Edward Burra



Edward Burra 1905–1976
Ink and gouache on paper
Frame: 882 × 670 × 45 mm
support: 794 × 571 mm
Purchased 1939

Display caption

Edward Burra’s paintings of Harlem fall into two groups – street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainment. This painting, Harlem, depicts the area’s daytime street life. Several men and women are shown in front of a row of brownstone tenements, with New York’s elevated railway visible in the background. The street is shown as a place of social interaction: people linger on their doorsteps to smoke, talk and read newspapers. In contrast to the glamour and exuberance of Harlem nightlife, this painting presents a more downbeat scene of uncertain, possibly illicit, employment.

Gallery label, January 2008

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76 
Harlem 1934 
Brush and ink and gouache on paper 794 x 571 (31 1/4 x 22 1/2) 
Inscribed in black ink ‘Ed. Burra 1934’ bottom right over another inscription ‘<Ed. Burra [?1936]>’ 
Purchased from the artist through the Matthiesen Gallery, London (Knapping Fund) 1939 
Contemporary British Art, British Council North American tour 1946-7, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, ?November/December 1946, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass., Cleveland Museum of Art, Art Gallery of Toronto, City Art Museum of St Louis, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, August 1947 (7, reproduced p.43) 
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London May-July 1973 (43, reproduced in colour p.27) 
Paint and Painting, Tate Gallery, London, June-July 1982 (no catalogue no.) 
Edward Burra, Hayward Gallery, London August-September 1985 (80) 
Picturing Blackness in British Art, Tate Gallery, November 1995 - March 1996 (4) 
Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, Hayward Gallery, London, June - August 1997, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., April-June 1998 (6, reproduced in colour p.61) 
T.W. Eade, ‘Tate Gallery Acquisitions’, Times, [undated presscutting 1939], p.20 
Mervyn Levy, Drawing and Painting for Young People, 1960, pp.120-1, reproduced in colour facing p.96 
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6 
Barrie Penrose, ‘The Grand Old Recluses’, The Observer Magazine, 14 February 1971, p.28, reproduced in colour 
Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.19 
Marina Vaizey, ‘Burra’, Financial Times, 7 June 1973, p.3 
‘Obituary’, Arts Review, 12 November 1976, p.603 
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’ in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.44 
Paint and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1982, p.115, reproduced 
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.120], no.108 
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.109, no.80 
Frances Spalding, British Art Since 1900, 1986, p.86, reproduced in colour p.83, pl.68 
Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, pp.262-7 
Jeremy Lewison, ‘English Painting and the Metropolis’, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal 1991, p.427, reproduced p.428, fig.560 
Paul Gilroy, Picturing Blackness in British Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, [p.3] reproduced 
John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth, 1945, [p.27], pl.11 in colour (as ‘1936’) 
Graham Reynolds, English Watercolours: An Introduction, London 1950, revised ed. 1988, p.150, pl.139 
John Rothenstein, ‘Developments in Style XII: Burra’, London Magazine, vol.III, no.2, March 1964, between pp.46 and 47 
Janet Watts, interview with Edward Burra, Guardian, 23 May 1973, p.10 
Art Line, vol.2, no.9, September 1985, p.23 
Clive Gregory (ed.), The Great Artists, vol.4, no.91, 1986, p.2899, in colour 
Edward Burra had a number of direct and indirect connections which stimulated his trip to the United States between October 1933 and March 1934. Paul and Margaret Nash had visited New York in 1931, the same year in which they had introduced him to the American poet Conrad Aiken who lived in Rye but was in New York to greet Burra in 1933. The painter’s enthusiasm for America was already established through magazines, music and film. Expectations formed by Hollywood were fulfilled by New York as the epitome of the modern metropolis, where even the fact that ‘at high noon you cant read without electric light’ carried a frisson of novelty.[1] 
As one of the artist’s particular enthusiasms was for Jazz, it was appropriate that he began by staying in Harlem. The district was widely regarded as the capital of the ‘New Negro’. It was the locus of a combination of cultural and political aspirations in the inter-war years - subsequently dubbed the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ – whereby Black Americans seized the initiative in determining their own lives from the paternalistic and covertly racist attitudes of even the most liberal of northern whites. A generation was galvanised into a new self-awareness and assurance through periodicals such as The Crisis and Opportunity and led towards a more militant position by the political radicalism of Marcus Garvey.[2] 
Echoes of this political-cultural development reached Europe - especially Paris and London - through the medium of Jazz, which became the quintessentially modern popular music of the era of the gramophone. By the mid 1920s Burra had become an avid collector of Jazz records and, in parallel with his addiction to films, he took every opportunity to see musicals and cabarets, such as the Blackbirds in 1929 and Josephine Baker - an especial favourite - in 1933.[3] Such performers spawned a fashionable interest in the Black cause, epitomised by Nancy Cunard, who with the painter John Banting had been in Harlem in 1932 gathering material for her Negro Anthology.[4] Burra was already aware of Cunard’s privately printed, but controversial, book Black Man and White Ladyship of 1931, in which she defended her affair with the Black composer Henry Crowder and attacked her own mother’s racism.[5] The painter scurrilously asked of the book: ‘What is White Ladyship and black man if you please? ... I am dieing to read it’.[6] His acquaintance with both Cunard and Banting ensured that he was aware of the new anthology. 
Travelling to New York with the painter Sophie Fedorovich, Burra stayed with Edna Lloyd Thomas at 1890 7th Avenue until December 1933. A friend of Barbara Ker-Seymer, Lloyd Thomas was a distinguished Black actress,[7] and presumably provided the artists with an introduction to the more respectable aspects of Harlem life. After Christmas spent with Aiken in Boston, Burra moved to the lower east side of New York (125 East 15th Street) to join his friend Frederick Ashton, who was rehearsing the Black cast of Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.[8] This second location provided the painter with a more culturally mixed series of subjects. 
Nearly all the American paintings resulting from the 1933-4 stay are now associated with Harlem. They fall into two groups - street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainments. An exchange such as shown in the Tate’s Harlem, in which gesture and pose are set against the rectilinear forms of a densely detailed street, characterises a smaller gouache also called Harlem (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford) and Harlem Scene (private collection).[9] Bars and music halls provide the subjects for a variety of works including Oyster Bar, Harlem (private collection) and Savoy Ballroom (private collection).[10] The Tate’s Harlem is typical of the whole output in Burra’s use of a largely opaque gouache with ‘very little binding medium’.[11] In places this has been painted over black ink, which has contributed to flaking also found elsewhere (especially on the woman’s head, and the forehead of the man on the steps); this required consolidation. The paper was pinned for working and then edged, probably by the artist, with brown tape which subsequently caused buckling and was removed in 1997.[12] 
The sheet was the standard size used for most of the other American paintings, but it remains uncertain how many were made in New York. Burra habitually travelled with painting equipment and both of those entitled Harlem bear the date ‘1934’; in addition, the Savoy Ballroom has been identified as the Harlem included in the Unit One exhibition in April 1934, a month after Burra’s return to England.[13] However, Causey has placed this and other undated paintings in 1934-5, suggesting that they were painted in Rye from memory. An earlier Tate catalogue stated that the watercolours were made ‘after a visit to the USA’,[14] a view also shared by Bryan Robertson.[15] 
Whether or not the paintings were made immediately, they closely reflect Burra’s impressions of New York as recounted in characteristic style in a much-quoted letter to Ker-Seymer: 

