Edward Burra

The Snack Bar


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 559 mm
frame: 907 × 705 × 54 mm
Purchased 1980

Display caption

An odd tension exists between the barman, the customer and the slicing of the ham in
Burra’s painting. The woman eats distractedly, while the man cuts with enjoyment and a
sideways glance at her. Violence and sexual tension seem to be at play. Burra was an acute
observer of the everyday, often exaggerating it into caricature in order to comment on
society. He was familiar with the similarly critical work of German artist Georg Grosz and
the heightened atmosphere of surrealist painting, contributing works to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76
The Snack Bar 1930
Oil on canvas 764 x 559 (30 1/8 x 22)
Inscribed in black oil paint ‘Ed. Burra 1930’ bottom left
Inscribed on back, on right stretcher member in pencil ‘Leicester Galleries’ centre, on bottom stretcher member in pencil ‘Burra | (5) Snack’, bottom right; inscribed in another hand on left stretcher member in pencil ‘K.I 5’ bottom left
Purchased through the Knoedler Gallery, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1980

Purchased from the artist by Gerald Corcoran (c.1946) by whom sold through the Lefevre Gallery, London to Helen Grigg (at an unspecified date, before 1973 Tate exhibition); by inheritance to her husband Tolly Grigg (1978), from whom acquired through the Knoedler Gallery, London

?Pictures by Edward Burra, Leicester Galleries, London, May-June 1932 (54, as Snack)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1973 (23, reproduced p.45)
Edward Burra, Hayward Gallery, London, August-September 1985 (42, reproduced p.89)
The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, June-November 1991, reproduced in colour p.156, pl.213
Masterpieces of British Art from the Tate Gallery, Metropolitan Museum, Tokyo, January - March 1998, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Kobe, April - June 1998 (85, reproduced in colour p.145)

John Davenport, ‘Burra-Burra Land’, Lilliput, vol.21, no.5, November 1947, p.376 reproduced in colour p.379, as Snack Counter
Marina Vaizey, ‘Edward Burra’, Financial Times, 7 June 1973, p.3
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, London 1980, pp.70-2, reproduced p.70
Nicholas Garland, ‘Bleak Burra’, Sunday Telegraph, 11 April 1982, p.12
Frances Spalding, ‘Becoming One of the Gang’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 August 1985, p.951
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.31, reproduced [p.111], no.68
George Melly, ‘Edward Burra’ in Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.13
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.91
Artscribe International, no.55, December 1985 - January 1986, p.76
Andrew Stephenson, Review of ‘Well Dearie’ and ‘Complete Catalogue’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.10, no.1, 1987, p.116
Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, pp.198-206
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, London 1989, p.135, reproduced
Günter Metken, ‘Cafés of the Twenties’, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal 1991, p.149

Richard Morphet, ‘Le réalisme anglais entre les deux guerrres’, Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, 7/8, 1981, p.333, fig.14
‘Edward Burra’, Apollo, no.122, September 1985, p.235
Richard Cork, ‘Impish Pleasures’, The Listener, 5 Aug. 1985, p.38
Art and Artists, no.227, August 1985, p.33
Art Line, vol.2, no.9, September 1985, p.23
Clive Gregory (ed.), The Great Artists, vol.4, no.91, London 1986, p.2895, in colour
Andrew Sinclair, War Like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the ‘Forties, London 1989, between pp.82 and 83, in colour (as Snack Counter)

