Edward Burra, 'Harlem' 1934

Edward Burra
Harlem 1934
Brush and ink and gouache on paper
support: 794 x 571 mm
Purchased 1939© Tate

He had six paintings in London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, but was never formally a surrealist. His work has always been hard to define. From his 1930s Harlem pictures to the much underrated late landscapes, Burra’s view of the world was unlike that of any of his contemporaries.

Edward Burra stayed with my parents when he came to London, so was a regular presence in my life from an early age. I grew up with four of his pictures in my nursery – Portrait of Mae West, The Oyster Bar, Madam Pastoria and Still Life with a Smoking Gun – but at that age I didn’t make the connection between the works and the man. I thought he was a funny little person, but as I got older I became very fond of him. He had an evil sense of humour and would like to tell rather acid jokes.

He loved the cinema and talked about it often. He was also a ferocious reader of science-fantasy and introduced me to wonderful stories, in particular Conan the Barbarian. I guess it appealed to him because there was an element of surrealism in it as well as a sense of the fantasy world. This surrealist aspect runs throughout his work, even in the late landscapes.

Edward didn’t like to talk about art. He wasn’t shy, but he kept himself to himself, and didn’t go to many art openings. He liked other painters, such as Francis Bacon, but didn’t really get much beyond “I like that” and “he’s very good”. I think he thought art was a personal thing.

My father Gerald, who joined The Lefevre Gallery in 1949, knew Edward very well. His first wife had introduced him to Burra in the 1930s and he had gradually taken over managing him from that point onwards. He always said that he was the easiest artist to work with. From 1950 Edward had a show at Lefevre every two years until he died in 1976. A lot of artists, including Bacon, would come and see the work. We also showed Lowry’s paintings then, and on one occasion they met in the gallery – two artists who couldn’t have been more different. Lowry asked Edward about his work: “How do you do it?” “Spit,” said Edward. It was very funny. I think Lowry was a little bit in awe of his art.

In his earlier days he was friendly with Paul Nash, but after the war he wasn’t very sociable. He preferred to live quietly in Rye. I went down to visit him near the end of his life, which was a surreal experience – bottles of gin, cans of food, drawings all over the floor and music playing. He had contracted rheumatic fever as a child, and consequently his hands had become very crippled and he was often in pain. This was why he painted in watercolours – they were easier to use than oils. He painted flat on the table, with a glass of gin on one side, and worked out from the centre of the paper. It was amazing that he could produce his big watercolours with those hands, but you could tell that he was an artist, like Lucian Freud, who lived to paint.

Later in his life he went on motoring trips around the countryside with his sister Anne. She was a wonderful woman, who was very unlike Edward – she had been a junior tennis champion and was married to a schoolteacher. Despite the differences, they were very close, and I think she opened up a new world for him. He absorbed in his mind everything that he saw on these trips and would produce extraordinary landscapes from memory, done without any preparatory sketches. They are exact depictions of the places he visited, such as Ebbw Vale and Kilnsey Crag in Yorkshire, which became Kilnsey Crag with Pub 1972. He loved the landscape that he visited, but he also could see that it was being systematically destroyed, which upset him.