Edward Burra

Coffee Stall. Verso: Scenes with Figures


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Graphite on paper. Verso: graphite on paper
Support: 552 × 749 mm
Purchased 1972

Display caption

Burra’s clear line allows a cutting observation of contemporary life. Scenes with Figures shows fashionable life in the south of France, with its voracious appetites, while in Keep Your Head he explored the unexpected juxtapositions of photomontage. Both works reflect his growing awareness in Surrealism, even though he never officially joined the movement.

Gallery label, April 2008

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Coffee Stall; verso: Scenes with Figures c.1930


Pencil on handmade paper 566 x 781 (22 1/4 x 30 3/4)

Front inscribed in pencil ‘1’ (circled) top right
Watermark ‘MADE IN ENGLAND, LINEN FIBRE, 1930, UNBLEACHED ARNOLD’ along bottom edge

Purchased from the Hamet Gallery, London (Gytha Trust) 1972

Edward Burra: Drawings of the 20s and 30s, Hamet Gallery, London, October 1971 (33)

Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, London 1974, pp.96-7, reproduced
Sarah Griffiths, ‘Edward Burra: “an eccentric, talented, delicate creature”’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.80, 1977, p.25, reproduced pp.23 (recto), 24 (verso)
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.195], Drawings: no.44 (verso as ‘Actors’)

The simplicity and confidence of the linear style of this double sided sheet of drawings shows the facility of Edward Burra’s draughtsmanship by the late 1920s. Drawing had been an abiding concern throughout his student years, and became at once concise and free-flowing. In style and in subject, the results shared the abbreviation of cartoons and caricature, as well as bearing comparison to the work of such contemporaries as Christopher Wood and Jean Cocteau.

The locations in the two drawings have been identified with surprising accuracy. Although the title was devised by the Hamet Gallery, the artist said that the subject of The Coffee Stall was that located at Hyde Park Corner.[1] His friend Barbara Ker-Seymer placed the Scenes with Figures in the south of France.[2] If these identifications are correct, the geographical distance would suggest that the drawings were separated in time or that they were made from memory. It is likely that The Coffee Stall was the earlier of the two, both because of the simpler style and composition, and because there was a closely related drawing of a news-stand upside down on the reverse; this was erased but remains visible under Scenes with Figures. The evidence of the watermark indicates that work did not begin until at least 1930.

The paper is a good quality handmade NOT wove favoured by Burra. He seems to have acquired a stock of the paper as he used it for works in the 1940s, such as Soldiers at Rye (Tate Gallery NO5377). The sheet was rather badly handled and creased; it required repairs to some small tears and cleaning of surface dirt. The drawings on both sides were executed in a soft graphite pencil.[3] The forms seem to have been established tentatively in faint pencil lines which were then strengthened. In relation to a comparable drawing, Sarah Griffiths has commented on Burra’s ‘painstaking reinforcement and correction until a smooth, apparently solid line emerges’.[4] This approach is clear in Scenes with Figures, where the edging forward of a firm line is visible for instance on the forearm of the man at the right. The erased news-stand drawing confirms that some pencil lines were sure and heavy enough to leave clear imprints.

The Coffee Stall shows the casual interaction of a group of strangers. Only the trio of soldiers at the right have direct contact, while the others are varied social types thrust together in search of a warming refreshment. The two men in caps with their collars turned against the weather sport fashionable shoes; the gesture of the one with the curiously blackened face echoes that of the man in the top hat and evening clothes, heightening their contrasting status. At the left the match-girl appears bewildered and poverty-stricken, with a broken shoe. The man next to her - like the central soldier - is only partially drawn, suggesting that the work was abandoned. The frieze-like composition of the nine figures at the stall was modified by the introduction of the foreground figures which contrast a working man with a distrustful lady. The portrayal of the latter is carefully measured as behind her bejewelled appearance of affluence are indications of hard times: her make-up disguises her age and the mirror on her bag is broken. The profile of another woman is faintly sketched at the centre but was not pursued; it was an afterthought fitted between the feet of the men at the stall.

A similar street encounter - with the texture of class distinctions likewise established through dress - was the subject of the erased drawing on the reverse. In the right half, a monocled and top-hatted gentleman in evening dress is seen buying a newspaper from a vendor whose other customers include a woman, a man in a trilby and, at the right, a man in a cap. The composition was less resolved and more effaced to the left, where another top-hatted gentleman in evening dress, accompanied by a woman in furs, is associated with a man in a cap and parts of a car (perhaps a taxi). Some of the lines of the men’s starched clothes appear to have been ruled. In observation and style the whole is quite close to The Coffee Stall, although the assertion that the news-stand drawing is a ‘study’ is not born out by the subject.[5] Indeed, some of the resolved characters (the group of the man in a trilby, one in a cap and the newspaper vendor himself) recur in identical form in a related drawing of the same size known as The Newspaper Seller (private collection);[6] the attribution of this sheet to 1934, is indicative of the difficulty of dating these works.[7]