‘People do not like my oil paintings’, Edward Burra told his friend William Chappell,1 and this has been offered as an explanation for the fact that only ten oils, including The Snack Bar, are known to have survived and are limited to the period 1927-31. The painter’s frailty was suggested by John Rothenstein as another reason: ‘not sufficiently robust to stand for long periods ... he finds water-colour the most convenient medium’.2 Neither suggestion seems entirely adequate, as he did not have to stand to use oil and, as Andrew Causey has remarked, he ‘never properly tested public response’ to his canvases.3 Perhaps more plausible is Causey’s technical observation that during the period of his use of oil ‘Burra was motivated by the same ambition to achieve a smooth finish that led him to modify his watercolour medium; but oil paint, however used, could never produce the objectivity of tempera’.4 Certainly the flat filling of watercolour and gouache between careful outlines was converted less easily to heavier oil paint with its more prolonged drying times and the need to transfer the design to canvas. Nevertheless, the dry forms of The Snack Bar show that the same basic technique was used. Pencil and paint outlining are visible (especially at the back of the barman’s head) and the thick paint is ‘very lean’, having little added medium.5 These qualities have allowed the cracking in the areas of the woman’s hat and coat, which has required consolidation.

While the infrequency of Burra’s excursions into oil is habitually discussed, it is also appropriate to examine the inverse question: why it was used for such works as The Snack Bar. The most immediate reason would appear to relate to its status as the orthodox medium of serious painting, and this may be linked to his pursuit, however diffidently, of public recognition. He exhibited with the New English Art Club in 1927 and 1928 and, with the help of Paul Nash, secured his first solo exhibition of watercolours and drawings at the Leicester Galleries in April 1929. It seems significant that five oils were painted that year, possibly as a response to this exposure and favourable reception. Although their dating is not secure, it is notable that he bought ‘some new canvas’ in August.6 Two months later, he turned down twelve guineas for one of the five oils - the now lost Grog - and reported that he had ‘the twins seated on their sofa just finished’,7 a description identifiable with another oil: The Two Sisters, 1929 (private collection).8 The Snack Bar and a tempera - Rossi (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) - were painted in the following year. A revival in interest in eighteenth century ‘conversation pieces’ has been noted by Causey as a potential influence and related to two oils: The Two Sisters and The Balcony, Toulon (private collection).9 These works drew upon the popular imagery of post cards and magazines - simultaneously explored by Burra in his collages - to result in images of complex social interaction; although the relationships in The Snack Bar are less personal, it may also be seen in this light.

For all its apparently casual subject matter - a city bar, at night, in a cold season - The Snack Bar displays the careful detail and composition typical of Burra. The barman is separated from the woman by the thrust of the bar; beyond, men in hats converse, while a taxi-driver and the legs of another woman are visible outside. The painter’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer has concluded that the scene ‘was only a background to the two main figures’.10 Certainly their faces are pressed towards the upper middle of the canvas; the protruding lower lip of the barman is located at the exact centre, his eye immediately above and the nose of the bespectacled man higher on the centre line again. This concentration leaves large areas of the foreground as a foil to the accumulation of details above, the two parts being separated by the bar.

Compositional unity is established through handling and colour. The whole surface is dryly worked, in a way comparable to the qualities of gouache, and textured in places, notably in the scratched cross-hatching of the bar-top to the left and the prominent nodules of the woman’s jewellery. The overall colouring is astonishingly vivid, relying on the whiteness of the foreground and the mixing of white with most other colours.11 Pink provides colour echoes, from the meat and the barman’s shirt to the pastel packages in the background cabinet, and this is balanced by brown (the panelling, the shadow of the bar and the woman’s fur collar and cuffs), ochre (the chopping board and the packaging) and green (her coat and the floor), lending the whole a sugary quality appropriate to the harsh artificial light. This is echoed in the complexion of the main figures, the thick individualised drawing of their eyelashes and eyebrows, and the woman’s blue eye-shadow and red lipstick. Despite the prominent lightbulb, the lighting is diffuse and (with the exception of the bar itself) does not create strong shadows. Thus the barman’s grey jaw bears a ‘five o’clock shadow’ while the parting in his hair shows up with disconcerting pallor. The tendency in this is to emphasise the surface quality of the design in contrast to the exaggerated perspective of the bar and floor. While this is evocative of flattening electric lighting, it is also a stylistic quality of Burra’s painting in general.

