The Equiano Centre


January 2012

Harlem in Rye

Edward Burra

Pallant House Gallery
22 October 2011 to 19 February 2012

Gemma Romain

Pallant House Gallery's stimulating Edward Burra retrospective displays an incredible range of works in an exhibition curated with expertise. It brings together for the first time in twenty-five years artwork from a range of public and private collections that span the length of Burra's career and provides those familiar with his work and newcomers alike with an emotive experience. The accompanying exhibition text and catalogue with images and essays are revealing and add further depth to our understanding of his influences, motivations and technique. There were, however, aspects of the exhibition where a more critical interrogation would have been beneficial; here I am particularly thinking of the analysis concerning race, gender and sexuality. It is certainly difficult to explore all subjects of relevance with suitable depth within the constraints of the text panels of an exhibition.  Although these themes are examined within the accompanying catalogue more could be done to explore these areas which were central to his work.

As the introductory panel notes, Edward Burra was one of the most 'celebrated British artists of the twentieth century.' He was born in London in 1905 but grew up in the Sussex town of Rye where he made his home for the rest of his life. He studied in London at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where he made a number of friends who were close to him throughout his life. He travelled extensively within France, Spain, Ireland, and the United States, including Harlem in the mid-1930s where he was inspired to make his most well-known pieces of work, representing African-American street and night-life (such as the watercolours on paper 'Harlem', 1934, and 'Harlem Scene', 1934-5).  His use of watercolours is striking in its vibrancy and his work is of central importance to the history of modernist art, traversing surrealism and figurative art.

The exhibition includes over 70 major pieces of artwork, overwhelmingly watercolour painting with some pencil drawings.  It also includes examples of his personal letters to friends, book cover illustrations, and various photographs taken of his friendship circle taken by the photographer and friend Barbara Key-Seymer. The exhibition provides a good balance of pieces and we get a clear sense of the chronology, sometimes overlapping, of these changes in style and subject matter - from highly observational figurative representations of socialising and urban life including multi-ethnic environments, music hall dancers, and images including diverse gender identities and sexuality; to the surrealism of the macabre; theatrical costume design; and representations of country landscapes. His work has a definite vision of urban and seaport life in the inter-war period, filled with intriguing and fascinating characters. His caricatures are often filled with humour, wit and sympathy, but also danger; he represents the so-called 'underside of life' but there is complexity within this representation whereby he often presents a celebratory and not just pathological vision of urban life and often revels in what social and moral purists and commentators of the time were pathologising.

I found the most intriguing themes within his work were those representing race, sexuality and gender identity. Many of his works from the earliest period and throughout the 1930s represent diverse, multicultural scenes such as the bustling multiethnic port scene 'Market Day' (1926), and he also explores urban and port life by showing diverse sexual and gender identities and working-class sexualities such as the pencil on paper 'Rue de Lappe' (1928) representing a bar in Paris which he and his friends Billy Chappell and Sophie Fedorovitch visited. These representations are interspersed with a careful amount of contextual information, whilst leaving enough room for viewer-interpretation. For example, in the case of 'Rue de Lappe, a quote is included next to the image from a letter Burra wrote to a friend, stating how 'everyone pretended to think she [Fedorovitch] was a man dressed up' and then mentioning 'matelots' and 'lesbiennes' in the bar. The text describing 'Market Day' informs us that when this was created he had not yet visited the Mediterranean and the inspiration for the image was probably from films and novels, rather than first-hand observation.

However, in the context of race, gender, and sexuality, further interrogation of these themes would have been useful. In visions of African American life in Harlem, Burra represents street-life and night-life, and depicts the everydayness of life including women looking out of windows, women and men chatting, and drinking alcohol on the streets, but he also portrays the potential dangers of street life with representations of or illusions to crime. Though these representations, as the exhibition points out, are observational and not moralising, Burra's choice of these particular visions of Harlem instead of others could be investigated further. For example, there were other aspects of Harlem life Burra could have chosen to represent such as the middle-class, political and literary African American culture within 1930s Harlem which African American photographer Van Der Zee captured. However, Burra's representation of Harlem life is certainly not an anomaly when seen in the context of his other work as he explores all life in this way during the late 1920s and 1930s, by wanting to go against the grain of perceived respectability in documenting everyday street life in all its forms. 

The exhibition text mentions his love of jazz and swing music, and his 'affectionate depictions of black street culture in Harlem' and in the catalogue we see he especially admired the African-American dancer Josephine Baker. Although Martin states Burra's Harlem work was influenced by this love of jazz and black visual culture and not by 'primitivism', we must still contextualise or at least compare and contrast Burra to others within the context of inter-war 'negrophilia'.
 Walking around the exhibition it is evident his artwork highlights a distinctive and fascinating queer hidden history, reminiscent of the fluid gender and sexuality of interwar urban London described in Matt Houlbrook's 2005 Queer London. As the curator Simon Martin highlights in the exhibition catalogue, Burra celebrated sexuality and represented images of gay life in a vivid and affirming way. 

Simon Martin argues that 'he was unafraid of expressing a gay sensibility at a time when such personal honesty and an overtly camp aesthetic were by no means widely acceptable.  Decades before the contemporary artist Grayson Perry was exploring transvestism in his art, Burra was depicting men in drag and in his hilarious letters to friends adopting the altar egos of 'Lady Ex Bureaux', 'Tattie', 'Gladys Dilly', 'Margueritte' and 'Madame Mata-Hari.'' (Martin, 2011:11).   However, more examination of this gender and sexual expression is needed within the main exhibition text. For example, individuals drawn by Burra with perceived male features wearing dresses are described in the explanatory text as having the appearance of men in drag (in for example, the watercolour on paper, 'Dockside café, Marseilles', 1929), which does not leave it open for us to explore other queer interpretations of the gender identities of the individuals depicted in the images.

Despite some of the ways in which the text could have been expanded upon, the exhibition provides a truly compelling and fascinating experience; not only due to the range of artworks which can be viewed but also the successful way in which the different themes and styles of Burra's work are curated together.


Matt Houlbrook. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Simon Martin with Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevenson. Edward Burra, Lund Humphries, 2011.