Edward Burra

Soldiers at Rye


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Gouache, watercolour and ink on paper
Support: 1022 × 2070 mm
frame: 1248 × 2280 × 90
Presented by Studio 1942

Display caption

Rye, a picturesque town near the south coast of England, was Burra’s life-long home. During the war it became a centre for military activity. Soldiers are turned into nightmarish birdmen, recalling the Surrealist paintings of German artist Max Ernst. Burra was also interested in sixteenth-century English poetry. The bright colours and stylised dress of the soldiers might suggest courtly combat. Such ideas of brutality and heroism are offset by an emphasis of the figures’ musculature, introducing a sexual tension to the scene.  

Gallery label, August 2021

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Soldiers at Rye 1941


Gouache, watercolour and ink wash on three sheets of wove paper
1029 x 2074 (40 1/2 x 81 5/8); each sheet c.1029 x c.693 (40 1/2 x 27 1/4)

Left sheet inscribed on back in pencil ‘4/9R’ middle of right edge; watermarked: ‘MADE IN ENGLAND UNBLEACHED ARNOLD LINEN FIBRE 1921’ along left side
Middle sheet monogrammed and dated in red watercolour ‘1941 EJB’ with schematic skull in profile, bottom right, on back in pencil ‘3/9R’ middle of right edge, in another hand in blue pencil ‘Reserved for Tate Gallery’ along bottom edge; watermarked: ‘MADE IN ENGLAND UNBLEACHED ARNOLD LINEN FIBRE 1921’ along left side
Right sheet monogramed in black ink on grey watercolour oval ‘EJB’, bottom right, on back in pencil ‘2/9R’ middle of right edge; watermarked: ‘MADE IN ENGLAND UNBLEACHED ARNOLD LINEN FIBRE 1921’ along left side

Purchased from the artist by The Studio for presentation to the Tate Gallery 1942

Edward Burra, Redfern Gallery, London, November-December 1942 (1, reproduced as Soldiers)
Tate Gallery Wartime Acquisitions, 2nd Exhibition, National Gallery, London, June-July, 1945 (6, reproduced opposite p.5, pl.8 as Soldiers)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, January-February 1946 (8, reproduced pl.8, as Soldiers), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (8), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (8), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (8), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, August (8), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, September (8), Narodni Galerie, Prague, October-November (8), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, November-December (8), Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Rome, January-February 1947 (8)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-September 1947, publication supplemented as Fifty Years Tate Gallery 1897-1947: Pictures from the Tate Gallery Foundation Gift and Exhibition of Subsequent British Painting, (5377, as Soldiers)
Decade 40s: Painting, Sculpture and Drawing in Britain 1940-49, Arts Council tour, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, November 1972, Southampton City Art Gallery, December-Jan. 1973, Carlisle Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, January-February, DLI Museum and Arts Centre, Durham, February-March, Manchester City Art Gallery, March-April, Bradford City Art Gallery, April-May, Aberdeen Museum and Art Gallery, May-June 1973 (51)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July, 1973 (73, as Soldiers)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, September-November 1989 (15)

R H Wilenski, ‘The Language of Art’, The Listener, 3 December 1942, p.719
Jan Gordon, ‘London Commentary’, The Studio, no.25, February 1943, p.61, reproduced p.62
John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth 1945, pp.15-16, reproduced in colour [p.41], pl.25, as Soldiers
Robin Ironside, Painting Since 1939, 1947, p.31, reproduced in colour opposite p.29, as Soldiers
Arnold Haskell, Dilys Powell, Rollo Myers and Robin Ironside, Since 1939: Ballet, Films, Music, Painting, 1948, p.175, reproduced in colour between pp.172 and 173, as Soldiers
Wyndham Lewis, The Listener, 9 June 1949, p.988
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6
‘Edward Burra in 1965’, Times, 11 May 1965, p.15
Paul Overy, ‘English Painter with a Sense of the Comic’, Times, 23 May 1973, p.11
John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.29
Obituary, The Times, 26 October 1976, p.16
Richard Shone, A Century of Change: British Painting since 1900, London 1977, pp. 26, 109, reproduced in colour p.109
Unit One, exh. cat, Portsmouth City Art Gallery, May-July, 1978, p.15
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’ in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, 1982, pp.46, 47
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, pp.65-6, reproduced in colour p.82, pl.18, no.157
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.46
James Malpas, Realism, London 1997, p.24, reproduced in colour, pl.14