The minute details of the painting have raised the possibility that The Snack Bar represents a particular location.12 Given Burra’s stays in Paris, Marseilles and Toulon in these years (especially between February and April 1930), France has been considered as being as likely as Soho in London. America, familiar through magazines and cinema, has been discounted on the assumption that ‘it seems generally agreed that Burra ... based the details in works of this kind on what he had seen personally’.13 Such details, however, appear deceptive: the letters of signs do not make obvious words nor have the individual packages been identified with particular goods, even the style of the car (possibly a taxi) glimpsed through the doorway is ambiguous. As a result, despite the consultation of the artist’s closest friends, no firm conclusion was reached.14 Furthermore, the recurrence of some details in other works - the style of floor tiles and window lighting are found in The Café, 1930 (Southampton Art Gallery)15 which includes American signs - tends to suggest that the artist synthesised such places in memory. This gives credence to John Davenport’s proposal that the Tate’s painting is a ‘Snack Counter in Burra-Burra Land’.16 Thus the lack of agreement amongst the artist’s friends over the location is indicative of this imaginative space created from the experience of reality and his favoured sources in popular culture. His letters suggest that he did not distinguish between these sources as his lengthy descriptions of the plots of films (seen two or three times a week) run seamlessly into elaborated accounts of events closer to home.

Reflecting on the café as a site of social change, Günter Metken has drawn attention to the habitual presence of liberated women in the 1920s: ‘In big cities the single woman - the car-driving, tennis-playing office employee with bobbed hair and fashionable clothes, who initiated relationships and broke them off - came to be taken as a matter of course’.17 However, the woman who dominates The Snack Bar is usually identified as a sex worker, a frequent feature of Burra’s work. On this matter, and in relation to the debate over the location, the artist’s friend Clover de Pertinez was very definite: ‘Soho tarts were mostly French around 1930 and dressed and made up just like that, I can remember well’.18 Although it may now be difficult to distinguish her from a fashionable and independent flapper of the time, her make-up is exaggerated against her pallid complexion and her jewellery elaborate (it is made prominent by being applied in individual dollops of paint). Andrew Stephenson has confirmed that this ‘representation of the prostitute ... remains consistent with the earlier typology’ in Burra’s paintings.19 Taking de Pertinez’s comments as a starting point, Stephenson has added supplementary information. Citing a study of London,20 he notes the appearance of American style bars in Soho in the early 1930s with the ‘modern streamlining of the bar with its stand-up counters’. He also suggests, with reference to Georges Duby’s Histoire de la France urbain,21 that while the sex worker’s foreignness - in the type of the ‘Parisienne’ - may have been assumed, it may also have been the result of the movement of sex workers following brothel closures in France in the 1920s.22

In Stephenson’s analysis The Snack Bar also shows methods of soliciting. The sex worker eating and drinking alone is identifiable as a ‘demi-castor’, independent of brothels or pimps ‘who worked out of cheap hotels’.23 In the doorway, is another woman whose legs, ‘with their recognizable splayed position and ankle-chain’, also signal a sex worker; she is the object of the driver ‘looking suspiciously across’. Stephenson identifies the man with spectacles as ‘being picked up by a figure, whose prominent eye make-up and pale complexion, and her semi-hidden position, suggest another prostitute’.24 This interpretation is less convincing, as it ignores the fact that the man in spectacles is eating, that all the figures are given prominent eye make-up and that this semi-hidden figure appears to wear a man’s hat; thus it may equally be a conversation over a snack.

Most critical assessments have seized upon the underlying sexuality of the relationship of the two main figures. Fixing on Burra’s ‘sustained interest in potential violence and shady pleasure’, George Melly has remarked of the painting: ‘when nothing more is afoot than the insertion of a sandwich into the mouth of a vacant-eyed tart ... a spontaneous sense of claustrophobic unease is generated’.25 Andrew Causey has been more specific, seeing ‘the carving of meat, in association with a lubricious glance’ as indicative of ‘veiled erotic correspondences’.26 The whites of the barman’s eyes show that he is studying the woman as he cuts folding slices of the pink ham - apparently the filling of her sandwich.

