Edward Burra

[title not known]


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Part of
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 1022 × 698 mm
frame: 1120 × 792 × 36 mm
Purchased 1940

Display caption

With the increasingly belligerent political situation of the 1930s, Burra's work took on a darker tone. This enigmatic diptych seems to speak of morbidity and decay. The shrouded figures look down on a skeleton in an open grave. In the background broken columns indicate the degradation of the building. The architecture recalls the destroyed churches that Burra photographed in Spain in 1935 and 1936. The Spanish Civil War had been especially cruel, but by the time this picture was made war had spread across Europe. Goya's 'Dark Paintings' may have been a source for such works.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Wake 1940


Gouache and wash on paper 1022 x 698 (40 1/4 x 27 1/2)

Left-hand panel of a two-sheet composition (see Wake N05166), signed in faded black ink ‘E.J. Burra | 1940’ bottom left, and partially overpainted ‘Burra’ bottom right; watermarked along left side: ‘MADE IN ENGLAND UNBLEACHED ARNOLD LINEN FIBRE 1921’

Purchased from the artist through the Zwemmer Gallery, London (Knapping Fund) 1940

Surrealism Today, Zwemmer Gallery, London, June-July 1940 (11,12, as Wake I and Wake II)
Tate Gallery Wartime Acquisitions, National Gallery, London, April-May 1942 (19,20 as Wake I and Wake II)
Long term loan to Leeds City Art Gallery 1970-May 1973 (left panel, N05165, only)
Long term loan to Southend Art Gallery 1970-May 1973 (right panel, N05166, only)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, September-November 1973 (8, reproduced p.22)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London May-July 1973 (62)
Long term loan to Arts Council, placed at Leeds City Art Gallery, February 1974-September 1976
La Planète affolée: Surréalisme, dispersion et influences, 1938-1947, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseille, April-June 1986 (50, reproduced p.172)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, September-November 1989 (16)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’ in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.44
‘Letters’, William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, 1982, p.100
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.128], no.156 as ‘1939’
Art Line, vol.2, no.9, September 1985 p.22, reproduced (left sheet only)

John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth, 1945, reproduced [p.44] pl.28, as ‘The Wakes 1937’
Grey Gowrie, ‘The Twentieth Century’ in David Piper (ed.), The Genius of British Painting, London 1975, p.311 (left sheet only)

Wake (N05165) is the left-hand panel of a diptych, the right-hand section being Wake (Tate N05166). This catalogue entry discusses both works.

Fifteen shrouded and gesticulating figures are gathered around a deep grave in Edward Burra’s sombre watercolour diptych known as Wake. The gestures of horror and the presence of a skeleton in the grave may suggest that exhumation is shown rather than the burial suggested by the title. The ambiguity of this activity is further enhanced by the presence of nine more figures in the background arcade, where a column and part of the roof have fallen in; decay - both of the flesh and of the material world - appears to be the underlying theme. Although ‘Wake’ conveys an appropriate sense of drama, its inexact description of the image may reflect Burra’s reluctance to name works until after completion or at their first exhibition, at which point the titles could even be devised by others under his sanction. It is notable, however, that the dating indicates that the diptych was completed only shortly before being exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery in Surrealism Today in mid 1940.

The separate framing of the two sheets has led to them being treated as two works. This began with that first showing, as Wake I and Wake II, and was continued when they were immediately purchased by the Tate. However, their compositional unity indicates that they were conceived as one image by the painter. This is confirmed in his mention of the sale of a painting to the Tate ‘through Corcoran’ (i.e. Mexican Church, Tate Gallery N05167), to which he added: ‘They bought another at Zwemmers’.[1] Similarly he told William Chappell that he had sold ‘that double pic that was at Zwemmers’.[2] A single catalogue raisonné number has been allotted to the diptych.[3] In this case, two details remain to be explained: why the sheets were not joined together, as was Burra’s habitual practice in enlarging a composition, and why the continuity of the figure which straddles both sheets is contradicted by the discontinuous shading of the grave side (which is darkened in the right sheet).