Also reproduced:
Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Redfern Gallery, London 1942, front cover
John Rothenstein, ‘Developments in Style XII: Burra’, London Magazine, vol.3, no.2, March 1964, between pp.46 and 47

‘Today there has been a continual “alerte” [sic] & yesterday a bomb fell at the back of the Royal William ... Ime [sic] told they dropped some round Rye Harbour this afternoon’.[1] Although Edward Burra’s idiosyncratic style of writing appeared to be barely restricted by the Battle of Britain raging above him, his accounts of the situation which informed such paintings as Soldiers at Rye introduced an urgency previously absent from his correspondence. This letter to Nash, in particular, carried startling glimpses of life within the ‘restricted zone’ of the south coast. Although he stayed there, he told Nash:

about 3 or 4 weeks ago they put up a notice telling everyone who had ‘nothing in particular to do’ to leave. Well you can imagine. They all thought that their last hour had come & the grey storm troopers were going to nail the virgins to the kitchen table & have them 20 times over. They had to have special constables to regulate the rush.[2]

His ribaldry disguises the emergency of early September 1940, when the German invasion from France only awaited the establishment of air superiority. Aware of this threat and with air defences at full stretch, the British authorities issued a ‘yellow’ invasion alarm for the south coast on 6 September. This was almost certainly the notice to which Burra referred, as it signified ‘probable invasion in three days’.[3] The Blitz of London began on 7 September.

Burra vividly conveyed the effect of the attacks and the military response, telling Nash:

Oh theres [sic] bombs here messershmidts [sic] there and I dont know what all!! The other evening I observed a parachute descending gracefully down. The whole place is an armed camp with crashing tanks roaring up & down the rd - so if anything’s a military objective all they have to do is throw a bomb & hit one of the Irish Fusileers [sic].[4]

In these conditions painting became difficult - perhaps inappropriate. Only Wake (Tate Gallery N05165, N05166) and Soldiers at Rye are attributed to 1940 and 1941 respectively in Andrew Causey’s catalogue raisonné.[5] Nevertheless, the military activity itself provided some stimulus, as Burra later told Nash: ‘Ive [sic] got some very turgid work, delightful sketches of the troops’.[6] These drawings may be associated with Soldiers at Rye or with such works from 1942-3 as Ropes and Lorries (private collection),[7] Soldiers in a Lorry (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)[8] and Soldiers’ Backs (Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne).[9]

Soldiers at Rye is typical of Burra’s established method of working on a large scale common to all these military paintings. On good quality watercolour paper, which he must have stock-piled (the same dated watermark appears on the paper of Wake), he drew the preliminary composition in pencil. It is not clear whether he anticipated its extension over three sheets of paper, or whether - as with Mexican Church (Tate Gallery N05167) - they were added piecemeal; either of the centre or left hand sheets might have been resolved compositionally in isolation, and the gradual lighter tonality towards the right may indicate a sequence. The tripartite solution was also found in the closely related Camouflage, c.1938 (private collection),[10] of which Burra later destroyed the left section to leave a squarer composition.[11] For Soldiers at Rye the artist seems only to have joined the sheets permanently after the painting was finished. An early photograph shows them completed and pinned to a board - and related holes remain.[12] The deckled edges to all sides of the handmade paper meant that they could not be butted precisely - for instance, the gap amounts to 15mm (c.5/8in.) towards the bottom of the left hand and central sheets[13] - and this necessitated the painting out of the white gum paper used to join them where it was visible in the joints. This backing strip was replaced in 1990, when the composition as a whole was removed from the artist’s millboard and wood support; a new support of Gator foam and 4 ply Museum board was constructed.[14]