Harlem is lovely rather like Walham green [sic] gone crazy. We do a little shopping on 116th st every morning there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts and a McRory’s chainstore also 40 cinemas & Apollo’s burlesk featuring ‘Paris in Harlem’ which I am plotting to go to but wont be allowed to I can see. It must be seen to be believed ... Sophie and I go out every morning and have breakfast at different quick lunchs we hope to try the Arabian nights luncheonette tomorrow the food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs & hamburgers must be consumed in NY daily and as for pies and sodas 2 minutes. After arrival we were being treated to sodas in ye patio soda shoppie done up inside with false windows with awnings in the Mexican fashion. Mae Wests new picture has just had a premiere to night I am mad to go Ime sure you would like Times Square its just a fit of epilepsy non stop twitchery night and day[16] 
Although he goes on to describe a party peopled mainly by acquaintances from London (presaged in the comparison to Walham Green in Fulham), it is significant that this vision of the eclectic vibrancy of the street is just that translated into Harlem. The transport and buildings with their complex pattern of open windows and signs locate it in New York. A sense of a slice of the vast city is achieved through the perspective of the building and the exaggerated diminution of the figures; the extension of this perspective beyond the tram is unresolved and partially expunged. Car, tram and elevated railway - the latter marked ‘BATTERY’ - hurry downtown. Other signs offer a convincing particularity: the ‘Lunc[hes]’ and ‘Grills’ of McIlroy’s (perhaps the McRory’s of Burra’s letter) occupy the ground floor of a building dated ‘1888’, and the lintel of its neighbour is numbered ‘1704’. The prominent ‘OPTIMO’ sign - also found in Harlem Scene - may evoke the opportunity of the city. Such devices, already present in Burra’s earlier works, were shared with his American contemporaries. Although this has led to comparisons with the more melancholic studies of Edward Hopper, whose work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art during Burra’s stay,[17] the sense of interaction is quite individual. 
The arrangement of figures in Harlem is more complex than in the other street scenes. Indeed the figure in a raincoat on the distant street corner to the left is a reduced version of that in the smaller Harlem, while a woman in the middle of the street has been painted out. Along the sidewalk two women pause, one before a group of men whose disposition (at the gate pier, on the steps and in the doorway) echoes that of the foreground group. There are elements of some negotiation in the exchanges. In common with the other street scenes, tall men converse with expressive gestures and strongly coloured clothes and hats. Behind the dominant man indolently smoking, two men in the doorway debate over a newspaper: they are ‘strolling’, using the street as a place of social interaction.[18] Favouring his physiognomic reading of Burra’s characters, Andrew Stephenson identified all the men as conforming to perceived criminal types, ‘notably the figure with the protruding chin and broken nose, and the figure in the foreground with large hands and small head. The image which dominates Burra’s view of Harlem street life is of a concentrated criminal underworld, which openly strolls the streets ... it is this flagrant exhibition of deviancy, which marks the particular illicit appeal’.[19] In parallel, he understands the elaborate make-up and clothes of the fur-coated woman on the sidewalk as indicators that she is a sex worker - although her groceries suggest ‘that this is her neighbourhood’.[20] Certainly, there are undertones in the exchanges, and in all three street scenes Burra’s placement and drawing of hands is implicitly phallic in a way reminiscent of George Grosz’s drawings. 
Just as his letter on arrival suggests, Burra was aware of the complex mix of cultures in New York. In the smaller Harlem a shop marked ‘ASIA’ offers Southern ‘Fried Hog’s Maw’ and ‘Chop Suey’. The Irish name of McIlroy’s Grill, in the Tate’s painting, also suggests this diversity and signals the white ownership of businesses within the Black district which led to riots against discrimination in 1935.[21] 
