovely greens and idiosyncratic design.

A new monograph is being launched at the show, but I would also recommend Jane Stevenson's book and Burra's letters - his writing is as peculiar as his painting. You can also see the artist's work in 'The Strawberry Thief', Jeremy Deller's show at the Fine Art Society - which also features Deller's model of a Ravilious plant house.

For a slightly different take on the subject, look here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Andrew Lambirth has a piece on the Burra exhibition in this week's Spectator, in which he also discusses the late landscapes. Link:

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/subscribers/the-magazine/7545888/burra-revealed.thtml

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