An explanation for the discrepancies may lie in the likelihood that the left-hand sheet was completed before its companion was begun. There is considerable evidence for this. First, it is compositionally balanced and independent in a way which cannot be said of the right sheet, which, taken alone, offers no focus for the figures’ attention. Second, the logic of the architecture, which converges within two of the three colonnades immediately above the skeleton, reinforces this independence and contrasts with the right sheet, where the recession is eccentric. Third, the over-painted signature in the lower right hand corner of the left sheet clearly indicates a late change of mind; the new signature on the opposite side balances that on the far side of the right sheet.

If the left sheet was complete, it would also explain why Burra did not add paper to extend the image as he had done with several contemporary compositions, including Mexican Church, which evolved in a piecemeal way in their early stages. It would have proved extremely difficult for him to remix exactly the same delicately toned washes of watercolour for the new sheet as any changes at the junction would have proved distracting. Indeed, there is a distinct alteration in the colouring; this is most apparent in the figures, which are predominantly brown and red in the left sheet with the addition of grey, yellow and a stronger red in the right sheet. In this case, separate but identical mounting could disguise the discontinuity.

The delicacy of the medium, even when Burra carried it to a scale associated with oil painting, is easily appreciable in the subtle tones of Wake. In this period, the artist preferred to fill his compositions with detail which precluded large areas; here, however, the graded ground plane and grave cavity show his control of broad tonal washes. Following his established technique, the watercolour was confined within the preliminary pencil drawing, which provided a scaffolding of form most apparent in the perspective of the grave and the architecture. The drawing is clearly visible in a number of places, and it is notable that a second grave - located beyond the first in the light strip of middleground - was initially sketched in. The contrast between the rectilinear structure and the rounded figures is conveyed through their exaggerated musculature and shading. Their solidity was enhanced by the use of Burra’s favoured combination of dense gouache and more luminous ink. However, the overlaying of these media has resulted in crazing - notably in the hood of the furthest grave-side figure in the right sheet.[4] While the integrity of the paint surface has otherwise remained good, some cockling to the paper has resulted from changes in humidity. Serious fading has also been noted over the fifty-year period since the work was first reproduced,[5] and this is particularly noticeable in the signatures which were written in ordinary fountain pen ink.

Just as in its technique, so in its theme Wake is typical of Burra’s concerns of the years around 1940. In the late 1930s, he eschewed the bright society subjects of his earlier work for a more portentous imagery often derived from religious iconography and reflecting the increasingly belligerent times, as witnessed especially in the Spanish Civil War.[6] He adapted the distortions of his satire to a savage caricature of destruction. Although this is most evident in the violence of such works as Destiny, 1937 and Beelzebub, 1937-8 (private collections),[7] it is also found in Wake, made when conflict had become more widespread with the Second World War. Even so, Burra’s violent imagery was rooted in his experience of the Mediterranean. The hooded figures and the plunging architectural spaces recall the photographs of toreadors and of destroyed churches which he collected in his Spanish scrap books in 1935 and 1936,[8] as well as architecture seen in Italy in 1939.

Similarly, the pictorial language of these works demonstrated Burra’s eclectic mixture of influences from Netherlandish, Spanish and Italian art. Andrew Causey has traced some of these,[9] particularly drawing attention to the painter’s interest in Goya, whose ‘Black paintings’ Clover de Pertinez recalled that seeing with Burra on a visit to the Prado in 1935.[10] The disguised figures in Wake - where only the mask-like face at the right is visible - may be compared to the disguises in the Spaniard’s images of cruelty. More particularly, the reaction to the skeleton may be compared to the spectators around a corpse in plate 69 of Goya’s The Disasters of War, entitled ‘Nothing. It speaks for itself.’ Such images would certainly have been known to Burra through sources such as the 1937 edition of The Disasters of War, introduced by Elie Faure. Furthermore, Goya had become a touchstone for expressions of horror; his work was featured in Cahiers d’Art in 1937, which Burra read.[11] In February 1939, The Disasters of War were reinterpreted in the light of the Spanish Civil War by Euston Road artists organised by Graham Bell for an anti-Franco demonstration;[12] some of the results were included in the Artists International Association’s 1939 exhibition subtitled Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development.[13]