Scenes with Figures, which is also an imposed and descriptive title, is altogether more voluptuous in sense and style. After the news-stand was erased, Burra turned the paper the other way up, but the remnants of the vehicle’s wheel may have stimulated the fullness of the leaf and the headgear of the woman near the centre of the new image. Here, comment on the relationship between classes gives way to a caricature of a more deliberate social encounter with implicit sexual intent. All the figures glance surreptitiously or flirtatiously out of the corners of their eyes, while other parts of their anatomy are alarmingly distorted. The flat-headed men are rugged but full-lipped, while the limbs of the women diminish towards their extremities. This is especially notable in the tiny hands and feet of the figure at the left, identified by Ker-Seymer as ‘Baronne Murat, who was staying on the Riviera when Burra used to go there in the early 1930s’.[8] The heavy line of the drawing and the persistence of that of the erased image together suggest that Burra anticipated making this into a painting which could obscure these revisions; such a process was begun in the contemporary Interior, 1930-1 (private collection).[9]

The disjunctive space and repetition of figure types in Scenes with Figures has encouraged the proposal that the drawing represented ‘two separate scenes’,[10] while Causey has identified the figures as ‘actors’.[11] The artist clearly had an eye for such contrasting types as subjects for his work. In 1927 he wrote from Cassis - in typically mocking style - of a similar woman with an ‘enormous body & weeny arms & legs’, adding: ‘I adore her especially when she lies on the beach with a handkercheif [sic] over her face to keep the sun off, she looks like a relief map of the lake district [sic] modelled in play wax by the pupils of Bermondsey Board school’.[12]

The barbed wit of Burra’s letters was heightened in his drawings. Scenes with Figures may be seen in the context of his set’s sexual explorations of the south of France, and in particular both the artist’s homosexuality and his fascination with prostitutes. Aspects of this sexual exploration was shared with others such as Paul Nash, who wrote to Burra from Marseilles ‘the city of cities’: ‘If there is anyone today who doesn’t know what sex appeal means they shld come here’.[13] Burra’s drawing has the hedonistic charge of a bordello, even down to the presence of the monkeys greedily feeding on fruit and the necklaced dog (reworked from Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding in the National Gallery) which suggest animal appetites. Causey has remarked upon the artist’s ‘favourite haunts’ in the ports of Marseilles and Toulon ‘where different nationalities, including French, Arabs and Negroes mixed, and life in cafes and bars was lively and informal’.[14] Beyond this biographical location, Andrew Stephenson added the wider social context of such works, referring to their ‘investigation of foreignness’ as well as their making of ‘an artistic commodity of ... poverty and destitution’.[15] In Burra’s work exploitation and transgression were intertwined. A drawing of the same period, Dreams,[16] brought together a skull, a woman and a hypodermic, paralleling the opium addiction rife in the fashionable circle around Cocteau.

This edge of decadence lent power to Burra’s drawings in the climate of middle class affluence in the late 1920s, and drew immediate admiration. His first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries (April 1929) led him to be ‘hailed as the modern Beardsley ... his work is certainly as brilliant, macabre, decadent, and even vulgar as that of the genius of the “nineties”’.[17] Reviewing the same exhibition under the subtitle ‘A Brilliant Newcomer’, R.H. Wilenski noted with equanimity the ‘sordid glamour of the Marseilles underworld’ in drawings ‘that recall the most skilful productions of Pascin in his youth and have a bite and tang to replace Pascin’s exquisite delicacy of touch’.[18] The comparison to Pascin - who was renowned for his erotic nudes - reinforced the transgressive nature of Burra’s work, just as Wilenski’s descriptive language carried undertones of decadence.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, London 1974, pp.96-7
[2] Ibid.
[3] Tate Gallery conservation files
[4] Sarah Griffiths, ‘Edward Burra: “an eccentric, talented, delicate creature”’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.80, 1977, pp.24-5
[5] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, pp.96-7
[6] Reproduced in Edward Burra: Drawings from the 1920s and 1930s, exhibition catalogue, Lefevre Gallery, London 1993, p.55, no.26
[7] Verso: Music Hall, in Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, [p.200], Drawing no.65
[8] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, pp.96-7
[9] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.197], Drawing no.56
[10] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, pp.96-7
[11] Causey 1985, [p.195]
[12] Burra, letter to Ker-Seymer, 4 October 1927, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2, published in William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985, p.38
[13] Nash to Burra, undated postcard, Tate Gallery Archive 7050
[14] Causey 1985, p.17
[15] Andrew Stephenson, review of Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford Art Journal, vol.10, no.1, 1987, p.115
[16] Reproduced in Edward Burra: Drawings of the 20s and 30s, exhibition catalogue, Hamet Gallery, London 1971, no.34
[17] ‘Two “Modern Exhibitions’, unidentified presscutting, 4 or 5 April 1929, Tate Gallery Archive 771
[18] ‘Brains in Modern Art’, Britannia, 5 April 1929, p.249

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