Edward Burra

Skeleton Party


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Support: 718 × 1041 mm
frame: 858 × 1180 × 65 mm
Purchased 1955

Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Skeleton Party 1952-4


Watercolour on paper 718 x 1041 (28 1/4 x 41)

Inscribed in red watercolour ‘E. J. Burra’ bottom right

Purchased from the artist through the Lefevre Gallery, London (Cleve Fund) 1955

Recent Work by Edward Burra, 1952-1954, Lefevre Gallery, London, April 1955 (17)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1973 (92)

Eric Newton, ‘Edward Burra’, Time and Tide, 16 April 1955, p.496
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.144], no.231

Skeleton Party was made during 1952-4, in a lull between Burra’s concentration upon the reinterpretation of the Passion of Christ, in such paintings of 1950-52 as Christ Mocked (University of Dundee),[1] and a series of detailed flower paintings undertaken in 1955-57. Although the biennial pattern of production resulted from his commitment to the Lefevre Gallery, the gap between these two series and the contrast between the caricatural religious paintings and the precisely realistic still-lifes, suggests Burra’s search for a new personal style. During 1952-54, he made landscapes, studies of fruit, as well as a number of paintings featuring anthropomorphic birds - such as The Opening of the Hunting Season (private collection)[2] - which come closest to Skeleton Party in their sense of the comically sinister.

In this respect, however, Skeleton Party represents a return to familiar pre-war territory. The technique was slightly looser but still reliant upon filling with watercolour the areas delineated in pencil (the drawing being especially visible in the rib-cages). The danse macabre, immediately recognised by Eric Newton,[3] had been one source of inspiration for Burra’s important John Deth, 1931 (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester),[4] and the Tate’s Dancing Skeletons, 1934 (N05005). He had remained interested in the iconography of death: he was aware, for instance, of the satirical skeleton images of the Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada,[5] and owned a copy of Francis Carco’s La Danse des Morts, (Geneva 1944) illustrated with medieval woodcuts.[6] Furthermore, in 1946 Burra produced book jacket designs and illustrations for C.F. Ramuz’s The Triumph of Death, trials for which are in the Tate collection.[7]

Skeleton Party may be seen as an updated reprise of Dancing Skeletons in which the ‘dead ... remind the living of their mortality’.[8] The reminder is conveyed by the brightly coloured group disporting themselves in a landscape, wearing hats and make-up, and smoking pipes. The most elaborate of the hats rivals the contemporary flower paintings in its abundance, but this is checked by the inclusion of a disembodied head. The skeletons’ glee is both comic and macabre, as their party mimics the vocabulary of poses in Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe which had set female nudity in the open in a comment upon contemporary sexual mores. Burra’s image is more bitter. The skeletons appear among pumpkins in a similar state of decay, and they are set more widely in a post-war and industrial context. They gather in front of a concrete pill-box of the sort constructed in the Second World War as defensive positions against anticipated invasion. Behind, people stand by - some tellingly assuming the same poses as the skeletons - as steam engines shunt wagons into sidings in a grey industrial landscape of the sort also depicted in Excavation, 1952-4 (private collection).[9] The distant pyramidal slag heaps have a certain grandeur but the underlying tone is one of lost vitality. The skeletons mock the maintenance of appearances in the face of decay, and set the tone for a melancholic view of the despoiled countryside which would become a significant theme in Burra’s late work. Whether Skeleton Party may be seen specifically as a socio-political allegory on the austerity of post-war Britain and its contrasting pageantry (The Festival of Britain, 1951, the Coronation, 1953) is less easy to determine.

Andrew Causey has placed the artist’s concerns at this date in a wider intellectual context. Burra was interested in Existentialist literature (which he read in the original French), with its view of the isolation of individuals from their companions and their environment. In 1947, he read Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (Paris, 1937) with admiration and in 1954, around the time of Dancing Skeletons, he was impressed by Samuel Beckett’s L’Innommable.[10] ‘Beckett appealed to Burra as a humorist of the grotesque’ Causey has commented, adding of the writer’s Molloy trilogy: ‘Burra found in its principal characters reflections of his sense of the meaningless of much human activity. In the contrasts between their silences and compulsive talking, their inertia and passivity against the will to stay on the move and continue their ultimately pointless searching, Burra saw something of his own situation’.[11] It might be argued that a similar sense of the absurd passed from his life into his work.

The painter’s pre-war independence became transformed into isolation in the 1950s in Causey’s estimation,[12] but the demand for his work did not abate. Exceptionally, in 1955, the year in which the Tate Gallery purchased Skeleton Party, he had three exhibitions: in Amsterdam (Magdalene Sothmann Gallery, January), London (Lefevre Gallery, April) and Boston (Swetzoff Gallery, April-June). The latter was associated with a stay with Conrad and Mary Aiken in New England, which also resulted in a retrospective at the Rhode Island School of Design in October 1956.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Reproduced in Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, [p.138], no.206
[2] Reproduced ibid., [p.143], no.228
[3] Eric Newton, ‘Edward Burra’, Time and Tide, 16 April 1955, p.496
[4] Reproduced Causey 1985, [p.112], no.72
[5] Ibid., pp.62-3
[6] Now in Burra collection, Tate Library
[7] Tate Gallery Archive 771.2.26,27
[8] Causey 1985, p.51
[9] Reproduced ibid. [p.142], no.222
[10] Causey 1985, pp.71,74
[11] Ibid., p.74
[12] Ibid.

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