Burra did not share the concern with realism exemplified by the Euston Road painters. Instead, Goya provided for him an example of dark expressive power. The distortions of Burra’s figures and the steep angle from which they are seen - which tends to draw the viewer into the depth of the grave - take on Mannerist characteristics. In subject, Wake is reminiscent of Tintoretto’s Finding of the Body of St Mark, 1562-6 (Brera, Milan)[14] which Burra would have seen at the Brera during his visit to Milan and Venice in 1939. The concentration upon the foreshortened corpse, the open tomb and the cavernous architectural perspective are all comparable, but it is the power of the rhetorical gestures of the figures which is especially close. Burra used these qualities in other works, such as Old Iron, c.1938 (private collection),[15] which also demonstrate some similarities with the contemporary works of Salvador Dalí (then also interested in Tintoretto), such as Impressions of Africa, 1938 (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Although Burra did not attempt the illusionism of such oils, Bryan Robertson has linked ‘a certain mirage-like hallucinatory quality’ to his interest in Dalí’s paintings.[16] It may have been this factor that encouraged the inclusion of the Wake diptych in the 1940 Surrealism Today exhibition. Burra’s response to Surrealism in the early 1930s had anticipated its wider acceptance in Britain after the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London,[17] and the contribution of Wake to the 1940 exhibition appears to have been a legacy of that relationship rather than a recognition of any inherently Surrealistic qualities.

In two further respects Wake reflects the precarious history of the times. With Mexican Church and Soldiers at Rye (Tate Gallery N05377), it was bought for the Tate by John Rothenstein during the wartime closure of the Gallery. A 1946 press photograph revealed the fate of acquisitions when not in exhibitions at the National Gallery, as it shows the left half of Wake among paintings being removed from wartime storage at Piccadilly Circus Underground Station.[18] A more surprising detail is the pencil inscription of the names ‘Sinclair | Attlee’ near the artist’s signature (and apparently in his hand) on the right hand sheet, which have become more visible with the fading of the paint layer.[19] They seem to tie the painting to the spring of 1940, just prior to its first exhibition, as in early May the government of Neville Chamberlain was unable to weather the renewed crisis brought about by the ineffective military response to the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. On 10 May Chamberlain resigned, having failed to secure backing for his coalition government from the leaders of the two opposition parties Clement Attlee (Labour) and Archibald Sinclair (Liberal); with Winston Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister, Attlee became Lord Privy Seal (and de facto deputy Prime Minister) and Sinclair Secretary of State for Air. It remains unclear how these events, however momentous and critical at the time, are connected with the image of Wake, unless the open grave provided Burra’s reflection upon the dire situation which faced the new coalition government.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Burra, letter to Paul Nash, 5 October 1940, Tate Gallery Archive 7050.230
[2] Letter, June 1940, William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, 1982, p.100
[3] Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.128], no.156
[4] Tate Gallery conservation files
[5] Ibid. 1986
[6] Causey 1985, p.59
[7] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [pp.124-5], nos.131,138
[8] Tate Gallery Archive 929.8.1
[9] Causey 1985, pp.59-60, 66-7
[10] Clover de Pertinez, ‘Edward in Spain’, in Chappell 1982, p.80
[11] Cahiers d’Art, 1937, vol.12, nos.1-2; Burra library, Tate Gallery Library
[12] Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School, Aldershot 1986, pp.199-201
[13] Whitechapel Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1939
[14] Reproduced in colour in Carlo Bernari and Pierluigi de Vecchi, L’opera completa del Tintoretto, Milan, 1966, pl.XXIII
[15] Reproduced in colour in Causey 1985, p.47, pl.15, no.147
[16] Bryan Robertson, A Sense of Place, Edward Burra and Paul Nash, exhibition catalogue,Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1982, p.14
[17] Causey 1985, p.31
[18] Planet News photograph, 4 February 1946, London Transport Museum Files, copy Tate Gallery catalogue files
[19] Tate Gallery conservation files

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