The barman has also been categorised. According to Clover de Pertinez he was ‘a type Ed called “debased Roman” and particularly admired’.27 To this may be linked Andrew Stephenson’s summary that ‘the image exploits a typology of deviancy current in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s, nineteenth-century French studies on criminal physiognomy and imaginative stereotypes taken from German film and contemporary French pulp-fiction’.28 More specifically, and following these sociological theories originating in the work of Cesare Lombroso and Johann Kaspar Lavater, he notes the barman’s perceived ‘archetypal “flaws”’ especially ‘the hare lip and the enormous hands, which not only branded the “degenerate” deviant, but typified him as a strangler’.29 Carrying this typology of criminal deviancy further and remarking upon the slang use of ‘meathouse’ for brothel, he concluded: ‘Thus the bar-man as deviant type and co-member of the criminal class, as symbolic meat-carver with suggestions of a prospective client, as a possible Jack the Ripper sex-murderer opens up a series of sinister possibilities’.30

As noted, the conjunction of sex worker and murderer was the stuff of contemporary detective novels and films much admired by Burra. While this interest is well known, the significance of the adoption of such sources is - as Stephenson points out31 - often lost in amalgamating them with more orthodox artistic references. In looking at such narratives, the artist was adopting popular culture in a way unusual amongst his contemporaries in Britain; this was not the realism of the tea and buns in Graham Bell’s The Café, 1937-8 (Manchester City Art Gallery), but a glimpse of a racy metropolitan life promoted through advertising and captured in detective fiction. Burra regarded this fictitious world with amused fascination; in one letter he tellingly abbreviated a film’s treatment of the social whirl as ‘a gay crowd that had ham & headache partys [sic] on Sunday mornings ... after spending the night at the El Boozio club’.32 He saw a parallel with his own social circle but, in using popular sources for his watercolours and oils, drew attention to a part of a shared culture which his audience habitually dismissed as irrelevant to art. In so doing, he provided a more encompassing reflection of modern life.

This aspiration is reflected in the painting’s details. While café exchanges had been treated in late nineteenth century paintings (by Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec), the erotic and the commercial are combined more explicitly in The Snack Bar. This is signalled as part of the excitement of the artificial and unsleeping city by the prominent electric lights (a feature common to Burra’s other café paintings), by the street signs and by the door open onto the pavement where the lighting literally and metaphorically blurs the boundary. Burra’s interest in this demi-monde as represented through café life reached a high-point in his work around the time of The Snack Bar. He had shown the combination of sexuality and propriety in The Tea Shop of 1929 (private collection),33 but in 1930 dealt with more muted glimpses of relaxation and ennui in The Café (Southampton Art Gallery), Café Bar (private collection), Rossi (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Sailors at a Bar (private collection).34 Unlike The Snack Bar, these four paintings are exclusively peopled by drinking and smoking men. However, they share with the Tate’s painting the riot of pattern (wall, panelling, floor) and local detail encountered in the urban interior.

In different ways Burra’s attitude and approach was comparable to that of such diverse contemporaries as William Roberts, Fernand Léger and George Grosz. Echoes of Roberts and Léger are found in Burra’s interest in urban activities and entertainments; with them he shared a stylistic simplification of form - especially in the standardised and rather pneumatic hands and limbs found in his works of 1929-30. Léger’s late Cubist style, as paralleled in the Purism of the periodical L’Esprit Nouveau, seems to be referred to in Burra’s steeply anti-perspectival tables (seen in Café Bar and Sailors at a Bar); these, as Causey has noted,35 acquire a mildly mocking quality. In this and other respects, Burra was perhaps closer to Grosz whose work he admired. Barbara Ker-Seymer recalled their shared enthusiasm:

We liked the earlier [Grosz] drawings best, particularly the one of bloated plutocrats with cigars in their mouths, gambling at tables covered with money and diamonds being watched by starving children and mutilated war victims. We also loved the terrible brothel scenes. These drawings were very like the German films we went to, for instance ‘Joyless Street’ in which Greta Garbo was reduced to going to a brothel and becoming a sex worker.36

The additional remark that ‘Grosz didn’t invent his characters, they were all there in the films’, confirms the (albeit retrospective) perception of a conjunction of the imagery of paintings and cinema. Ker-Seymer suggested that they knew Grosz’s work through reproductions in Der Querschnitt and other periodicals,37 and Causey has noted his contribution to the Tri-national exhibition at the Chenil Galleries in 1926.38 His use of photomontage seems to have informed Burra’s exploration of collage in 1929-30, through which aspects of contemporary life were literally inserted into artworks. Grosz, too, was concerned with the unmasking of the conventionally disguised relationships of sex and money seen in public settings such as the café and night-club, especially in his portfolio Uber alles die Liebe, 1930. While this was a measure of the decadence of the bourgeois Weimar Republic in Germany, Burra’s view was more benign, amused and politically disengaged.

Completed in 1930, The Snack Bar was almost certainly exhibited at the Leicester Galleries two years later under the more directly anecdotal title: ‘Snack’. This assumption is supported by the artist’s inscription on the stretcher, despite the slight discrepancy in the number given. It remained unsold at that time and seems to have been bought by Gerald Corcoran around 1946 and reproduced shortly after in Lilliput by Burra’s friend John Davenport. Causey’s note that it was previously called ‘Delicatessen’ appears to derive from an inscription on the reverse of a photograph in the artist’s papers;39 it is possible that this resulted from a confusion with The Café, 1930 (Southampton Art Gallery), in which the word ‘Delicatessen’ is shown in reverse in the window.

Matthew Gale
November 1998


1 Quoted in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, London 1980, p.71
2 John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth, 1945, p.6
3 Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.22
4 Ibid.
5 Tate Gallery conservation files
6 Burra, letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, 5 August 1929, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2
7 Letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, post-marked 30 October 1929, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2
8 Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.108], no.54
9 Reproduced ibid., [p.107], no.43
10 Barbara Ker-Seymer, letter, 29 November 1980, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, London 1980, p.72
11 Tate Gallery conservation files
12 Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, p.72-3
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.109], no.57
16 John Davenport, ‘Burra-Burra Land’, Lilliput, vol.21, no.5, November 1947, p.376
17 Günter Metken, ‘Cafés of the Twenties’, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal 1991, p.150
18 Clover de Pertinez, letter to Tate Gallery 28 October 1980, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, p.72
19 Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, p.199
20 G. Weightman and S. Humphries, The Making of Modern London 1914-39, London 1984, p.23
21 Georges Duby’s Histoire de la France urbain, vol.4, La Ville de l’âge industriel, Paris 1983, p.304
22 Stephenson 1988, pp.198-9
23 Ibid., p.200
24 Ibid.
25 George Melly, ‘Edward Burra’, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, pp.13-14
26 Causey 1985, p.31
27 Clover de Pertinez, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, p.73
28 Andrew Stephenson, Review of ‘Well Dearie’ and ‘Complete Catalogue’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.10, no.1, 1987, p.116
29 Stephenson 1988, p.204
30 Ibid. p.206
31 Stephenson 1987, p.116
32 Letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, postmarked 24 Sept. 1926, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2
33 Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.108], no.52
34 Reproduced ibid. [pp.109, 111], no.58, 65 and 67
35 Ibid. pp.29-30
36 Barbara Ker-Seymer, letter 4 July 1982, quoted in M. Kay Flavell, George Grosz: A Biography, New Haven and London, 1988, p.53
37 Ibid.
38 Causey 1985, p.25
39 Tate Gallery Archive 939.3.3

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