I’ve only ever seen one Edward Burra painting in real life. In Tate Britain, there’s 1930’s Snack Bar - a funny, slightly grotesque scene of a cloche-wearing, fur-clad woman shoving a ham sandwich in her mouth, while on the other side of the bar her server slices one of the least-appealing-looking joints of meat ever committed to canvas. It’s as disturbing as the Bacon triptych in the next room.
A genuine eccentric, who gave a total of one interview during his long lifetime, Burra has oscillated between total obscurity and intermittent revivals of interest, since he first hit the big time a century ago. But the originality of his blocky, stylised portraits and semi-surreal landscapes, coupled by his love of people-watching (surely the defining characteristic of the true loner), makes him a fascinating figure in 20th century British art.
Dockside Cafe, Marseilles (1929)
I hope that he gets a new revival as soon as possible after lockdown ends - and a nice survey show would be the cherry on the (snack bar) cake. The last big one was at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, back in 2011. I wish I’d made it. Instead, I content myself with a couple of reviews, and plan to buy the catalogue.
One of the paintings on show there was Dockside Cafe, Marseilles, which, like most of Burra’s work, remains in a private collection. As well as closeted and introverted, Burra was also incapacitated by arthritis from an early age. In between jaunts to France and New York (so good for people watching!) he recuperated at his parents’ house, in Rye. He lived there into adulthood.
How moving to think that this louche bar scene, with its peroxided barmaid and hunky sailors, the dockside cranes against the blue skies through the open doors, so full of life and (slightly sleazy) fun, was painted by an arthritic, stuck with his parents in a particularly picturesque part of Sussex. He painted on watercolour on paper. The physical act of doing so undoubtedly caused him pain.
That’s all that lends Burra his voyeuristic power. Plus something ineffable, totally original. How soon after the bars reopen will I be able to visit him again?
Dockside Cafe, Marseilles is in a private collection