Burra painted in layers of gouache, watercolour and ink over the pencil drawing. In a slight departure, the paint does not follow the outlines as precisely as in earlier compositions. This may suggest some urgency in production. With time, the laying of black ink over gouache has caused flaking.[15] However, unlike the more thinly worked Wake of the previous year, Soldiers at Rye has not suffered from fading. The greatest accumulation of detail is found in the central and left-hand sheets, where the camouflage netting is fixed with red and yellow tassels and the figures fill the full height of the composition. A sudden plunge in depth is offered at the extreme right, where more distant soldiers work beyond a schematically painted tank. The contrast with the shallow space created by the masonry establishes a deliberate spatial ambiguity as the soldiers sit and stand on an apparently vertical plane.

As well as the shared tripartite scheme, Soldiers at Rye and Camouflage may, to some extent, be considered as companion pieces. In both, soldiers are ranged in a frieze-like space united laterally by draped netting. In Camouflage this runs in fine skeins of grey in front of the yellow facade of a building, while pink and brown soldiers are engaged in fixing it and working on the vehicles to be covered. The grey-blue netting is more detailed and extensive in the upper parts of Soldiers at Rye, and sets off the dominant colouring of brown and red. This is established particularly by the luscious red material swirling across the bottom of the composition, and is echoed in the uniforms of the soldiers, who wear the tin hats of Second World War ‘tommies’ and - unexpectedly - red and yellow Venetian carnival masks. These red details suggest something of the ambivalence of Burra’s attitude to the military presence already seen in his letters. In the context of wartime, the red material at the base has ominous associations with entrails; this sense may be reinforced by the tiny skull accompanying Burra’s signature on the central sheet. The carnival masks - which may take the place of gas masks - suggest a contrasting atmosphere in the transformation of Rye into an ‘armed camp’. They may offer an ironic comment on the purpose and effective of disguise and camouflage. However, their phallic forms also contribute to a louche atmosphere, as the clinging uniforms - highlighted to emphasise their bulk - combine with the attitude and pose of the soldiers to suggest a homoerotic element; this is signalled especially in the treatment of the back of the central figure and the gesture of his hand against his buttocks.

The ambivalence of Burra’s view of the activities shown in his wartime paintings was partly a legacy of his concern with the Spanish Civil War. He later specified that the Tate’s painting ‘was inspired by the troop activities round here mostly - but I think the sort of war series began during the Spanish Civil war its so long ago I almost forget’.[16] Conflict, rather than partisan support, was his subject and as a result the events in Spain coalesced with the Blitz as the force of modern warfare was felt by the ordinary populace. The Spanish connection was recognised by R.H. Wilenski in his review of Burra’s solo exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1942, where Camouflage and Soldiers at Rye were shown. He called ‘the large Civil War compositions arresting and intriguing’ and admired the ‘atmosphere charged with energy, conflict and drama’.[17] Nonetheless, he considered that ‘inconsistencies recalling photomontage’ made several paintings failures and only favoured ‘those where the photomontage influence is least i.e. “Soldiers” (lent by the Tate Gallery) where the fantastic face-masks and the suggestions of armour recall the fantastic vizors and the armour in Uccello’s “Rout of San Romano”; and the left hand panel of “Camouflage”’.[18] The reference was flattering and shows an awareness of the eclecticism of Burra’s work.

