Edward Burra

Valley and River, Northumberland


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 1016 × 686 mm
frame: 1150 × 820 × 50 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Display caption

In his later years, Burra was taken on driving tours of Britain by his sister Anne. His landscapes were inspired by real places: in this case, a valley south of the Cheviot Hills near Alnwick. He said he was fascinated by the lines on the hills that play a dominant role in the painting. Such depictions of 'unspoilt' country were contrasted with images of motorways and heavy trucks, reflecting the artist's lament at the destruction of Britain. Others have found in such images suggestions of the human body, the rounded hills perhaps suggesting buttocks or breasts.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Valley and River, Northumberland 1972


Pencil and watercolour on paper 1016 x 686 (40 x 27)

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

Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery, London 1973

Recent Watercolours by Edward Burra, Lefevre Gallery, London, May-June 1973 (11, reproduced [p.8] as ‘Valley and River, Yorkshire’)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-74, London 1974, p.97, reproduced
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’ in William Chappell, ed., Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.47, as ‘Valley & River, Yorkshire’
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.179], no.387

Burra was in his late sixties when he painted Valley and River, Northumberland, one of a considerable body of landscapes on which he embarked around 1960. The circumstances under which it was made were the subject of questions put to Anne Ritchie, the artist’s sister, who habitually accompanied him on driving tours of Britain in these years. Although she prefaced her comments by saying that the questions were ‘not all that easy to answer as Edward never dreams of discussing his pictures with me’,[1] her testimony provided the basis of an earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry.[2] She confirmed that the source was in Northumberland - the painting had been purchased as Yorkshire - and specified that it resulted from a visit to Alnwick and was ‘inspired by a very long rather narrow valley south of The Cheviot [sic]’.[3] She reported her brother’s comment ‘that he was fascinated by the lines on the hillside’; these form a notable feature in the final composition.

The artist’s use of watercolour had undergone a process of loosening by the 1970s. With the expansiveness of landscape, he no longer followed the line of his pencil drawing with precision, but worked more freely around it. In Valley and River, Northumberland the green of the hill is carefully washed and graded up to the light lines of the paths which follow the contours and reveal the form. The dry stone walls on the near descending slope rely more exactly on the preliminary drawing, although several of the walls towards the lower right were not completed. The paint was applied in thin washes, dribbling down the sheet in places and in others (such as the trees) was sponged on, but in the sky a dry effect was achieved by rubbing the colour into the grain of the wove paper. Although Anne Ritchie was not aware of any sketches - suggesting that Burra ‘draws the pictures and paints them straight away’[4]- Andrew Causey has observed that, after ‘taking in his surroundings’, the artist would return home and ‘plan designs on drawing pads using ballpoints and different coloured felt-pens’.[5] Some pads from this period containing a small number of landscape drawings have survived amongst the artist’s effects.[6] It is the delay between experience and reconstruction in this process which encouraged Anne Ritchie to comment that the painting was ‘based on one location although not a real or exact representation of the scene’, and Burra himself to talk of ‘a time-lag between my seeing a landscape and my coming to the boil, so to say, but when I go back there, I’m always puzzled by what I’ve left out’.[7]

In considering the artist’s concentration on the land from 1960 onwards, Causey has noted Burra’s preference for ‘agricultural or undeveloped’ areas, even drawing a parallel with the topographical tours of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century artists in search of the ‘sublime’.[8] Certainly in the subject and technique - especially the broad planes of subtle washes - Burra’s late landscapes seem to echo these aspects of the British watercolour tradition. However, he introduced signs of man’s intervention in nature which were undisguised criticisms of modern life. In cases such as the choked road of An English Country Scene No.1, 1970 (private collection),[9] he echoed Pop art in its adaptation of advertising design but characterised it as part of a brutalisation of the landscape which he made explicit in the bestial grills of the lorries. Around 1970, this preoccupation began to give way to a less critical contemplation of the land in which hills and valleys predominate and take on an increasingly anthropomorphic form. In Valley and River, Northumberland, the exclusive enclosure of the land echoes the concern of artists such as Henry Moore with a parallelism between body and landscape. This even encouraged a reviewer of the artist’s retrospective at the Tate to recognise in the late landscapes ‘voluptuous curves like buttocks or breasts, copses like pubic hair’.[10]

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Letter to the Tate Gallery, 27 January 1974, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[2] Tate Gallery Acquisitions, 1972-74, London 1974, p.97
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Andrew Causey, ‘The Late Landscapes’, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.53
[6] Tate Gallery Archive 771.2.60
[7] John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.32
[8] Causey 1985, p.53
[9] Reproduced ibid., [p.173] no.359
[10] Paul Overy, Times, 23 May 1973


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