Significant for different reasons are the sign at the door on the right and the newspaper held by the man in the blue suit. Both are in Spanish. The sign reads ‘CUAD[?RA] | PA[?RA] | ALQUIL[?AR]’ meaning ‘Block to let’; the newspaper is La Prensa and bears the headline ‘TIRANO MACHADO’ - Machado the tyrant. This immediately lends a context other than that of the African-American community, so that all the characters may be South American. In particular, it is suggestive of the migration and exile made manifest in the different ethnic communities in New York: although the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado was deposed in a military coup in August 1933, Burra’s choice of headline seems to place his scene during Machado’s rule (and before the painter’s own arrival in America) and may suggest that those gathered on the doorstep of a ‘house to let’ are newly arrived exiles. Thus, below the bright surface, the painter appears to address more complex social issues. This is reinforced by the ‘OPTIMO’ sign which, in the economic circumstances of the depression and with President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ only just beginning to be implemented, may be seen as an ironic comment. 
It was easy for Burra to adapt his earlier exploration of street and café subjects for his trans-Atlantic experience, transferring his cultural tourism and his fascination with foreignness. Calling for an analysis of ‘the sets of meanings and social relationships which “the exotic” defines and which it authenticates in relation to cultural notions of “Otherness”’, Andrew Stephenson has noted how the Harlem paintings ‘spectacularise and make more glamorous the Negro sub-culture of New York’.[22] While this may be claimed for night scenes such as Savoy Ballroom, the three street scenes are more decrepit: the conversing figures in Harlem Scene and the smaller Harlem are shown with accumulations of rubbish. This appears to display the degradation of social life in the city as experienced and lived on the streets - what Stephenson elsewhere calls ‘the street as depository for urban waste’.[23] This relates to the contrasting social conditions of the areas linked by the elevated railway as recognised by Nancy Cunard in her Negro Anthology (1934) and favoured as a subject by Burra.[24] Indeed, the difference between the painter’s day- and night-time scenes offers a contrast between the uncertainty of daily employment and the exuberance of evening entertainment. He gauged this in both the African-American and of the Latin America communities, so that the Cubans in Harlem may be paired with those in Cuban Band (private collection), and Red Peppers (Dundee Art Gallery).[25] Burra seems to have been attracted by the glitzy costumes of these musicians, as distinct from the white dinner jackets of the Black Jazz musicians of The Band (British Council).[26] 
In itself, the timing of Burra’s trip to America may be significant. A story, described as ‘not entirely apocryphal’, of him leaving without informing friends is told by John Rothenstein and retold by Andrew Causey as indicative of independence from his family.[27] Although the sequence of his letters is fragmentary, there is little evidence to support either version, especially as arrangements had to be made with travelling companions and hosts. In 1933 - as David Mellor has demonstrated - the consequences of the 1929 Wall Street Crash were being felt most acutely in Britain and especially in art circles, where alternative means of support were being sought.[28] Burra’s ability to travel to the USA (following stays in France and Spain) demonstrated the luxury of his independent means and contrasted with the experience of other European artists; coincidentally, George Grosz, whose work he admired, returned to America as an exile from Nazi Germany in early 1933. Even though he had few demands, Burra’s material ease relieved him of this struggle and set him apart from that which he witnessed on the streets of New York. 
If he arrived furnished with the pre-conceptions of films and cabarets, Burra’s paintings show the impact of the reality of life in Harlem. Causey has remarked that he ‘liked negroes because he saw energy and vitality close to the surface in their strong facial expressions and muscular bodies’,[29] and Paul Gilroy has observed his celebration of ‘what was perceived as the primitive vitality of blacks’.[30] For Burra, part of this perceived energy seems to be enmeshed with the vibrancy of the metropolis. Harlem embodies this in the setting of the figures within a building tall enough to block out the sky and in a street where three modes of transport testify to the urgency and efficiency of the most modern technology. 
Matthew Gale 
November 1998 