A more contemporary comparison was acknowledged some time later by Wyndham Lewis, who wrote: ‘I share Burra’s emotions regarding war: when I see the purple bottoms of his military ruffians in athletic action, I recognize a brother’.[19] This exactly captures the combination of sexualised imagery and outrage at the destruction experienced in Spain which was conveyed in Burra’s paintings and in Lewis’s own singular response, Surrender of Barcelona, 1936 (Tate Gallery, N05768). The latter was shown in London a year after its completion,[20] and certainly bears a resemblance to Burra’s subsequent work in the combination of weaponry and architecture with elaborately costumed figures. Clover de Pertinez recalled that Burra had read Lewis’s works avidly since discovering The Apes of God in 1932.[21] Causey has suggested that, in drawing the comparison, Lewis may have had in mind Burra’s War in the Sun, 1938 (private collection)[22] presumably because of the central purple soldier. In any case, both painters seem to have seen a continuity between the historical Spanish wars, to which the costumes belonged, and those of the present day, and Causey has reflected that Burra’s works tend not to show the ‘carnage of war’ but rather ‘the bright colours and sharply defined forms of heraldry’.[23] Unlike Wilenski and Lewis, however, Causey sees Burra’s soldiers as implicitly ominous, ‘like vast, beaked, predatory birds or human dinosaurs with shiny metal skins, who are often seen from the back so that their facelessness reduces their humanity’.[24] He has related these effects to Max Ernst’s bird-masked figures, George Grosz’s pig-head men and the ‘beaked Indians’ in Diego Rivera’s murals, which Burra would have seen in Mexico in 1938.[25]

The historicism of this imagery gave rise to Rothenstein’s misidentification of the period shown in one of these paintings. He had described it to the artist as reminiscent ‘of the Conquistador period of Spanish history’ but was told: ‘but it’s of this war: those are British soldiers, just outside Rye’.[26] Rothenstein did not connect this with the Tate’s painting specifically until his subsequent repetition of the account, which associated the discussion with the change of title from Soldiers to the more specific version;[27] this link has been repeated by others.[28] However, a significant passage was excised in the later retelling, which further explained the Spanish interpretation. Rothenstein objected that ‘a vast building with its great windows magnificently barred, “can’t be anything but a Spanish palace.” “I suppose it is,” he [Burra] replied. “I must have copied it from a postcard I brought back from Spain.”’[29] No such building appears in Soldiers at Rye so that the discussion seems more likely to have been of the ‘magnificently barred’ windows in Camouflage or of War in the Sun. More significant than this confusion is the recognition of the artist’s treatment of conflict in these works as an historical continuity.

Burra’s Redfern Gallery exhibition in 1942 was unusually favoured by the inclusion of Soldiers at Rye which had been recently given to the Tate Gallery (officially closed during wartime) by the Studio; it was even featured on the cover of the catalogue. Somewhat curiously for the subject matter and the wartime context, the exhibition served as the backdrop for fashion photographs by Cecil Beaton .[30]

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Burra, letter to Paul Nash, 5 October 1940, Tate Gallery Archive 7050.230
[2] Ibid.
[3] Cesare Salmaggi and Alfredo Pallavisini, 2194 Days of War, London 1979, p.77
[4] Letter to Paul Nash, 5 October 1940, Tate Gallery Archive 7050.230
[5] Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985
[6] Letter, undated [after October 1940], Tate Gallery Archive 7050.247
[7] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.129], no.160
[8] Reproduced ibid., no.162
[9] Reproduced in colour ibid., [p.83], no.161, pl.19
[10] Reproduced in colour in John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth 1945, pl.17
[11] Reproduced in colour in Causey 1985, [p.44], no.144, pl.12
[12] Tate Gallery catalogue files and Tate Gallery conservation files
[13] Tate Gallery conservation files
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Letter, 25 December 1954, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[17] R.H. Wilenski, ‘The Language of Art’, The Listener, 3 December 1942, p.719
[18] Ibid.
[19] Wyndham Lewis, Listener, 9 June 1949, quoted in Causey 1985, p.65
[20] Wyndham Lewis, Leicester Galleries, London, December 1937
[21] William Chappell ed., Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, 1982, pp.74-5
[22] Causey 1985, no.149, reproduced in colour in Rothenstein 1945, pl.31
[23] Causey 1985, p.65
[24] Ibid. p.9
[25] Ibid. p.66
[26] Rothenstein 1945, pp.15-16
[27] Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.29
[28] Causey 1985, p.65
[29] Rothenstein 1945, p.16
[30] William Chappell ed., Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985, p.121

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