Edward Burra

A British artist born in 1905, who died in 1976. He suffered with severe rheumatoid arthritis all his life, and this may be a reason why he worked mostly in watercolour.

He was born in London, into a wealthy family, and lived most of his life in Rye in Sussex, although he travelled and many of his works are set in places he visited, especially Harlem and Marseille, where he spent many hours in bars and cafe’s observing the lives and mores of the people who frequented them.

This painting of Harlem street life is an example. (see fig.1)

Harlem 1934 Edward Burra 1905-1976 Purchased 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05004
Fig. 1. Harlem (1934) 

Unlike many English artists of his time, he was fascinated by the lives of people who lived in the less prosperous, underpriveleged quarters and whose existence was precarious, and edgy. His compositions, always drawn from memory (he never sketched in situ), incorporated material from the ideas of other artists, and from films and magazines. They contained subversive elements, dark and sinister aspects and hinted at the potential for malice and evil in society. He was not a slave to perspective or proportions, and his pictures were often very busy and full of action and intrigue.

His watercolours are characterised by the use of vibrant colour, applied thickly in several coats, almost like oil paint. He never used washes, and apparently used spit instead of water to wet his paint.

In the 1930’s he flirted with Surrealism, although he didn’t consider his work to belong to that genre. He admired the German Neue Sachlichkeit artists George Grotz and Otto Dix. Burra’s Gouache and ink wash painting of 1934, Dancing Skeletons (see fig. 2) is typical for this period. It is fanciful in the use of unrealistic colours (the pink and blue skeletons).

Dancing Skeletons 1934 Edward Burra 1905-1976 Purchased 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05005
Fig. 2. Dancing Skeletons (1934)

Another watercolour, Birdmen and Pots 1946, (Fig. 3) illustrates the influence of surrealist painter Max Ernst. Typically, he draws on a mixed variety of sources, both “high” and “low” art and skillfully combines them. The work has a mythical feel to it, as if illustrating a well known story, but there is no hint of it’s source in the title. The vivid colours are actually from a limited palette of yellows and reds, with slashes of the complementary colours purple and green. There are repetitions of motifs, the bird beak and elipses and circles which serve to hold the composition together.

Birdmen and pots

Fig. 3. Birdmen and Pots (1946).

He painted landscapes throughout his life, but once again, was not interested in the depiction of romaticised views, but incorporated more sinister imagery, sometimes fanciful and cartoon images with hints of humour.(fig. 4 & 5)

burra_pickingquarrel 1968

Fig. 4. Picking a Quarrel (1968)

Valley and River, Northumberland 1972 Edward Burra 1905-1976 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01756
Fig. 5. Valley and River, Northumberland (1972)

Edward Burra died at 71, when his childhood doctors had predicted that he wouldn’t survie past 21. Many of his works are in private collections, or are rarely on display in galleries because of the fragility of watercolours to damage by sunlight.


Figure 1. Burra, E. Harlem (1932). [watercolour] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05004 (Accessed on 22/01/2016)

Figure 2. Burra, E. Dancing Skeletons (1934). [watercolour] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05005 (Accessed 22/01/2016)

Figure 3. Burra, E. Birdmen and Pots (1946).[watercolour] At: http://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/2296/bird-men-and-pots-edward-burra (Accessed 22/01/2016)

Figure 4. Burra, E. Picking a Quarrel (1938). At: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/edward-burra-the-unquiet-
landscape/ (Accessed 22/01/2016)

Figure 5. Burra, E. Valley and River, Northumberland (1972).[watercolour] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01756 (Accessed 22/01/2016)


The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists.”Burra, Edward” The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Ed Ian Chilvers.
Oxford University Press 2009 Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University

Arts Council of Great Britain and the authors. 1985.”Edward Burra Hayward Gallery”. London. Arts Council of Great Britain



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