[1] Burra, letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, [? Oct. 1933], Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2 
[2] Paul Gilroy, ‘Modern Tones’, Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1997, pp.104-9 
[3] Letters to Ker-Seymer, postmarked 23 August 1929 and [?Feb./March 1933], Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2 
[4] Negro Anthology, London 1934 
[5] Black Man and White Ladyship: An Anniversary, Paris 1931, see Anne Chisholm, Nancy Cunard; A Biography, Harmondsworth 1981, pp.245-55 
[6] Letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, 2 January 1932, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2 
[7] Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.54 
[8] Ibid.. 
[9] Reproduced ibid., [p.120], no.109, and no.114 
[10] Reproduced ibid., [p.121], no.118 and [p.122], no.120 
[11] Tate Gallery conservation files 
[12] Ibid. 
[13] Unit 1, exhibition catalogue, Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 1978, pp.32,36 
[14] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6 
[15] Bryan Robertson, ‘Edward Burra’, A Sense of Place, Edward Burra and Paul Nash, exhibition catalogue, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1982, p.19 
[16] Letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, ([? Oct. 1933], Tate Gallery Archive, 974.2.2, partially published in William Chappell, ed., Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985, p.83 
[17] Causey 1985, p.54 
[18] Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, p.265 
[19] Ibid. p.266 
[20] Ibid. p.265 
[21] ‘Chronology’, Rhapsodies in Black 1997, p.176 
[22] Andrew Stephenson, Review of ‘Well Dearie’ and ‘Complete Catalogue’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.10, no.1, 1987, p.115 
[23] Stephenson 1988, p.264 
[24] Ibid. 
[25] Reproduced in Causey 1985, p.40, pl.8, no.113 (colour) and [p.122], no.119 
[26] Reproduced ibid. [p.119], no.104 
[27] John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.19; Causey 1985, p.54 
[28] David Mellor, ‘British Art in the 1930s: Some Economic, Political and Cultural Structures’ in Frank Gloversmith ed., Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s, Brighton 1980, pp.188-90 
[29] Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.109 
[30] Paul Gilroy, Picturing Blackness in British Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, [p.3] 

You might like

In the shop