© Estate of the Artist c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London


Edward Burra (1905 – 1976)


760 x 555 MM
Accession number


Edward Burra was a big fan of Jazz, and when he travelled to New York in 1933, his first port of call was Harlem. The neighbourhood, famed for its music and night life, but also, with its dense black population, as a focal point for political stirring, was a rich source of subject matter. He stayed with Edna Lloyd Thomas, a well-known black actress, until December and in the new year moved to the lower east side to join another actor friend, Frederick Ashton. Ashton was then rehearsing for Virgil Thompson’s ground-breaking all-black opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1927– 8), which opened on Broadway on 20 February 1934. Burra’s pictures from his American stay are dominated by street scenes and night-time entertainments, bars and music halls. His excitement is described in a letter to his and Lloyd Thomas’ mutual friend, the society photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer:

Harlem is lovely rather like Walham green [sic] gone crazy. We do a little shopping on 116th st every morning there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts and a McRory’s chainstore also 40 cinemas & Apollo’s burlesk featuring ‘Paris in Harlem’ which I am plotting to go to but wont be allowed to I can see. It must be seen to be believed ... Sophie and I go out every morning and have breakfast at different quick lunchs we hope to try the Arabian nights luncheonette tomorrow the food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs & hamburgers must be consumed in NY daily and as for pies and sodas 2 minutes. After arrival we were being treated to sodas in ye patio soda shoppie done up inside with false windows with awnings in the Mexican fashion. Mae Wests new picture has just had a premiere to night I am mad to go Ime sure you would like Times Square its just a fit of epilepsy non stop twitchery night and day.[1]

Having made a name with the success of his first solo show at the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1929, he was included in both the Unit One exhibition (London, 1934), and, a member of the Surrealist group in England, was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition (London, 1936). But he remained an esoteric voice, drawing on the humour of the great English satirists (George Cruickshank, William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson) as much as that of his Dada, Surrealist or Cubist contemporaries.

Burra liked watercolour, being quick drying and portable. In The Band it is applied boldly, in varying degrees of thickness and luminescence, supporting airy swathes and opaque blocks of colour and a finicky finish. The white of the bands’ dinner jackets glows against the blue music stands, the green walls, the brown skin and the flowing dresses of the ladies in the limelight. The view of the stage is truncated by the pillars on the left hand side, as if Burra has paused to view the scene midway through a tracking shot. A curvy theme plays across the composition, from the flourishes decorating the music stands to the floral motifs of the stage set, the sides of the guitar, the musicians’ grins, the folds of the dresses and the stage curtains, right through to the pom-pom-pom of circles, from the drums at the top to the gaping mouth of the sousaphone. The naif curls of the shoes and coltish stick legs add to the comic atmosphere. Similar legs can be found in Harlem (1934, Tate), where, in the light of day, people hang out on the doorsteps of brownstone tenements, chatting and smoking. Behind the merriment there is, perhaps, a sense of waiting.

[1] Letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer, [? Oct. 1933], in William Chappell, ed., Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra (Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London 1985), p.83

Further reading
Jane Stevenson, Edward Burra (Jonathan Cape, London 2007)
William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra (Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London 1985)
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue (Phaidon Press, Oxford,1985)
Edward Burra (Tate, London 1973)
John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Penguin Mod. Masters (Harmondsworth, London 1945)